When is an artist ‘unprofessional’?

Slipped Disc editorial

Observations by the pianist Boris Berezovsky on the judging of the Tchaikovsky Competition raise some deep concerns about what the music profession – and what the music audience – expects from classical artists.

According to Boris, it was the ‘non-Russian jury members’ who voted the phenomenal Frenchman Lucas Debargue into last place. ‘They said he’s not professional,’ reports Boris.

That term demands amplification. It may be that Lucas did not look ‘professional’ because he had so little experience and support that he had never played with an orchestra before. Or perhaps his clothes were not the right cut, his shirt was open one button too many, his shoelaces were possibly untied and he forgot to say ‘spaseba’ for the flowers.

So what?

The difference between an artist and an employee is that one follows a fantasy wherever it may lead and the other clocks in on time every morning. It is an irreconcilable difference. If we want our artists to be more like civil servants – and many who run the music world are precisely of that opinion – we will soon have no artists.

Richter_photo_LCL_421

Richter was never ‘professional’. He played as he pleased, if he bothered to show up.

Argerich is ‘unprofessional’. She does it her way.

Michaelangeli, Horowitz, Sokolov, Zimerman, Gavrilov, Yudina, Nikolayeva, Cortot, Fliter, Francois were and are all capricious, spontaneous individuals who refuse to conform to professional disciplines.

That’s why they make our blood race through our veins. The professionals are ten a penny. Music needs to be saved from the professionals.

Lucas_Debargue

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  • Hi Norman, I caught most of the competition and Debargue was my favorite, precisely because of the interest of his interpretations and his musicality. But I have some ideas about what the jury objected to…
    A) Technique-wise, he just isn’t quite (at the moment) up to the standard the competition has set for itself with its previous winners.The Chopin etude, the Scarbo were not secure in a way one expects from “a Tchaikovsky winner.” Indeed, this could even have contributed to some of the uniqueness of the interpretations. How technically perfect do we expect our pianists to be is another can of worms, though.
    B) Comportment on stage and with audiences. Due to inexperience surely, he wasn’t confident with the orchestral concertos, and he let it show on his face. Not smiling at the audience, bowing half heartedly, etc. I know it’s a competition, but Martin Engstroem was on the jury looking for Verbier contributors – he is surely looking for someone who will just smile blithely at the audience no matter what they do. (Like Lisiecki cracking jokes about the rain in the middle of his Chopin cycle.) Don’t ask me what “professional” is, but I could see the stage persona needing some tweaking here. And that’s just the stage persona – what is going on with the psychology in these cases? No idea.

    I don’t think either of these issues is particularly prohibitive until you’re a Tchaikovsky jury and you need to declare the next gold medalist. The whole world looks to the competition to produce the greatest pianists… Audiences might not be able to hear the difference between a sloppy Chopin etude and a technically perfect one, but they can definitely tell when you hit a couple wrong notes and frown at them for the rest of the concert. I think Debargue just wasn’t ready for the burden of winning yet.

    But he has just made a ton of fans, that’s for certain. And among them, the likes of Gergiev, Berezovsky.. So, I hope we’ll be hearing more from him in the future. I’ll be listening.

  • Completely agree with your editorial, Norman! Most of us are stuck in daily drudgery and it is art that gives our lives meaning, freedom and an opportunity to escape and dream, at least for a few moments… Without this element, art becomes just another chore, a meaningless motion we are forced to go through. So do small imperfections impede my enjoyment of the artistic performance? Definitely not, given that charisma, imagination and spirit are already involved. The only thing you can say about perfection is that is boring (or “Il meglio e nemico del bene”, as Voltaire put it – perfect is the enemy of good), and this is why I would prefer to listen to Debargue’s interpretation to any of the more perfect ones by the Russian or Asian “civil servants.” Lucas is still young and he has time to develop the qualities he may be lacking at the moment. And isn’t it more enjoyable to follow an artist’s development and maturation over the years than to encounter a finished product, issued at the musical competition like a government bond?

  • And Maria Yudina would cross herself on stage before playing, and right in the middle of the Stalin-terror. Not very professional…

  • Norman!
    A cunning post!
    – An artist following a dream wherever it may lead
    – ignoring professional discipline and dogma despite the disdain of the purists
    – garnering ‘a ton’ of adoring fans, despite imperfections
    – the joy of the journey, the artist’s development and maturation over the years
    – the charisma, the imagination, and the spirit!
    Were you thinking, just a little, of my favorite artist? A certain young classical crossover singer, the siren who lured me and thousands more to a new love of classical music? And to this blog?
    You know of whom I speak…

  • Mr. Lebrecht is totally right with his “So what?” rhetorical question. The criticisms mentioned in the third paragraph of the above blogpost are ridiculous at best.

