Some other reasons why violin competitions yield no stars

Some other reasons why violin competitions yield no stars


norman lebrecht

August 17, 2018

Continuing the discussion, it’s because:

1 The worst of them are rigged.

2 Most juries are dominated by teachers who reward precision above passion and cannot recognise personality.

3 The all-shall-have-prizes rule prevails. Juries are too scared to declare that no-one deserves a cheque.

What needs to be done? Competitions must:

1 Try different repertoire.

2 Diversify the juries.

3 Subject contestants to public interview in addition to their performance.


  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    What’s the interview for?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      To display personality

      • Nathaniel Rosen says:

        I suppose so, but isn’t the playing supposed to do that?

      • buxtehude says:

        Swimsuit also (to display fitness)

      • Alex Davies says:

        Does a soloist need to have a personality other than what is conveyed in the performance? Sure, it’s nice if they engage a little with the audience (e.g. manage to smile), but I’m there to hear them play the violin. It doesn’t really concern me whether Gil Shaham may or may not be a fun guy to go to the pub with.

        • barry guerrero says:

          I think it’s endemic in most everything today. We have zero talent in congress and in politics, in general. Professional sports players are cautious not to show any personality as well. Classical musicians probably play ‘scared to death’ that if they make a single error, critics and listeners (who know the pieces) will jump down their throat. Executives don’t show a lot of personality because they could get sued by doing or saying the wrong thing. You name it.

          • Alex Davies says:

            In Britain we do have politicians with personality, but they aren’t the ones one would actually want running the country, and that applies equally to right and left: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, George Galloway. Some of our most colourful politicians were decidedly unpleasant people: Jeremy Thorpe, Cyril Smith, Clement Freud, Nicholas Fairbairn (all now dead). The famously boring John Major, on the other hand, has now somewhat surprisingly emerged as a statesmanlike figure. In the past we did have politicians on all sides who combined personality with genuine ability: Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown, William Hague, Tony Benn, Roy Jenkins.

  • Steve says:

    I would say it’s just this day and age – the’re are no ‘stars’ in classical music – but the’re certainly are many fantastic young violinists out there…

  • Carlos Majlis says:

    If Fritz Kreisler triy a violin contest today, he’ll reject in the preliminaries.

  • MacroV says:

    I’d definitely be in favor of different repertoire; it would be a big torture for me to have to hear multiple renditions of the Brahms or Tchaikovsky concertos in every competition finals. How about a competition with less familiar concertos (Rosza, Bloch, Bruch #2, etc.), which would create a little variety, and also prompt a number of skilled players to learn (and hopefully then perform) pieces a little outside the mainstream.

  • Jon H says:

    This is the system by which they get attention, but their actually abilities are a different issue. There are some great teachers out there (who can make up the jury), but they tend to teach (and look for) a particular style. In most cases the players are so young that what they have is the technique, and their musical ideas are mostly passed down by their teachers, but they haven’t had enough time yet on the instrument to develop their own ideas. Some of them have started playing at a very young age, but 18 years old is still too young to tell anything. They have a lot of living with the music to do (to be comparable with Heifetz in his prime if that’s the yardstick). Being a “star” is more luck – it’s in the hands of the right executive, with the right marketing. The best musicians haven’t always gotten the best recording deals. Or you have to find a way to win over the biggest, but average audience – perhaps compromising on the artistic values. So you’re either playing to the handful of “serious” classical listeners in the room, or able to sell out the stadium.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Another requirement for being a star, of course, is wanting to be a star. In the world of the piano, for example, Piotr Paleczny clearly was easily good enough a pianist to be a star, but today almost nobody has heard of him. He does perform and record, but with little fuss and not particularly often. My guess would be that he prefers a normal life and a steady job teaching and does not need the celebrity and wealth that seemingly fuels a phenomenon such as Lang Lang.

