What went right at the Queen Elisabeth cello competition?

What went right at the Queen Elisabeth cello competition?


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2017

There was very little international coverage, the website was the worst of any major competition and the results were published in the dead of night. Yet, despite losing several crowd-pleasers at the semi-final stage, there seems to be a feeling that the Brussels competition did most things right.

Here’s an assessment from one of the TV commentators, the cellist David Cohen, exclusive to Slipped Disc.



An insider’s testimony into the first Queen Elisabeth Cello Competition

by David Cohen

Yesterday I was in Belgium, my native country, and I was so happy to be making the TV commentaries for Musique 3 during the first ever Queen Elisabeth Cello competition held in Bruxelles’s beautiful Palais des Beaux Arts.

Let me start by sharing with you how proud I feel of my country for having finally agreed, after decades of pleading from leading cello teachers in Belgium and around the world, to finally add the cello as a category to the Queen Elisabeth International Competition. Why was it not possible sooner? The competition’s most influential director, Le Comte De Launoy, felt it was his duty to respect her Majesty’s wishes of the categories she had specifically instructed to be used. They also happened to be her favourite instruments: violin, voice, piano and composition… not the cello.

But since the passing of this great and benevolent music lover, the competition was able, after the collapse of the last Rostropovich cello competition in Paris, to take a chance and add the cello as another category to the competition.
As a child, I so often dreamed that this pinnacle of music competitions would finally open its doors to my instrument… The cello has always been important in the Belgian music making. The influential school of Belgian cello playing (Servais, the Paganini of cellists) is well documented.

Yesterday was the finale of this well organised competition. Like a well oiled engine, after weeks of early rounds, the tradition of seven days of seclusion, including all technical devices, was imposed, allowing the 12 finalists to learn the compulsory piece specially composed by Toshio Hosokawa. They were shown the score seven days prior to the final round in the confines of the Chapelle Reine Elizabeth, a private music institution just outside of Brussels.

I awoke yesterday to find my social media busy with posts, comments, tweets and likes about the different candidates who had already performed and were awaiting the prize announcements this evening. It was a real frenzy out there with a big buzz; the candidate with rings and long hair who dropped his bow (no thanks to the conductor for kicking it! accidents do happen to everyone), the candidate who broke her strings, the candidate whose late parents pleaded with his teacher to look after him (both teacher and student ended up present at the final… the former was playing, and the latter commentating for the RTBF).

There was some controversy with regard to the poor variety of concertos being performed for the finale. There were 6 Shostakovich concertos, 4 Dvorak concertos and 2 Schumann concerto. Also disappointing was the lack of Belgian competitors, with countless articles in the newspapers about their absence.

Although Shostakovich’s first concerto has more of a “Wow!” factor (especially the ending), I wished someone would have taken the risk of doing the Barber, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, or even the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante.

These last few days and weeks reminded me of my time as a competition junkie and how juggling studying, performing concerts and hopping from one competition to another ruled my life as a young musician. As Bartok famously once said, “Competitions are for horses”. In a horse race, there is a definitive winner. It is impossible to be so black and white in music. In tennis as we all know, there are clear points to be gained, but in a music competition, we try to quantify something which is in it’s very essence, unquantifiable. Each competitor receives points from each jury member, and in the Queen Elisabeth (to keep bias at bay), apparently the highest and lowest scores are thrown out for each competitor. What we then see is an illustrious line-up of averages.

But the question is; how does one judge these young musicians, especially when the likeliness of these jury members to ever actually sit in the audience of one of these young musicians future performances is quite slim? I say it’s the public that matters, and that is why I was always more interested in winning the Public’s prize in an international competition. This, because these were the people to whom I was and would be ultimately playing for, and knowing the Belgian audience as well as I do, they are the ones that really matter.

Having listened to some of the semi finals, I was saddened, but not surprised, that many incredible young musicians were taken out in order to place in the finals some admittedly very fine instrumentalists, but some of whom arguably had less musical individuality.

Time will tell us which one of these magnificent and so deserving young cellists will make it long term on the international scene or if they will face the fate of so many before them. For my part, I wish them the absolute best this musical life has to offer. It is impossible to tell which one of these competitors will go where, do what, and who will fulfil a boxed up star-studded future we have in mind for them. Often times, it is the ones who seemingly do not succeed early, who are the ones that actually push through in the end. Other times, it is very close to what the jury decided. And other times still, it is exactly the upside-down version of the prizes awarded.

