Editorial: There is no place for colourless competitions

Editorial: There is no place for colourless competitions


norman lebrecht

June 11, 2017

It is hard to remember a competition so devoid of character and incident as the Van Cliburn, which ended last night.

Deep in the heart of Texas, a group of 20 pianists were whittled down by an international jury to six blameless finalists, none of whom set the imagination roaring or the blood racing.

In the absence of colourful personalities, competitions require a dash of controversy. That, too, was missing.

Looking back, this has been the pattern in the last few Cliburn competitions. The process has been too civilised to produce a barn-storming winner and the judges too timid in the early stages to back a rank outsider.

This average mentality does not augur well for the event. We are hearing noises of discontent from local donors and of disaffection from the music business. Dull contests have no future.

No disrespect to this year’s winners, but the Van Cliburn competition urgently requires a reboot.

UPDATE: Leonard Slatkin’s response to criticism.


  • Ungeheuer says:

    Yes, fully agree. They need musicians (that are also accomplished pianists) willing to take interpretive risks that will establish their own signature sound and style without compromising tradition. A tall other and what separates the wheat from the chaff. Note to the crosspollinators: I am not advocating for crossover or new age pap and other detritus.

  • Peter G says:

    I was unable to watch this year’s competition, but I watched nearly every moment of the last, and I would contend that the event in 2013 was anything BUT “colourless.” The silver medalist, Beatrice Rana, was superb than and has only gotten better. Her recent CD of the Goldberg Variations is among the best ever done. More importantly, there were convincing, interesting, and exciting pianists performing engaging rep at every round of the event.

    Again, I can’t comment on the 2017 competition, but I dispute the proposition that “the last few Cliburn competitions” have been colourless. Definitely not true in 2013,

    • Ungeheuer says:

      You are right about Beatrice Rana. She is the exception to the rule, at least in recent memory. She is an extraordinary musician and pianist.

      • Hugh Jaarsz says:

        Then why doesn’t Ms Rana play something with repertoire value? I have 3 recordings of the GVs and no desire to buy a fourth. Goodness knows how many others are in the catalogues, it must run into the hundreds.

        • Ungeheuer says:

          Because it is in performing and in recording the standard repertoire, repertoire with true and tried performances and performers deep and wide, that we can measure anyone’s worth and courage. For, because of this, it is the courageous/valiant thing to do by a performer. An elite very few will have anything personal of distinction to say against the true and tried. And that’s a good thing. Art of any kind is not a democracy (or should not be). Making a career “hiding” behind rare and obscure (often so for good reason) or new rep is a different thing altogether and one that lends itself to earning the “respect” of high priests. But often at the expense of other music lovers not enamored of such obscurities who can who often discern their true worth and who will not be influenced by the high priests because they can think and feel for themselves.

  • Brian says:

    Agreed. They’ve done much to try and tone down the blood-sport aspect of it, maybe to a fault. Aside from the local Texas press (and a few curious observers from afar) the classical music business pays little attention to this event. The US national media hasn’t really covered it in 15 years (since Olga Kern won) and that’s not going to change now. That said, I’ll give the winners a fair chance as they deserve.

  • Buck Johnson says:

    Totally agree Mr Lebrecht.

    As I noted in a previous thread, the 6 finalists performed the usual selection of hackneyed concertos that have already been serially murdered in the last 1000 international piano competitions, making it difficult for a classical music afficionado to feel any interest in the performances, the perfomers or the outcome.

    I yearn for some colorful personalities, works with more repertoire value than Shakoffvsky 1/Rack 3, or a nice juicy scandal, which would make all the difference.

    As such, this competition and its ilk are at best a cure for insomnia, at worst a waste of time, money and resources..

  • Graham says:

    You say there has been no interest or attention given to the competition outside of local press. Wrong. If you were watching on Medici, you would have heard that 4.5million people have watched the competition in 168 countries. Also, the finals were related into 300 cinemas in the USA.

    I say, go direct to the people.

    And Norman, amongst all the press here….didnt see you.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Graham, it looked dull from where I was watching…. and many who were closer up (including one jury member) confirmed that.