      Ditto Pieter Schoeman, concertmaster of the LPO and an exceptional violinist. He is clearly in a whole other league compared with the mediocre David Garrett, but I guess he has no interest in dating a porn star and posing half naked for fashion shoots (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either of those things).

      • Robert Hairgrove says:

        @Alex: “Another requirement for being a star, of course, is wanting to be a star.”

        Truer words were never spoken!

        However, I’ve often wondered how often a talented young musician is “propelled” to star status, either by winning a competition, or by becoming a manager’s favorite due to easy marketability?

        Once reaching the stratosphere, it is very hard to avoid the inevitable “fall” unless one has some kind of safety net (financial or otherwise; sometimes it doesn’t matter as long as the artist really only cares about the music… but what if there is a family involved?).

        The level of artistry doesn’t seem to have much to do with all of this, AFAICT.

        • buxtehude says:

          Could it be that all of this demoralizing pressure, uncertainty and the rest really has to do with being a concert soloist in the age of recording?

          Every violinist working today competes not only with whoever’s on YT — and in future, on its successor — but with every violinist who’s recorded since the introduction of magnetic tape, if not even earlier.

          When music was live there was room for professional careers on many levels and — most important — in many places. Now it’s precarious, even at the top.

          Not only are there too many violinists and too many concert halls but I think the whole big-hall model is dead and has been for decades. Only the state-subsidized bureaucracy repeating cliches about high culture preserves some illusion that it continues to count for something — that is, outside the ranks of musicians employed in it, and the remnants of steady concert-goers. Mass venues are for courting teens who experience an overwhelming need to be among one another.

          “Classical music,” to be an experience, needs far more intimate venues and real composers writing new music strong enough to draw people out of their way, to creature, for a change, a sense of occasion.

          I use “people” here as a term of art, meaning persons outside of the academic and especially conservatory world.

        • Jon H says:

          Well the typical thing is young people want to become a star or be famous – and the worst thing to do is use violin (or any medium) as a way to become a star/famous. At some point the purpose just gets lost. But people who strive to be great musicians first will always have a purpose.

          • Robert Hairgrove says:

            @JonH: “But people who strive to be great musicians first will always have a purpose.”


          • Alex Davies says:

            I can imagine that being a star classical musician could be fun for a limited period. I’d happily live Lang Lang’s lifestyle for, say, a year. But after that, wouldn’t most people tire of living out of a suitcase, never being in the same place for longer than a few days, and spending most of their life away from family and friends? Also, how fulfilling is it musically, especially for a violinist? At least the piano has an enormous solo repertoire, and less well known works can be programmed alongside better known works. But a violinist must spend 95 percent of his or her career recycling the half dozen most popular violin concertos, and that probably isn’t much of an exaggeration.

          • M2N2K says:

            This notion that “a violinist must spend 95 percent of his or her career recycling the half dozen most popular violin concertos” is a considerable exaggeration indeed. Let’s see here: Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Paganini, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Lalo, Wieniawski, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartok, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Dvorak, Barber, Berg, Shostakovich, Bernstein – that is 22 composers many of whom wrote not one but multiple major works for violin and orchestra, so this modest list of names that first popped into my head (I may have missed a few) represents well over 30 of “most popular” works, and nothing prevents any solo violinist from performing all of them throughout his/her career, in addition to a few less common ones including some of more recent compositions.

          • Alex Davies says:

            @M2N2K, I am a former violinist myself, so I am aware that there is a huge repertoire for the violin.

