The competition that collapsed in indecision

The competition that collapsed in indecision


norman lebrecht

September 11, 2017

The ARD competition, Germany’s most-watched and prestigious music contest, fell to pieces last night.

In four categories – piano, violin, guitar and oboe – only one first prize was awarded.

In the other three categories, distinguished juries decided that no-one was a winner. In the oboe event, hopeful rumours of a first prize emerged from the jury room, only to be dashed by the wettest of washouts – the award of three second prizes, one for each finalist. A reminder of the old musical mnemonic, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

This is a massive, collective failure of a competition. Judges who cannot reach a decision should not sit in judgement. Candidates who are not worthy of winning should not be passed into the finals. Competitions that yield no result should be scrapped.

The ARD competition, founded in 1952, has something of a reputation for withholding top honours, but this year’s results are a travesty. ARD boasted a record intake this year of 640 applications from 53 countries. Surely among the 640 there must have been more than one possible winner? Dozens of young musicians leave Munich, their dreams dashed, their morale crushed.

Here are the final results:


1st Prize: not awarded
2nd: Sarah Christian (27), Germany
= 2nd: Andrea Obiso (23), Italy
3rd: Kristine Balanas (27), Latvia

1st Prize: JeungBeum Son (26), South Korea

2nd: Fabian Müller (26), Germany
3rd: Wataru Hisasue (23), Japan

1st Prize: (not awarded)
2nd: Junhong Kuang (17), China
= 2nd: Davide Giovanni Tomasi (25), Italy
3rd: Andrey Lebedev (26), Australia

1st Prize: (not awarded)
2nd: Juliana Koch (29), Germany
= 2nd: Thomas Hutchinson (24), New Zealand
= 2nd: Kyeong Ham (24), South Korea


  • Johannes Moser says:

    A competition should always award prizes according to the present talent, not some vague idea of what a first prize should potentially sound like. Unfortunately, this is typical for the ARD… too bad, because the follow-up concerts and opportunities that the competition offers to their winners are amazing!

  • Alexander Hall says:

    The trouble with our tendency towards dumbing-down in our endless search to find only winners and never losers is that ultimately standards suffer. Why not hand out more Grade A and Grade A* results in all school examinations? Who cares if we go on increasing the annual pass-rate? That will show what amazing talent our young people have, what superb teachers we can pride ourselves on and how prescient our much-maligned politicians are in providing the framework that allows so many individuals to shine. Hallelujah! The trouble with this muddle-headed, politically-oh-so-correct thinking is that the really outstanding are constantly short-changed and find themselves rubbing shoulders with honourable mentions. I can find no reason to launch these silly attacks on the ARD competition which over the years has given accolades to instrumentalists in many different categories and who have gone on to grace the concert-halls of the world, either as soloists or as valued orchestral members. Only really special talent should be rewarded. Handing out numbered prizes just for the sake of it does nobody any justice.

  • Fritz Curzon says:

    Can the joint 2nd prize winners claim to have shared the top prize in their category?

    • Qwerty1234 says:

      Yes. Something along those lines is stipulated in the competition guidelines.

      • Elizabeth Owen says:

        Valery Gergiev always claims in his programme biographies that he won first prize in the Herbert von Karajan competition when apparently he was a second prize winner sharing with another Russian conductor whose name escapes me.

        • Max Grimm says:

          At the 1977 Karajan conducting competition the three finalists were Valery Gergiev, Gum Nanse (Korea) and Jacek Kaspszyk (Poland).
          Gergiev and Gum shared second prize and Kaspszyk placed third.

          • Elizabeth Owen says:

            Thanks for that. I thought he was Russian!

          • Eva says:

            That is Jack Kasprzyk. (Proper spelling).

          • Eva says:

            Jacek Kasprzyk. (Damn autocorrect..)

          • Peter van Laarhoven says:

            Not quite correct: No first prize was awarded. Gergiev received the silver medal, Kaspczyk the bronze and a fourth prize, for which the regulations did not provide, was awarded to Nanse Gum from Korea.

          • Max Grimm says:

            Thanks for the corrections. In the years since then, it seems PR agents have succeeded in muddying the waters. What one frequently finds today in every case are variations of creative/ambiguous wordings which could also be seen to mean “won top prize”.