    I suppose artists are unprofessional if they disregard their contractual obligations or if they are musically uncooperative in group playing. Has Lucas Debargue been criticized along those lines?

    We go to concerts to listen to the music. If the musicians don’t look good on stage, we can always listen without looking at them. Ian Bostridge and Lang Lang, to mention two diametrically opposed musical personalities, can be visually distracting: why look at them? Also, I can’t help wondering if a young pianist with Shura Cherkassky’s talent AND looks would stand any chance for a career in today’s visually oriented world.

    • I firmly believe that an artist with great talent, but “no looks” still has a chance of having a career, even in today’s over-visualized world. The reason for that is because there still exist people like you and me, those who appreciate what really matters. Not many, but there still are… I have faith in the future of classical music and you should, too.

  • In Poland where I live, there is an ongoing debate (especially during Chopin’s Competition) on the notion of ‘Chopin’ flavour, phrasing etc. Lucas Debargue wouldn’t probably succeed here . Neither would Sviatoslav Richter.
    Obviously I am aware of some chores Mr. Debargue has still to do (including bowing)
    That said: Kudos to Lucas Debargue art !
    Last but not least: he will (I am sure) attract again people to
    great piano recitals and concerts as he is above all a musician (a rare species now).

  • “…and he forgot to say ‘spaseba’ for the flowers”
    Cheap, cheap shot, especially when Berezovsky explicitly says that the non-Russian jury members cost him a better result.

    • That’s call irony ! It means that not saying “spasseba” as nothing to do with being un/professional and should not have anything to do with that matter.

  • Debargue is better off now than if he had won first prize. Sloppy dressing alone, when the conductor and orchestra were all white tie, was enough to end his chances at a prize; it showed lack of respect for the occasion, and the bureaucratic, diplomatic hierarchy.

    • I have heard orchestras and soloist who were all very well-dressed and had absolutely no respect for the audience or even the music they were supposed to play. If you go by that standard Pogorelitch and Scott Ross were absolute hobos and should have been banned.

      • Sorry — those are not my standards, but I think the Tchaikovsky’s. The ideal Tchaikovsky winner is a head waiter serving up the perfectly cooked classics. The boy is a genius — he doesn’t need prizes.

  • “Not professional” is just a bad translation for “not yet ready”. Debargue is a jewel in the rough. He’s still young, and he has time to grow into a fully formed musician and artist. So it’s better to keep him out of the limelight for the time being. Not to worry – He’ll be back!

  • For shame! It was the jury who was unprofessional, and not Debargue! The classical world has lost it’s soul and purpose for it’s art. In today’s world it’s just another job. Debargue comes across as genuine, with a thirst for learning. The jury was just bitter because he represented what they could never become. Still, and despite their best attempt, they have made a musical martyr out of Debargue. He captured the imagination and hearts of the public. You know, the sort of thing artists are supposed to be doing…

    And who cares how he dressed? One glance at jury member Peter Donohoe and the words stylish and suave do not come to mind. Debargue is distinct in his choice of dress, and if memory serves correct, there is no official dress code for competitors.

    • That question reminds me of the issue of the weight of the sopranos and other divas. Nobody cares that a mannequin weights 45lb for 6ft10 but what an outrage if the lead role has a few pounds too many !
      Does anyone really think that the fact that Gergiev looks like he has been sleeping in his clothes for the past month and he’s just recovering from a bad case of Russian flue, prevent him from being – most of the time – genial ?

    • You diminish yourself by handing out insults and accusations without having any knowledge of what really happened. Every one of the six finalists is a superb pianist, as were many of the ones to whom perhaps you did not listen from the earlier rounds.

      • So could you elucidate what really happened, mr. Donohoe? I am not asking you to reveal names, but why Lucas Debargues was called “not professional”? What does “professional” mean in this case?

        • As far as I know, he was not described as unprofessional – certainly not by me, nor by anyone else in my hearing.