            My point is that when I look at what concertos violinists are playing with the orchestras in London each year what I see is Bruch no. 1, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Beethoven (not that often actually), occasionally Berg. Once every few years the Brahms double or Beethoven triple may get played. Dvořák and Korngold perhaps come round once every 5 or 10 years. Schumann is a rarity (I’ve managed to hear it live once). Khachaturian is one of my favourite violin concertos, but I don’t know that I can remember ever hearing it live. Oh, we recently got the Penderecki no. 2 at the Royal Festival Hall, and given that the hall was half empty I don’t suppose there are plans to revive it any time soon. If this is what it’s like in London one can only imagine how cautious the programming is elsewhere. Good luck with finding a live performance of a concerto by Haydn, Wieniawski, or Paganini. To be fair, Bach and Vivaldi get played quite a lot, but mostly with early music ensembles these days. Mozart does sometimes get played by modern symphony orchestras, but not nearly as much as the later repertoire.

            So I suspect that I am really not exaggerating that much (maybe it’s 90 percent of a career spent playing seven or eight concertos or something). Of course, violinists will have that 5 percent or so of their performing schedule in which to play Schoenberg or Shostakovich, but what audiences seem to want are the same half dozen or so concertos played over and over. For every performance of a concerto by Walton or Bartók there must be dozens of performances of Mendelssohn or Bruch.

            The format of the solo piano recital obviously allows the soloist to programme a much larger and more diverse range of repertoire. A pianist can work through the complete repertoire of a single composer or mix up more and less well known pieces. A pianist like Pollini can sell out a 3,000-seat auditorium with a programme of Beethoven and Schoenberg.

            So, yes, the violin has a huge repertoire, but if you’re talking about concertos that symphony orchestras are willing to schedule with any regularity, there aren’t that many. Even if there were 30 violin concertos that got performed regularly that isn’t a lot compared with the variety that a pianist can achieve in solo recitals. Just think of the absolutely enormous amount of solo keyboard music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Just those seven composers probably wrote enough to fill a lifetime before one even begins to think about Haydn, Brahms, Schumann, Messiaen, Satie, and Scriabin. Note that I say solo recitals. If one considers concertos, yes, there are a huge number of them, but orchestras again rather tend to recycle a few popular ones by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Grieg.

          • M2N2K says:

            Of course pianists have larger repertoire – no one would ever dispute that. My objection was mostly to your violin-related numbers – and I am glad that you are adjusting them already – and to the word “must” which I believe is misleading in cases of violinists with successful solo careers who can more or less choose what to perform on the strength of their name recognition and attraction. By the way, thanks for reminding me of the delightful Korngold which I use to perform myself and therefore have no excuse for forgetting to include it on my decidedly partial list.

  • Minutewaltz says:

    Maybe the soloists aren’t cute enough for the real world especially now so many performances are watched on YouTube.
    Good looks haven’t done any harm to pianists such as Lang Lang and Yuja Wang (though obviously they are virtuoso artists as well.)

    • V.Lind says:

      Is Nicola Benedetti the last great violin “star” then?

      • Derek says:

        “Star” is a strange word in the classical music world isn’t it?

        I doubt whether Nicola Benedetti wants to be thought of as a star.

        Very different, but for example, Maxim Vengerov is a brilliant violinist and has a big warm personality but I believe he would think of himself as a passionate musician rather than as a star.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Unlike pianists,most violin players of the younger generation basically sound the same. It’s hard to be a star when you’re interchangeable with 97% of your colleagues. Gone are the days when giants like Heifetz, Milstein, and Rosand ruled the day. The few that do sound different often come with a price. Would anyone these days still pay to see Nigel Kennedy embarrass himself? And what of the freak show that is Patricia Kopatchinskaja? She may be entertaining, but she certainly isn’t musical.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Nigel Kennedy cultivates an eccentric image, but he remains a wonderful violinist. If you watch carefully you see how the moment he begins playing his demeanour changes completely. Once he’s done clowning around he’s totally focused on the music.

      I’ve only seen PatKop live once (Schumann concerto) and she was pretty good. Some videos of her I’ve seen on YouTube were less impressive.

  • Jon H says:

    If I could give advice to a reviewer of a violin concert – I would say choose words other than “beautiful” and “flawless.” If they really are those things, there are many other words that could be used.