    • La Verita says:

      Let’s give credit where credit is due: 4,500,000 viewers is an all time record for a competition audience – and one assumes that most of them weren’t bored at all. Ok, so there were no rapes, murders, suicides, or any reports of jurors sleeping with competitors, or pushy parents bribing the jury – so that rendered the reporting of the event to be commonplace and dull.

    • Ungeheuer says:

      Most of those 4.5 million are bots, not real people. Do not be fooled by these traffic statistics. It is well known that the bot problem afflicts all manner of platforms from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter to YouTube to you name it.

      • Ross says:

        Have everyone play music of Nancarrow and most of those “bots” would run for the hills. The number would plunge.

    • Brian says:

      “All of the press” – I assume that means the two DFW papers and a couple of public radio stations who have little else to report on arts-wise?

      The media coverage:

      At least the Tchaikovsky Competition has the specter of Gergiev and Russian government shenanigans to add some spice. The Cliburn meanwhile has done what it can to eliminate any controversy…

  • MacroV says:

    Quite the dilemma. A competition finally not juried by Zahkar Bron and Norman complains that it’s boring.

    It would be interesting to see this or another competition require some less-than-mainstream concertos. It’s in America, so how about making them play the Barber Concerto, John Adams’ Century Rolls, or the Gershwin Concerto in F? Didn’t Jennifer Higdon write a piano concerto? And in the early rounds, how about something by Rzewski or Nancarrow (yes, he wrote for player piano but sure today’s technical wizards could play it), or the Ives “Concord” Sonata? Or commission a concerto that everyone has to play? Instead of getting one performance and forgotten, you’d have 20-odd fine pianists learning it, and six finalists playing it. Some of them, should they develop careers, might keep it in their repertoire and give it legs.

    • Chris says:

      An excellent idea.

    • Hugh Jaarsz says:

      Great idea but no chance, because they wouldn’t get the Asian money. That is the driving force for these events and the reason they are flogging the dead horse of standard repertoire.

    • Kate says:

      Good idea.

    • George King says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Some people need to be reminded that we’re in the 21st century. The Tippett concerto is fantastic, to name just one (and it’s not even ‘modern’).

      • Richard says:

        This will never ever come into fruition in competitions, especially as high profile as Cliburn, as long as the draconic rhythm of one rehearsal with the chamber ensemble or with the orchestras will be in effect. I heard they even vetoed a participant’s initial choice for Bartok 2. There’s no way anyone, contestant, conductor or ensemble, will ever agree to come into a prestigious final with a demanding, modern concerto, with so little time to prepare.

        As for modern solo pieces, I’ve seen such works being sprinkled here and there – usually stuff by Kapustin, Barber, someone at this year’s Cliburn even prepared some Mazurkas by Ades. Baryshevski is the most recent competitor (at Rubinstein ’14?) who had some more daring programme choices (Messiaen and such). But again, no competitor will focus on this, when they know they have to prepare the usual batch of Beethoven late sonatas, Prokofiev sonatas, Liszt transcriptions, Mussorgski, Franck, Gaspard and such, to meet the ever-rigid standards of showing proficiency and prowess at these competitions.

  • Esfir Ross says:

    I went to see finals of current competition in local movie theatre- only dozen people in the hall. My friend from other part of USA reported the same poor attendance. Jack Marquise failed idea. An electrifying genius Alessandro Deljavan twice didn’t made to finals. No integrity of jury makes colorless finals.

  • John Porter says:

    I would agree about the rep being just a bit too predictable. It would be great to see some not so super traditional piano concerti. That said, the finalists play so very well and I have heard the gold winner play and he has something to say, musically.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    “In the absence of colourful personalities, competitions require a dash of controversy. That, too, was missing.”
    “…the Van Cliburn competition urgently requires a reboot.”

    You want it to become a reality show?