          I can tell you that, although his Gaspard de la Nuit was regarded by the majority of the jury – and of the audience – as stunning, it was not by a very long way very faithful to Ravel’s score; in that situation, given that Gaspard de la Nuit is central to the repertoire of almost everyone on the jury, how is it possible to be objective? On one hand you have a performance that a connects with the listener superbly, and on the other one that disregards many of the composer’s instructions – a composer, by the way, who was very specific about how much liberty the performer may take with the score i.e. none. Anyone who feels able to sit in confident judgement of such a performance is a better man/woman than I. But as for ‘unprofessional’ – no; it was never said or felt by anyone as far as I know. It is simply the wrong word.

          • Thank you for un-Raveling, mr. Donohoe!
            I agree about Debargue’s Gaspard: it was spellbinding and evocative but at the same time he took a lot of liberties (for example the accents on the D# bass notes just after the repeat of the opening statement of Scarbo — he may have been inspired by Pogorelich here!) It seems he prefers to create strong images more than a very exact analysis/reproduction of the score.

            So either Berezovsky heard some remarks of “Non-Russian” members of the jury that you didn’t hear, or Berezovsky’s words were not accurately quoted or translated.

  • No jury member has ever suggested it has anything to do with how Mr. Debargue dresses or how he looks.
    If I am wrong, then please substantiate it by posting a credible citation and the link for everyone to read.

    • This “clothes issue” was just an example of what’s going on in our world of appearance-no substance.
      As far as I know (please note I used caution I wasn’t there myself and did not meet with Berezovski !) from a Russian correspondent Berezovski was supposedly referring to the French judge, a professor at the National Conservatory of Music. Being French myself if a French uses “non professional” in this context it usually means that Lucas has not gone through the right channel to get where he is now. France has a system where you can only “succeed” going through the right school, the right colleges, the right “higher school of learning” etc. That’s true for all walks of life. Our politicians have gone to l’ENA or HEC, are lawyers or public servants, our musicians have never let go their musical education (to achieve anything else) for one moment from the early stage and went through the proper conservatories with the proper educators etc. etc. If you are the son or daughter of a low wage worker you have close to no chance whatsoever to ever reach anything in life and the chance will be you will do exactly what your father did, as his own father did… Lucas Debargue is the exception to this rule and that does very much hurt the “feelings” of some people in power and their sense of hierarchy. That’s why the liberal governments in place since 1982/1983 have done their best to fight as much as they could any support to the cultural world.

  • All of this is starting to remind me of another, much more notorious case… (I.P. anyone?). And yes, this way the jury gave Debargue much more publicity than the first prize would have ever gotten him, and they also made him look like “a martyr” as another commenter suggested. Let us hope that this experience will provide him with an opportunity for further artistic and personal growth, and that he will not fall in the industry treadmill, now that his name is out.

  • The sole issue that should concern us al is: his glasses ! I felt chills in my spine each time I saw his head getting closer to the clavier and his glasses going even faster down his nose. I know that from the auditorium it wasn’t a real problem but on Youtube my heart stopped beating a good many times !

    • Not the ‘sole’ issue — tho I agree and count the ability to readjust his frames while playing part of the thrill. But is it true he only started (serious) playing at 20? That’s generally regarded as impossible. There’s an air of mystery. Is he autistic? Where’s the dope on him? Has he been in love? About the criticized Chopin etude. It didn’t sound like a typewriter. Is that bad? How can one pick at a Scarbo which brought the house down?

  • There sis also the counter argument, a cliche that one could almost define “conservatory” mindset. It goes kind of like this:

    “Real artists are the messy ones, the ones that wear bad clothes and depict that they only care about the music, the rest is only music business”.

    Unless you live in an alternate reality, music is akin to many artistic manifestation, and part of life itself.

    WOULD ANY OF YOU GO EAT IN A RESTAURANT WITH RODENTS RUNNING AROUND THE TABLE? Hey, maybe the chef is serving the most amazing avant garde cuisine not even seen in El Bulli or Ferrer de Can Roca (currently, the best restaurant in the world) but only the food should matter, right?

    Its the same. I define an artist as the complete package, the whole deal, which is what sometimes aggravates this forum and its editor.

    There’s a gradient framework:

    Instrumentalist –> Musician –>Artist–>Legend.

    Now, they don’t usually go in this progression.

    IS ANDREA BOCELLI AN ARTIST? Absolutely he is. He’s not the best musician or singer, but he’s definitely an artist. Every detail is cared for, and the shows he presents are actually quite enjoyable. Same goes for Andre Rieu.

    Now, what happens when you have ALL of those elements combined? You have a real legend.