  • Daniel Webb says:

    Hang on a minute. To correct the problems of (alleged) corruption, bias in favour of precision over personality (where is the evidence that music teachers as a class of persons have such a bias and what does “personality” mean?) and the (alleged) overly-liberal awarding of prize money, you propose: changing the repertoire (which does not answer any of those points), diversifying the jury (which might answer one of them, if you’ve a shred of evidence for the very serious charge of a competition being rigged) and adding the truly bizarre spectacle of a “personality interview”, as if this would make violin competitions any less subjective. I like this blog very much and read it avidly, but I don’t think this post is very well thought through, nor do I find it especially helpful or responsible. Competitons in music are not everyone’s cup of tea; their outcomes are always open to disagreement. Music is not an Olympic sport. But that doesn’t automatically mean that those who create and adjudicate them are dishonest or obsessed with technique to the exclusion of musicality. That’s a rather cheap shot.

  • luigi nonono says:

    The main reason why competitions don’t produce artists is the pre-set repertoire, the emphasis on exact comparison to others and perfection of execution. Those are all non-artistic values. That’s why they produce mechanical players. My teacher said, the only proper way to present performers is in concert, in festivals, in showcase settings. Let the audience decide. The problem is that critics prefer competitions.

  • Felix Ang says:

    We are reaching a point where there are some many competitions that winning first prize hardly guarantees anything more than a few momentary posts on social media. It has become a sport—same players, similar rep, same judges, different city.
    The real point is that today there are more ways to become known, and while competitions can offer a boost, they also thrive on unoffensive, generic but controlled playing—to appeal to a wide range of listeners (read: jury). Quite a few violinists today have become successful or been offered positions as concertmaster or quartet player or recitalist on a series through YouTube videos and a shiny bio.

  • MacroV says:

    Competitions may not be turning out stars, but there are certainly a lot of terrific violinists out there. Maybe there are few if any to equal Heifetz or Milstein, but the “average” level is probably a lot higher than it once was. Every time SD announces a new concertmaster appointment there are plenty of comments about what a great player the person is; orchestra auditions are probably the real competitions these days.

    As for solo competitions, one problem is probably that there are too many of them. It seems like in the past you only had the Tchaikovsky and the Queen Elizabeth. Surely there were others, but you can’t expect 30 or 40 competitions every year to each produce a winner who goes on to fame and fortune.

    Come to think of it, have even those competitions produced stars? Who has won Tchaikovsky that anyone knows? Tretyakov, Kremer, Oliveira, Mullova, Akiko Suwanai. The last in 1990. Anyone else who comes close to being a household name? QE probably has a better track record.

    In all, was there ever really a golden age of competitions turning out star violinists?

    • Alex Davies says:

      Surely the real star violinists have tended to make it big without needing to jump through hoops. I don’t suppose Heifetz ever had to enter a competition.

      • Bruce says:

        I never heard about Leila Josefowicz or Hilary Hahn getting their start from competitions either. They seem to be doing OK.

        • Derek says:

          Leila Josefowicz, now you’re talking!

          She makes you sit up and take note and is a breath of fresh air.

          Also, Nicola Benedetti has been brilliant when I have seen her, especially recently with the Shostakovich violin concerto no. 1.

          • Bruce says:

            Nicola got her big start from the BBC Young Musician contest (or at least that was the first I heard of her), but seems to have moved safely beyond the category of “competition winner” by this point in her career. Never seen her live and probably never will, but I have most of her recordings. The Shostakovich is pretty great.

            Leila Jo’s Shostakovich recording is pretty great too. I highly recommend it.