  • Jonathan says:

    I don’t normally watch competitions as I believe they are nerve competitions, not music competitions. I did watch the finals however this year. I heard the worst performance of the Prokofiev 3d I’ve ever heard in my life. One of the best performances of the Rach/Pag variations. 3 completely forgettable performances and one pianist who was so nervous playing Tchaikovsky (true he is only 19) that I think he cost himself the win. I don’t think he was the best, just the best story for the media and he won two other prizes. The judges wanted him to win. Overall the quality of this competition was horrible. There isn’t one pianist I will ever care to hear again.

  • Bruce says:

    Not specifically competition-related, but apropos nevertheless:


    Pianists with big personalities tend to get eliminated from competitions, probably because anyone who makes a strong statement provokes disagreement; whereas it’s hard to have a disagreement about someone where the strongest thing you can say is “well, there was nothing wrong with it…”

  • Thomas says:

    The last competition that I truly enjoyed was the old Casadesus competition in Cleveland. The required contemporary repertoire list was so interesting, and the adherence to Mozart and Beethoven concertos in the finals really sorted out musicians from the pianists.

  • Harpsi says:

    Nobody has mentioned Rachel Cheung’s masterful performance of the Beethoven fourth Piano Concerto – which required more musicianship than most of the war horses. Doesn’t the winner of the Audience Award have a good potential performance future? Yet Cheung won no other prize.

    • STEINWAYD says:

      Definitely agree with HARPSI regarding Rachel Cheung. Cliburn Competition, unlike the international violin competitions, still seems to favor male competitors. Cheung is equal to any one of those winners.

    • Grazzidad says:

      EXACTLY. Cheung was essentially penalized for playing a “smaller” (technically, not musically) concerto, while she electrified the audience with finely-graded, hyper-musical playing.

      It seems that, unless you can pull off a Russian Warhorse, you can’t win the Cliburn.

      • Andrys says:

        I’d say “…unless you prefer to offer another Russian warhorse” since she obviously “can” pull it off from what we’d heard. Still, maybe they wanted proof that a small female other than one in particular we all know, could be heard clearly over an orchestra 🙂

        • Grazzidad says:

          I stand corrected 🙂

          Still, they judges may have thought that her CHOICE reflected something about her capabilities. We’ll never know.

    • Donald Wright says:

      Totally agree about Rachel Cheung. I thought her performance of the Beethoven Fourth was the most musical of the final concerto performances. But I can understand that, regrettably, such playing could come across as “weak” (in volume, if not in musicianship) compared to the playing of the powerhouses of the concerto repertory in the final round. I would rather hear musicianship of Cheung’s caliber than volcanic repertoire played with death-defying accuracy and Olympian muscle for all of the undoubted attraction (and seat-filling allure) of the latter–at least on my more idealistic (and Eusebian) days.

    • Andrys says:

      Did anyone hear Rachel Cheung’s Prokofiev Sonata 6 ? It’s one of the few performances of this that made total sense to me – granted, it wasn’t the usual bombast if that’s your cup of tea. All you’d want from a pianist other than pounding was there – true power, speed (with quicksilver variations of touch), lyricism, and line.

      Those curious can hear ‘replays’ at medici.tv (no cost) — and if interested in what was most definitely anything but ‘colorless,’ hear her semi-final recital with that Prokofiev, prefaced by a suitably expressive, subtly detailed Schumann Kreisleriana. But it was the Prokofiev that had me thoroughly engrossed and surprised throughout. Colorless, my foot.
      – Replays for any date are at: http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/replays/
      Her semifinal is at http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/demi-finale-11

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Yury Favorin, who made the finals (but did not in 2013), is a true artist – you could hear that from his playing and his astounding repertoire choices in the preliminary and quarterfinal recitals, and his incredible Franck quintet with the Brentano string quartet. He probably didn’t medal because the jury didn’t see how they could put butts in the seats for U.S. engagements, as he doesn’t exude much warmth onstage. One of the three most promising competitors, Dasol Kim, was eliminated after the semifinal round for whatever strange reason.

    I agree it would be fun to hear less-heard repertoire for the final concerto round, but to be frank, the Fort Worth Symphony sometimes had trouble even with the concertos that were being played, so I can’t imagine that ever happening. There simply isn’t enough rehearsal time.