    Please, someone find me a clip or a photo of Karajan conducting on a T-Shirt. All the elements must be there. The concert begins from the moment you step on stage, not when you play the first note. The apparel and overarching attitude and ‘elan’ play a great role in setting the ambience, all before a single note is played. Any psychologist would agree.

    In that sense, yes, there is a sense of professionalism that ‘conservatory thinking’ overrides because of the great examples whose musicianship was so extreme it allowed them to do this: Gould, Argerich, Richter.

    That, however, was only feasible in a music industry that no longer exists. All the “ARTISTS” as defined in the editorial – regardless of the talent – cannot break through in the current state of affairs. Happened to Bozhanov in the last Chopin, happens to Chloe Hanslip, to Sergey Khachatryan, etc.

    The age in which you could afford to show up with your own rugged chair, diss concert life and make a living out of making records is over. There wont be another Argerich, or Richter, because those with that kind of attitude will not fit within the mechanics of the new music industry and thus will not gain the opportunities that allowed these artists to achieve their potential in the first place (worldwide tours, collaborations with their best peers, long term CD deals where to develop their work on the long term, etc).

    The same way you just cant drink on the weekends and continue to be a professional football player at the very top level, nowadays, you must be professional classical musician.

    Sorry, Norman – but we both know things work that way.

    Its a Brave New World.

    • “The age in which you could afford to show up with your own rugged chair, diss concert life and make a living out of making records is over. There wont be another Argerich, or Richter, because those with that kind of attitude will not fit within the mechanics of the new music industry and thus will not gain the opportunities that allowed these artists to achieve their potential in the first place (worldwide tours, collaborations with their best peers, long term CD deals where to develop their work on the long term, etc).”

      What have Argerich and Richter to do with the first sentence ? “rugged chair”,”diss concert life” “make a living out of making records”… As for Richter, just an example among many contradicting you assertions, he gave thousands of concerts during his lifetime, going as far as travelling with a piano to place where he knew they were none.

  • I’m less optimistic. I can’t believe a wonderful artist like Alfred Brendel would have any chance as a newcomer in today’s “industry” (what a revealing terminology!). Not to mention the problem in that respect for women. Have you never noticed that there is not a single new female talent which is presented to the larger public, who doesn’t look gorgeous? Do you think this is just by chance? And have you ever asked yourself where the great musical talents have disappeared who are not just blessed with model looks?

    • This should have been a response to Neven P’s post above. I don’t know why it wasn’t placed properly since I started from the reply button up there. Sorry!

  • i agree with most said by the author of the article. i myself am a pianist and i am sick of the same cut “professionals”. BUT…debargue is not the right example, there were more interesting and way more gifted pianist even on this edition of the competition, check rashkovsky for example. i don’t find debargue to be something so extraordinary, of course this is only my personal opinion.

  • Just in case that interests someone. The Mariinsky is streaming live the first concert in Russia of Lucas Debargue on July 14th. The second concert planned so far in Moscow has sold out in a week. Lucas performing Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit is being viewed by ca. 1,000 people per day since it was uploaded on Youtube.

  • Debargue’s performance of Gaspard may be the finest classical performance I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot.

  • No surprises there then. The classical “establishment” seems intent on enforcing a boring uniformity on the way the great piano compositions are performed. Add in that many of the most famous and most praised and most highly promoted pianists play no better than dozens of dedicated amateurs in every big city, and it is little wonder that audiences and sales of recordings for classical music are insignificant compared to those of popuar genres.

    • The clue is in the word ‘popular’ Tom.
      As for the rest of what you say, the classical ‘establishment’ is intent on no such thing.

      • Well, you know better than me. It just seems that way sometimes, especially when I go to local recitals by unknown amateurs and find the playing “better” (more moving, more meaningful, more expressive) than I usually experience at recitals by world famous recitalists. [Your good self excepted of course!].

        One in particular is praised everywhere yet all I hear is Mozart’s beautiful lines turned into individually beautiful but collectively meaningless lumps of sound.

        It is the same with recordings. Richter’s recordings of the Prokofiev sonatas are highly praised, but I found them to be a muddled and near-incomprehensible mess. Murray McClachlan’s name is not so widely known as those of many pianists that are not in his class (or even close). But his recordings of Prokofiev’s sonatas show us the composer’s message with total clarity.