  • Daniel Webb says:

    It is not a competition’s purpose to “turn out a star”, whatever that means. It is the solemn responsibility of those adjudicating a competition to place entrants in rank order. For what it is worth, and in the absence of any evidence whatsoever to the contrary, I tend to believe that the exceptionally distinguished jurors of international competitions attempt in good faith to do so. It is a slur on their integrity casually on a public forum to suggest otherwise. If you believe that ranking musicians against arbitrary criteria is imprecise and open to debate, then you are in good company. If you think the very notion of a music competition is nonsense then I tend to agree. But the baseless accusations that teachers are biased and dishonest and that the leading practitioners in any musical field are so shallow, stupid and unimaginative as to have ears only for technique, execution and perfection, to the exclusion of interpretative, musical and expressive features (which I think is what Mr Lebrecht means by “personality”, which – incredibly – he would have examined in a public interview) is absolutely disreputable.

  • Felix Ang says:

    The point I want to make is that violin competitions are so frequent and plentiful now that it is more sport than display of art. And sadly it’s not a positive motivation for individuality—instead, the playing is safe…and this is setting a standard. Students today often do not consider listening to a violinist if they haven’t won a major prize.
    Does anyone else notice Stern Shanghai competition is on, Indianapolis (probably America’s top) is around the corner, and numerous others are all lined up. It’s becoming another genre

  • Steve says:

    And getting the famous violinists to help these next generations are also crucial but that seems unlikely except for a few artists like Kremer, Capuçon. They probably want to keep their place and not wanting the young guns to kick them out…

    Conductors really should start to judge Competitions and engage whomever they like to present

  • Nandor Szederkényi says:

    Just a short story from one of the “no name” winners of a competition:
    I was first prize winner of the Szigeti competition in Budapest 1979.
    Shortly after I left Hungary and started my career from zero in Germany, having several “new starts” after that for different reasons in different countries. I managed to get concertmaster jobs in good orchestras, played as soloist many concerts, but the first prize in my CV was just for “decoration”. I wasn’t even invited for job interviews where I didn’t have some contacts; the last years in Vienna I hardly had any gigs, and now in the UK I am unemployed.
    These days’ “star-creating” music business doesn’t work well with competitions, if being an excellent musician is not enough to became one of those stars.

  • M2N2K says:

    To begin with, competitions are not supposed to “produce” a “star”. They cannot and do not “produce” anything. The best they can do is to reveal who has a “star” potential. In any case, the interview idea does not belong there at all, as was shown quite well in comments by Nathaniel Rosen and “buxtehude” above here.
    Has it ever been tried, having a jury consisting exclusively of superb musicians who do not play the competing instrument? That would accomplish two goals: 1) eliminate any possibility of teachers judging their students and 2) minimize importance of technical acrobatics in favor of the quality of interpretation. Solo violinists (or whatever the competing instrument is) may help putting together a program for the competition but should step completely aside once the competition starts. This is definitely worth a try or two to see whether it can yield more interesting results than usual.
    The program could be in three rounds arranged in a following manner:
    1. A 30-minute opening round of obligatory pieces of great technical difficulty with a goal of eliminating those contestants who are not fully accomplished in their mastery of the instrument.
    2. A 60-minute program chosen by each contestant individually. Such round may be harder to judge because of the variety of music, but the benefit is worth it: this will show originality, personality, stylistic understanding, musical taste and other qualities that make an artist interesting to listen to.
    3. Each finalist would play one major concerto chosen from a list of about a dozen, followed by a solo encore between 4 and 8 minutes announced by each one of them from the stage as they would do in a real concert: another chance of showing several important artistic qualities.
    Just my couple of pennies worth…which will certainly be categorically ignored by all.