The reality is that there is no ranking. As wise and illustrious as this jury was, no one has a crystal ball. Competitions are a means to an end, rather than a goal to be conquered. They should be used to gain priceless experience, push ones self through massive pressures, present ones self on an international platform which would be hard to come by through other means and ultimately, to find ones true voice through it all. Each competitor, to whom I had the pleasure of listening, had something special, truly unique and I sincerely wish them the very best for their futures, which will all no doubt be rich, varied and a completely personal journey, of which the Queen Elisabeth Competition has been a multi faceted and illustrious stepping stone.


  • Pierre Fontenelle says:

    Opening statement of the article: “There was very little international coverage, the website was the worst of any major competition and the results were published in the dead of night. Yet, despite losing several crowd-pleasers at the semi-final stage, there seems to be a feeling that the Brussels competition did most things right.”

    I don’t know if I can agree with these three statements. I know little regarding the international coverage of the Queen Elisabeth competition, but I highly doubt any other classical competition has as much media support from its own country. Live streaming Semi-Finals and Finals on both TV and Radio, journal articles (online, and in print) covering every part of the Competition in both major French-speaking journals, Le Soir and Lalibre, as well as classical music magazines, TV spotlights…. In Belgium, it is extremely difficult to miss this competition.

    Your second point regarding the quality of the competition’s website seems relatively pointless. Since when has anyone judged a competition by its website? I would much rather judge a competition through its reputation, the level of past candidates, the level of the jury (this year’s cello jury was perhaps the most star-studded jury of any cello competition since the Rostropovich!), the prizes, the relative difficulty as well as the opportunity to play with two different orchestras.

    Regarding the publishing of the results “in the middle of the night”, they were published an hour and a half after the last contestant had finished his concerto, thus at around midnight in Brussels. I have a hard time imagining any other solution, seeing, as the jury does have to convene and count the points.

    Please feel free to answer, maybe I have simply misunderstood your message. 🙂

    • norman lebrecht says:

      1 Compared to any of the major competitions – Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Leeds, Van Cliburn, Rubinstein… – international coverage was minimal. 2 The website is vitally important to keep media updated. 3 The timing – past midnight on a Saturday night – seems designed to further minimise media and public attention.

      • Steven Holloway says:

        RE point number three: Obviously, they simply broadcast the results immediately after the jury’s decisions were made. I thought Pierre Fontenelle made that very clear. You may wish they had issued the results in the morning so you could scramble to get another of your ‘exclusives’, but the music world does not, in fact, revolve around SD, no matter what claims au contraire.

  • Josh G says:

    It is a bit rich for Slipped Disc to criticize anyone else’s website.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Care to explain why?

      • Josh G says:

        Because the interface of this website is terrible. The photos used on the main blog page are often cropped and uncentered to the point of nonsense (see the one used for this post, or the one of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s waist). The way the page is darkened as you scroll down is annoying – one has to keep moving the cursor to brighten the text of a post if the cursor isn’t already conveniently hovering over it. The text is often cut-off mid-sentence in a haphazard fashion, so one has to click through to the post to pick up on the remainder of a sentence (after finding it again in the article). The photos used in the post are tiny, and one doesn’t even have the option to zoom in to see it full-size (such as the tiny photos on this page). Text lines are even cut off horizontally to create the unseemly look of the top half of a font.

        Furthermore, the commenting system is anachronistic. A poster must enter his/her e-mail address every time, which is a)inconvenient and b)doesn’t allow for the ease of consistently using the same username/avatar, which could be moderated in a system like Disqus where one can create a profile and be ranked according to up votes or number of comments. The ability to upvote or down vote comments is essential to create some kind of hierarchy and conversation within a thread (again, see Disqus). It also helps people to ignore and down-vote trolls.

        Since Slipped Disc is the top place for the online classical music community to gather and share their thoughts, the blog deserves a much better interface.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          So build a better site with your own money.

          • Peter says:

            Yes, I agree with most of the comments from Josh. It is a pretty ropey website.
            You asked Josh to explain. And he took the time to give you detailed feedback. And then you ask him to build you a better site with his own money. Why would anyone do that ?
            Such a funny guy Norman.

        • Hilary says:

          I’ve not encountered these problems even though I’m not very technical as a person.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          I don’t have these problems. I don’t want to “count the number of posts”, and I hate the idea of voting on my comments or anyone else’s comments (let them stand or fall on their merit).

          Personally, I think it is up to Norman to run his website as he sees fit, even if you don’t like the presentation (perhaps he thinks the content is more important).

  • Frankster says:

    The entire final evening was broadcast live by the French/German television channel Arte which is available Europe-wide and in a wide number of countries around the world. It is now available for streaming:

  • esfir ross says:

    At Irving M.Klein string competition was variety of unhackneyed concertos: P.Hindemith, Prokofiev, Elgar for cello ,Walton, Schnittke for viola. I attend it avery year in San Francisco and enjoy discover new talent and rare played string repertoire. Event’s free to public.