  • An expected comment from Mr.Donohoe – a jury member. But professionalism is an ephemeral quality and can be applied to many aspects of musical performance as well as performance business. Some voices here were correct to point that out.

    However, it is not the number and/or the manner of correctly played notes that is artistry – if it is, then only mediocre prizewinners are artists, and they are NOT – artistry cannot be scientifically measured or described, it is in the eyes, hearts, heads and ears of the beholder. That is, in my view, mainly the reason why the great majority of competitions fail! The juries can recognize and have consensus only on something tangible. I think it was A. Schnabel who once said after hearing a pianist, who gained significant career later: “Er hat alle richtige Noten gespielt, aber ich habe keine richtige Note gehört” (“He played all the correct notes, but I did not hear even one correct note”). Jury members should have this carved out on their desks and in their heads!! May be Debargue played “Gaspard” with few “extras”, but it was a stunning performance! And it is no wonder that nobody talks now about the first, second and third prizewinners, but mostly about the Last Prizewinner. There is something in his art that IS ART, something that lacks in all three pianists placed ahead of Debargue. Unfortunately, this IS (in most cases) the competition norm.

  • Do we have to go over the same old ground every time I am involved in a competition?

    Time prevents me from spending much time on this, so I choose to ignore your implication that I am defending the indefensible because I have a vested interest.

    But I have to respond to such remarks as ‘…the great majority of competitions fail…’ and your next sentence ‘The juries can recognize and have consensus only on something tangible.’

    To deal with your platitudes in order – Argerich, Pollini, Ashkenazy, Ogdon, Zimmerman, Sokolov, Lill, Gavrilov, Pletnev, Douglas, Perahia, Lupu, Ax, etc etc. Hardly a failure. I have deliberately left out more recent competition successes because in most cases it is too early to tell their long term significance in the modern market-driven music world; in any case it would be unfair and unprofessional of me to pronounce on them as they are mostly still trying to make their way in a very unfriendly environment. Of course, there is an increasing number of competitions, and therefore there have been large numbers of prize winners who haven’t gone on to achieve celebrity status – which is what you are responding to, whether you like it or not. That is life, mate; there is limited space for huge commercial success in the narrowing classical music world and the global market. Just to mention two more recent successes – Daniil Trifonov and Seong Jin Cho, who respectively won the 2011 Tchaikovsky and the 2015 Chopin Competitions are not doing so badly, are they? Those competitions did not ‘fail’. And there are several others.

    As is obvious, it is not for me to make any comments on more recent prize winners – I was a jury member (as I was when Trifonov won), and it would be inappropriate for me to stand in judgement at this early stage.

    [Not that avoiding the possibility of arrogantly affecting the careers of young artists without knowing the facts is something you are familiar with, along with all the others who display their lack of knowledge and prejudices in their posts – ‘And it is no wonder that nobody talks now about the first, second and third prizewinners, but mostly about the Last Prizewinner.’ ‘Nobody’ talks about those three? Really? I have attended several performances in different countries by all of them, and plenty were talking about them. In addition to that, there were actually six prizes – the second and third prizes were both shared between two. All six pianists were regarded as having many great qualities, with such issues as strengths and weaknesses, age, readiness for the result of whichever award was given, repertoire choices, and many other things being taken into account. And lots of people are talking about all of them. Your use of the phrase ‘Last Prizewinner’ is pejorative, as well you know. To be in the finals of that particular competition at all is a great honour, as a great many pianists who have been, myself included, will attest.]

    No.2 – We do not, in the world of the modern competition, have ‘consensus’ on anything until later. We do not discuss, we do not know each others’ voting until after the event, and we only achieve what you call consensus when the whole thing is over and we are at liberty to talk about it. It is at that point that we discover the degree to which we were thinking on the same lines – or otherwise – as each other.

    Sometimes competitions ‘fail’ – as you so kindly describe it. But there is an army of thoughtful people involved in the competition world who are trying their damnedest to make it work. That there are some freeloaders and occasionally some people who should be excluded does not take away from all the ones who have the future of music and the younger generation of performers at heart. It is impossible to predict the future for any artist, and in any case juries work on a democratic basis – or should do. We jury members do not have a crystal ball, and neither do you.

    So, do you have an alternative?

    P.S. Schnabel’s comment doesn’t mean anything to me, as Bartók’s famous one doesn’t. The former was a great pianist, and the latter a great composer. Being great, unthinking and complacent are not mutually exclusive. Benjamin Britten famously dismissed most of the music of the Romantic Era – most particularly that of Beethoven and Brahms – and Tchaikovsky described Brahms as a talentless bastard. Britten and Tchaikovsky were great composers. So what?