    • Daniel Webb says:

      Not ignored by me, I assure you; I read this with many nods of agreement, especially regarding the personality interview, which I also think is a terrible idea. Whereas I do agree that a teacher standing in judgment over a pupil is not a good look (though presumably difficult to avoid if you want to have the most distinguished jurors, who are likely to be sought after as teachers by the best pupils who are in turn likely to arrive as finalists in the same competitions that long before booked their teacher as a judge) and whereas I would also welcome at least some representation from people other than violin practitioners in a violin competition, the issue that has got me all worked up from this post and its subsequent comments is the casual accusation – accepted as a self-evident truth by most people, it seems – that top violin teachers are obsessed only with technique and technical perfection and uninterested in “personality” in the playing. Where on earth has this assumption come from? There is no good teacher of any instrument at any level – from someone preparing a pianist for Grade 1 up – who thinks this or promotes this. The idea that you would get to the very top of your profession believing and encouraging this is absolutely bizarre to me. Of course, technique is important and, even at the level reached by a finalist in a top international competition, not irrelevant. Of course, the ability accurately to render very complicated music is impressive, and the reverse a cause for censure. But why are we all so sure that jurors are not looking for expressivity and musicality in the performances they hear? They undoubtedly are. And I cannot believe that anyone who plays in a “wooden” style is getting anywhere in any competition. Certainly, no examination criteria in history has ever rewarded this sort of playing with the highest marks. That’s my hobby horse again ventilated and I promise I will now disengage from an argument I am sure to lose!

      • M2N2K says:

        Unlike competitions, this “argument” is not a win-or-lose situation.
        No matter how wonderful and enlightened jury members are, it is naturally inevitable that they would pay at least a little bit more of their attention to how contestants negotiate technical difficulties if those jurors play and/or teach the same instrument compared to those who do not (ideally they would always be focused on musical results), which is one of the main reasons I am proposing a competition that would be judged entirely by the latter. And that annoying teacher/student problem would not exist at all.

        • DANIEL WEBB says:

          Well, there’s no denying that the overall musical result is of paramount importance. And if, for instance, you take an ABRSM examination you are assessed by a generalist who is asked to steer clear of nit-picky technical points. Other examination boards take a different view and appoint only specialists, who do absolutely comment on technique when it is appropriate as well as musical outcome. Each system has its advocates and detractors. As you very nicely put it, though, a violin specialist is likely to pay “at least a little bit more of their attention to how a contestant negotiates technical difficulties” than a generalist. I suppose part of my point is that, at the level of a major international competition dedicated to a single instrument, this is surely not to be feared, though I’d welcome a juror who represents the non-violin world as well to provide that outside perspective. And it sounds like you probably don’t share the views of many exceedingly cynical commentators in this post that the jurors have no interest in musical personality. I’m glad to think that not everyone has swallowed that implausible suggestion. Thank you for the engaging debate.

          • M2N2K says:

            So, you are agreeing that non-violin-jurors are useful in a violin competition (and there have been some non-violinists on the juries of most prestigious contests for a long time already), but you have not articulated why having any violinists on such a jury is absolutely necessary. In my opinion, it may not be that essential at all.
            All I am proposing is to try my “radical” solution once or twice and see what the results are. If it does not work any better than the present situation, we can always go back to “business as usual”. And keep suspecting (often quite reasonably so) that the winners took a lesson or two with some of the jurors.

          • Daniel Webb says:

            To M2N2K (snappy name – for some reason there is no “Reply” option to your last message, of 1.12am so I am having, as it were, to reply to myself, which somewhat emphasises the circularity of these internet debates). No, I have not asserted that anything is “necessary” (if I had asserted what you thought I had, are we seriously suggesting that it would call for articulation why a juror in a major international violin competition should need to know how to play the violin?). Unlike most commentators on this post, I do not claim to have any of the answers to the apparent need to solve violin competitions. All I have said is that I object to the unsupported assertions that competitions are rigged and that top violin teachers have ears only for technique. I find both of these points to be wild exaggerations. But I promised I would disengage about five posts ago, and this time I mean it!

          • M2N2K says:

            This is not the place where one is expected, let alone obligated, to keep one’s promises!

  • Gan Heffetz says:

    The repertoire problem is the composers’ fault.
    Once they start again to write music people are genuinely interested in playing and listening to for its qualities and not for some general moral obligation, the problem is solved.