  • Anon says:

    Your (false) interpretation, that this is about indecision.
    To the contrary in fact.
    Jurys made the conscious and visible decisions, to award no first prizes, in those disciplines where they found the finalists lacking compared to other first prize winners of past years.
    So overall it is a statement, that they feel the quality of the applicants in average is not too high.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Only the classical / opera worlds would have the sheer arrogance not to award a first prize in a music “competition.” If you have a group of competitors, you listen to them and then you make awards for the first three performers, first, second and third. You do not compare to previous years and say “they were not up to scratch compared to previous competitions”……..where they all the same judges from previous competitions to enable any reasonable comparison to be made? Not awarding a first prize is elitism and snobbery of the worst kind, and often involves politics of some kind (anyone remember Peter Donohoe being awarded joint silver medal at the Tchaikovsky competition because of soviet politicking ). And any comparison to dumbing down of GCSE and A level grades is facile.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      Comparisons are made all the time when artists perform, whether on technique, personality or interpretive insights. It is bad enough that some young reviewers extol the first live performance they happen to hear of a standard symphonic work as “sensational” (principally because they cannot make any intelligent comparison).To suggest that juries should simply wipe the slate clean, pretend there are no benchmarks whatsoever and hand out prizes like dolly mixtures has landed us in the mess we now find ourselves in, namely that standards cannot be cross-referenced and that finding the borders between the not-quite-so-good and the exemplary is too hard a struggle for some.

  • Vladimir says:

    There is a mistake in the article. In guitar category there was no 1 prize. Two 2nd and one 3d.

  • Wai kit leung says:

    From what I heard from jury members from the past, most of the time the prizes (second and third) were given unanimously by all the jury members. No indecision whatsoever.

  • symphony musician says:

    The ARD has long been renowned for rarely awarding 1st prize. Great professional prestige comes to the competition winner, even if ‘only’ awarded 2nd prize. For most musicians who have ever entered, or considered entering, the aura around the standard required to win 1st prize only adds to the prestige of the competition. For a number of instruments the ARD is considered the most important competition in the world.

  • Delphine1962 says:

    While I think I agree with Alexander- and others – who have defended the ARD competition, I do sense that there is in operation there which involves a separate, independent and very specific set of assessment criteria, especially concerning the award of a First Prize in each category.

    I remember the competition very well, as I entered it one year (a long time ago) and spent a great deal of time preparing probably the most demanding, carefully-thought out set of programmes of any competition, based on what was required; a very shrewdly chosen set-work in the preliminary, which felled a large number of extraordinary pianists, many who have subsequently gone on to very successful careers. I also recall it was the only time when all of the competitors got together in a sort of combined ad hoc self-help group to encourage and empathise, as the standard was so high!

    Not one single entrant from that competition was anything less than a highly cultivated and serious artist; that year, no first prize in the piano category was awarded.

    I have looked at the requirements for this, the most recent one, and although I was (obviously) not able to view any internal marking criteria, the basic set requirements weer as rigorous as they were thirty years ago.

    I think that is very laudable, but, in my view, it does beg the question that if a set standard is so high, then perhaps the criteria need to be reappraised. A fair jury – and I am sure they were – can only act in accordance with those. This also brings a meta- argument; that of competition into the competition arena itself, on the lines of ARD promoting itself as the most rigorous, demanding, etc, which I think frankly rather silly.

    By the way, I’d like to go on record and say that I don’t like competitions in the way they are run, and that some other, more intelligent and wider-minded alternative has yet to be successfully devised.

  • Bruce says:

    IMHO a competition’s rules should make it clear, so that the contestants AND the jury know what to expect.

    • Are the contestants held to some ultimate standard, so that there may not be a first prize if nobody is deemed good enough?
    • Or will the prizes be distributed among the best players who happen to show up that year (i.e. a guaranteed first prize, 2nd prize etc.)?

    • Gerhard says:

      Anybody who has ever followed the ARD competition will know that your option two is definitely not on the table. I can hardly imagine anyone entering here who would be unaware of this.

  • herrera says:

    A competition that offers no first prize is not a “competition”, it is a “test”.

    All it the ARD Test. It is irrelevant who the other contestants are, or even if there are other contestants.

    A “competition” is a contest between contestants, however imperfect they may be. So if no contestant beat all other contestants, then there is a tie … for first place, because they can’t tie for second place because there is no one else better.

    A “test” is an objective measure of x, and one could get 100% of x or 99% of x, and the test maker is free to designate those who achieve whatever % of x by whatever grade (everyone above 95% x, or only those who get 100% of x, gets “first prize” or “A” or “summa cum laude” or whatever….)

    The juries in the ARD Test have some objective, ideal musician in mind against which all test takers are measured.

  • Saul Davis Zlatkovski says:

    I know a juror from another well-known competition where a first prize was not awarded. Why? One of the leading players raced through a solo with no musicality whatsoever? Should that player have been rewarded with first prize? No. It means they weren’t good enough. Too many young people think they just have to work hard without thinking, and perform flawlessly, and have no clue about art. They should not be rewarded. And those who enter competitions in the first place are those from families wealthy enough to pay all the costs, which has nothing to do with talent or art. Competitions are set up on false premises to begin with. Art is not a competition. Classical music is not the Olympics. Musical athleticism should not be rewarded, only artistry.