    • And one more little thing.
      Calling Bartok and/or Tchaikovsky as well as Schnabel “unthinking” takes considerable guts!!
      Famously one gentleman said that “Madonna Sistina” made no impression on him to which Heinrich Neuhaus answered: young man, this lady made impression on so many for so many years that she has the right to choose who to make an impression on.
      So, while Schnabel’s, Bartok”s and others comments sounds “unthinking” to you, they sound very much thinking to numerous others. Modesty is very good. Political correctness is not!

      • I don’t understand your point Nick. I adore Schnabel’s playing, and I place Bartók in the line of the greatest composers in the whole of music history – I have, after all, recorded much of his music, including the 3 piano concerti, played virtually all of it across 40 years – some of it many many times. I don’t agree with their personal points of view on competitions, that’s all. I am able to separate the two issues. That there are many who do accept them – usually because of who said them, not what was said – is of no relevance. Vast numbers of people voted for Donald Trump and Brexit. The ones who didn’t are not necessarily right or wrong.

      • A very unfortunate feature of the internet is that when people who snipe are demonstrated to be wrong, they rarely admit it and apologise. I suppose it is the advantage of hiding behind an anonymous nickname, one that I have never taken advantage of. Have a happy life following the celebs, ‘Nick’.

  • No time to argue with you. But simply. There are some 700 piano competitions (and more) producing minimum 3 winners each. That adds about 2500-3000 new pianists every 1-2 years. You site about 20 names – winners of some competitions. I will give you 40 simply out of generosity. Even a 100. Is that what you call “competitions DID NOT fail”?!? If meager 2% success is not major failure than what is?
    No, competitions as an institution IS a failure The people you named are exceptions, not the rule.

    Besides, by consensus I meant exactly what you describe. And the “democratic” principle on which all competitions are based makes the outcome more often wrong than not. The failure is built in into the idea itself. But I realize the uselessness of the argument with you. You are a very smooth writer. But you know better than many who is “talked about” and why and who is not. Your presence at a concert by, say, Masleev or Geniusas will hardly affect the outcome. Masses will still talk about Debargue and fortunately for him neither you nor I can change that.

      • There are some rather decent (to put it mildly) artists like Bronfman, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Kissin and some others who somehow bypassed competitions. BUSONI lost the piano competition to someone we never even know the name of. Someone N. Dubasov. You don’t know the name and I don’t know. But we know BUSONI. Bartok lost competition as composer! Need I say more speaking of competitions!
        In our day and age there is no effective alternative, but this fact does not make competitions correct, right and/or effective, or the only way to a concert platform. Particularly, that there are so many corrupt competitions in the world. Indefensible.

  • I cannot believe that you wrote those last two sentences. Do you not realise that by naming the pianists you dismiss it is you that is indefensible? Putting aside your direct insults to me – now twice – you fail to change or convince of anything because you provide no positive suggestions as to what could be done instead.

    You say that we are ‘indefensible’; I am going to defend the institution. Try proving the corruption for a start. Where there has been corruption of course it is indefensible, but there are far more competitions that do not suffer from it than do.

    In any case, even if there are corrupt ones, does that mean they all are? Does it mean I am corrupt because I sit on juries? Does the fact that some people drive too fast and cause accidents mean that car drivers are dangerous?

    Do the retrospectively strange results that you predictably quote mean that there are no successes? Do you not realise how many other factors come into play after a competition result that in the long term create or otherwise what constitutes a commercial success – or failure?

    As you insist on naming people, Yuja, Lang Lang, Kissin and Bronfman (the last of these having been a jury member at the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition, by the way) are all phenomenal pianists – and there are others [you could have mentioned Imogen Cooper, too, but perhaps she is not quite commercially famous enough to have gained your attention] – whose success has been through means that are not necessarily available to any but a very small few – including the success that can be achieved by those who did not actually win, but were revealed by competitions to the world at large (Schiff, Uchida, Pogorelich).

    Do you have any idea at all how many potentially great performers there are who go by the wayside because of thousands of possible circumstances beyond their control? Are you unaware that many excellent performers and composers remained unsung during their lifetimes, because celebrity status doesn’t automatically come with ability – nor the other way round. Many of them didn’t even want it, but for those who did, there somehow remained an obstacle to the wide recognition they deserved. The same applies now more than ever, and competitions are the only viable way to help them. That they are unreliable, or that they could be improved in many ways, does not make them a failure.