    • Andrys says:

      Favorin was puzzling. His recitals were interesting. His concerti performances were “by the book” — almost intentionally lackluster — he didn’t seem particularly interested in them.

  • David Rohde says:

    Most of the Cliburn discussion seems to be here, so I’ll make a few remarks here about the results. Yekwon Sunwoo is a most deserving gold medalist. Remember that Leonard Slatkin said the vote would be based on their entire body of work in Fort Worth, not just the final concerto. This is probably not the first thing that would come to people’s minds, but Sunwoo’s Dvorak piano quintet was terrific. His instincts to tuck the piano part into the ensemble, and then have it emerge in just the right proportion, were infallible. His dialogues with solo lines from cellist Nina Lee as well as everyone else were spot on with regard to volume, rubatos and other interpretive points. He sounded like he had been playing with the Brentano String Quartet for years. Elsewhere along the way, Sunwoo played both Schubert’s and Beethoven’s third-to-last sonatas, both exquisitely.

    Whether he becomes an enduring international star with this opportunity handed to him is anyone’s guess. I made the comment before the concerto round that I just needed to feel an “it” factor from him somehow. Many people would say he may have provided that by blowing through speed limits and volume restrictions at the end of Rach 3 🙂 Actually, I sensed the possibility of finding the “it” or “wow” factor at the beginning of the concerto. As soon as Sunwoo started, half a dozen online commenters protested, “It’s too slow!” I had to laugh at that. There are a dozen ways to start Rach 2, for example, and even the opening of Rach 3, as simple as it looks, can vary from a romantic line to the way Daniil Trifonov does it – sitting in a catatonic haze while his fingers render it in the plainest possible manner. I suspected that Sunwoo was setting up as big an arc from beginning to end as possible.

    Regardless of the exact results, I would say there are two other potential superstars from the event – Daniel Hsu and Rachel Cheung. I see a lot of people stressing out about which one got a medal and which one didn’t. Again, don’t overlook the chamber round. Daniel lit into the Franck quintet, while Rachel gave the impression that her mission was mostly to read the notes accurately in the Brahms quintet. Personally, beyond Rachel’s indeed very fine Beethoven 4 in the concerto round, I recommend that people go back and call up replays for both pianists in the preliminary round. Daniel’s Beethoven opus 110 was in my opinion the best played and understood of several late Beethoven sonata performances during the event, other than Sunwoo’s opus 109. And Daniel’s Liszt Don Giovanni paraphrase (what one writer at the Cliburn derided as “one of Liszt’s ridiculous opera fantasies,” which cracked me up) was picturesque and virtuosic.

    Everything Rachel performed in her opening recital – Schubert, Debussy, the Liszt Mephisto Waltz, and Hamelin’s toccata – showed off that remarkable technique of hers where everything is flowing and yet each individual note has a distinct ping. They both blew me away and the audience was on their side the rest of the competition, and the point is, we’re talking about Rachel Cheung now if that’s people’s main concern. I know I’ll be following both Rachel Cheung’s and Daniel Hsu’s careers, and I sense in Slatkin’s post on this website a similar thought.

  • Andrys says:

    One ‘out of the box’ work (for a competition) was Percy Grainger’s transcription of the ‘Ramble’ on the final love duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Such beautiful writing, and he played it with grace, somehow minimizing the schmalz. At any rate, it was a respite from the usual.

    (I enjoyed his tone in the Beethoven sonata 30, but for me it seemed a bit too smooth, almost glib.)

    David Rohde, I’ve enjoyed your wonderfully detailed reports here.

    • David Rohde says:

      Thank you for the kind remark, Andrys. Actually I agree with you, there is a slight glibness that can creep into Sunwoo’s playing. Although I would say this also means he should have injected a little MORE schmaltz into the Grainger. Well I would think that, since I have a background in jazz and even rock music (in the sense of pit orchestras for rock musicals, not really rock bands). It probably depends on one’s own view of the place of Percy Grainger’s music in the world.