    Do you not realise that the fact that a first prize-winner does not go on to achieve international commercial success does not mean that there was another in the same competition who should have won instead? How about the obvious fact that the competition is looking for the best of those who entered, not that one can assume that there is a competitor amongst them who is good enough to set the world on fire, and that juries are bound to get it wrong?

    Do you believe that jury members merely mark on the basis of right or wrong notes? If anyone did that, they would be laughed out of the jury meeting room.

    Do you have reason to believe that Nicholay Dubasov was a bad pianist, other than that he didn’t later become a celebrity? Perhaps he played really well at the competition, but I wouldn’t know because, like you, I wasn’t there. Are you complacent enough to think you would have chosen Busoni had you been on that jury, on the basis that he become the phenomenon that he did – retrospectively?

    Do you believe that when a musician wins a competition, the fact that it doesn’t create international commercial superstardom that it was a waste of time for that musician? Have you any idea how much work and thought goes into the preparation, all of which provides a goal and helps to mould the long term musical personality of that person?

    Do you have any concept of how good the actual winner of the 1980 Chopin Competition was and how right all but 2 members of the 25-strong jury – some of whom were world famous performers themselves – may have been at the time? https://slippedisc.com/2015/04/was-the-chopin-jury-not-right-to-eliminate-pogorelich/

    Do you have any concept of what I was doing during the years prior to the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition, what the competition did for me, both immediately and in the long term?

    Finally, have you not noticed that at no point have I expressed anything other than support for Lucas? You do not know my personal thoughts about the six prize-winners in 2015, and you never will.

    There are now thousands upon thousands of pianists in the world, many of whom are desperately hoping for a performing career. By dismissing one of the most important methods for any of them to be heard as a failure, you are undermining one of their few opportunities. All we can do is improve them, tweak them and maybe even re-invent them so that they become more reliable – either that or improve the level of cultural and musical education at an early age throughout the world, so that the members of the public are more able to reliably and confidently choose for themselves – good luck with that. You base everything you say, including your use of the word ‘masses’, on how things pan out in the retrospective long term, which is a very complex cat’s cradle of circumstances. Don’t be so naive.

    Yes, there are a great many competitions of all sizes, and there are huge numbers of pianists. At the same time, there are progressively fewer opportunities, and less awareness of the arts in the world’s media and amongst its politicians. What are you going to do about it?

    By the way, some jury members take their job very seriously indeed, including me. I have been in the presence of jury members crying at the prospect of having to choose between two potentially excellent pianists. For someone to stand on high and dismiss the whole thing without knowing what they are talking about, or offering up an alternative, does rather grate, as I hope you will now understand.

  • One more point; I, myself, after my own competition in Moscow 35 years ago, went through a phase of openly dismissing the competition world, because I felt confused by the degree to which I went overnight from being unknown outside my own country to being courted by the media, and being engaged by all manner of people who had never heard me play and wouldn’t have considered me without the competition result. I grew up sometime later when I realised that I, like you, had no alternative to suggest either.

    And now, I am going to draw a line under this as time is short because I am at the moment the chairman of a jury, and we are in the middle of a competition. It is an unpretentious competition that is doing its absolute best to get the right result. I am going to do my level best to ensure it doesn’t ‘fail’.

  • I just re-read what you wrote: ‘Masses will still talk about Debargue and fortunately for him neither you nor I can change that.’ ??? Where did you get the impresssion from that I wanted to change it? Assumptions and pre-conceptions abound in online discussions. That Lucas won Fourth prize doesn’t mean he failed, as you telling me that he should have been ahead of the others doesn’t mean they should have failed – ormitmcertainly shouldn’t. Louis Lortie won Fourth Prize in Leeds in 1984, and he has a very big and successful career. I really do not understand the problem. There were fifty five in the Preliminary Rounds in Moscow, and maybe two of them were not excellent pianists in their own way. Thus, Lucas came sixth out of nearly ten times that number. He is a great success, as I believe they all are. In the long term we will see, but neither nor I are prophets.

  • A very unfortunate feature of the internet is that when people who snipe are demonstrated to be wrong, they rarely admit it and apologise. I suppose it is the advantage of hiding behind an anonymous nickname, one that I have never taken advantage of. Have a happy life following the celebs, ‘Nick’

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