      Related to all that, more than one person has said that competitors should consider teeing up Gershwin’s Concerto in F in the final round. I note that Kenny Broberg won the recent Hastings International competition with Gershwin. And Broberg clearly enjoys being on stage – that counts for something all by itself.

      You’ve made two other excellent points. I agree with you on Rachel Cheung’s Prokofiev 6 and her semifinal as a whole, and I’d add that in the first round I thought Alina Bercu did a nice job in a similar way with the first movement of Prokofiev 7 (plus a well-performed Bach partita). It had great clarity in Bass Hall and an angular story-telling quality rather than just empty banging away. So I was pleased when on the first night of the final concertos, Anderson & Roe actually started their pre-show with a replay of precisely this part of Alina Bercu’s performance, followed by an interview with her in which she laughed off the fact that she didn’t make it to the next round with a gracious “who knows why” comment. I also fundamentally agree with your evaluation of Yury Favorin. At the beginning of the competition I was awed by his four etudes, opus 2, of Prokofiev. At the end of the competition, the issue with his Prokofiev second concerto was that it just seemed like four more (very big) etudes. It’s a hugely intriguing, both moody and spiky piece of music with some message to deliver and I didn’t quite get that from him. Too high an expectation because of his enormous level of pianism? Maybe. It happens in these things.

      • Andrys says:

        (Reposting, as my self-mis-spelled name put my reply on hold for moderation.)

        David, thanks for that added detail. I didn’t hear Cheung’s chamber piece, and that may explain her not medaling despite what we heard in her other pieces.

        As for a bit of jazz and rock, I do find that my tastes align more with others who prize flexibility in a line, a touch of inegal (from both French baroque and then jazz), a sign of the natural flow of line and speech rather than the focus on scales-based technique mirroring the up and down of levers in our machine/tech -heavy world that took over after the partially ‘Golden Age’ of pianism, where liberties were expected.
        Re Grainger’s Strauss ‘Ramble’ — the schmaltz is built in and, you’re right, at times it was too pristine but those gorgeous falling clusters got to me – handled lightly but well defined. Was just good to hear that in a competition where so much emphasis can be put on speed or pure power or even almost ponderously slow movements.
        I’ll definitely go back and listen to Bercu. Thanks again!

  • SR says:

    Do people sit waiting for the musicians on stage to do something to them?

    • SR says:

      Trying to say that as a listener you can take over and make some interest happen by listening in active ways. If the present performance isn’t appealing to you, you can for instance decide to listen to the composition ‘by means of’ the person’s playing of it. This can help a lot.
      I’d also say that people play in the only way they can at the moment, so you have to accept it, unless you prefer to complain!

  • Michael Mercer says:

    To the original post and topic: After writing such things as “devoid of character” and “absence of colourful personalities,” I find it amusing that you then write “no disrespect to this year’s winners…” If you have the guts to say the former, then man up and say it to their faces. Whatever else may have been missing from these competitions, it’s certainly not pot shots like yours from the cheap seats.

    Also, isn’t there room enough in this world for the thoughtful, poetic, elegant interpreters like Schiff, Perahia, and Uchida, as well as the flamboyant extroverts like Lang Lang and Wang?

  • Adrys says:

    David, thanks for that added detail. I didn’t hear Cheung’s chamber piece, and that may explain her not medaling despite what we heard in her other pieces.

    As for a bit of jazz and rock, I do find that my tastes align more with others who prize flexibility in a line, a touch of inegal (from both French baroque and then jazz), a sign of the natural flow of line and speech rather than the focus on scales-based technique mirroring the up and down of levers in our machine/tech -heavy world that took over after the partially ‘Golden Age’ of pianism, where liberties were expected.

    Re Grainger’s Strauss ‘Ramble’ — the schmaltz is built in 🙂 and, you’re right, at times it was too pristine but those gorgeous falling clusters got to me – handled lightly but well defined. Was just good to hear that in a competition where so much emphasis can be put on speed or pure power or even almost ponderously slow movements.

    I’ll definitely go back and listen to Bercu. Thanks again!