Not all are happy with China winner

Not all are happy with China winner


norman lebrecht

May 21, 2019

The outcome of the first China International Music Competition has provoked more than the usual ripples of observer dissent, and for none of the usual reasons.

The judges swore that they had never taught any of the contestants. That was a sign of progress.

Two of the three finalists were students at Juilliard, whose piano department chief Yoheved Kaplinsky co-chaired the jury.

Then there’s the small matter of the US$150,000 winner.

Tony Sigi Yun, 18, a Canadian pianist enrolled in the pre-college division of the Juilliard School, made his debut in 2014 with the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing and Shanghai. He went on to play with the same orchestra in the televised 2019 CCTV New Year’s Concert.

In other words, he is a local favourite.

Our observers, both online and on the spot, say he did not play the Tchaikovsky too well in the final but had done enough up to that point to secure a winning margin. The Russian Malofeev might be saving himself for the Tchaikovsky, but the American Mackenzie Melemed has a right to feel hard done by.

Your views?



  • Theresa says:

    Mackenzie Melemed should have won!
    Listen to the stream, you will hear.
    Even Tony’s passing other rounds made many professional pianists to question fairness of this contest to begin with.

  • Anon says:

    There is a debate to be had over whether Melemed or Malofeev deserved to win. Melemed was my personal favourite but I can understand people’s support for Malofeev too. At no point during the competition have I heard a Yun discussed as a potential winner. It was a surprise to me that he made the final three because, like his Tchaikowsky, his Mozart was nice but in no way outstanding. You can directly compare him with Malofeev because they played the same Mozart concerto, and while Malifeev’s stormy interpretation might not be to everyone’s taste it can’t be denied that he made it his own whereas Yun’s performance sounded like so many others. I am baffled by this result, I really am, and I mean no disrespect to Yun. He’s a perfectly fine pianist but he is not exceptional.

    • Victor Z. Borger says:

      They willl all have disappeared into obscurity in three years and oblivion by five.

      • A Pianist says:

        or assistant associate professor at ___ state university.

        • Another Pianist says:

          Like Stanislav Ioudenitch after the 2001 Cliburn competition, who ended up at some obscure college, presumably being unable to afford a similar wardrobe to co-winner Olga Kern. Kern turned recitals into a fashion show (changing her gown during the interval, but not onstage) at places like Bend, OR and Sun River, OR, and created her own piano competition.

          • Richard Bloesch says:

            Stanislav Ioudenitch is now Professor of piano at Oberlin, which I don’t think is too shabby. He is also the teacher of the silver medalist at the most recent Van Cliburn competition.

          • Fliszt says:

            Ioudenitch was also the teacher of Bezhod Abduraimov, who is making a huge international career.

          • Frank says:

            Hey Bend is pretty cool, actually.

          • Bryce says:

            Well…at least it isn’t Milwaukee.

    • Piano Fan says:

      Competitions generally pick the least offensive competitor as long as he’s competent technically. There are exceptions, like Cliburn 1989 where Sultanov won. This competition seems like it was NOT an exception.

      • A pianist says:

        Sultanov was just godawful. He was the beginning of the end for the Cliburn, with the NYTimes abandoning it the final nail in the coffin.

    • justin says:

      so right

  • J says:

    I was there. The best man won.

  • fflambeau says:

    This is wrong: “At no point until after he had won was it revealed that Tony Sigi Yun, 18, a Canadian pianist enrolled in the pre-college division of the Juilliard School, had made his debut in 2014 with the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing and Shanghai.” In fact, I wrote on this blog that he had frequently performed in Beijing and that information can be found and was found before the winners were announced, all over the web. I also commented on his being the only Chinese ancestry contestant in the competition: again, days ago on this blog. I also noted that the head of the competition (not just the head of the jury) is Chinese (perhaps natural since the competition is in China.

    It seems to me the real problem here is with the Julliard school-bashers, amongst whom number NL prominently, for whatever reason(s). Remember his column here recently about how pricey their tuition is (it’s pricey everywhere Norman, including at Oxbridge). It’s costly in Paris too.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You’re quite right. We have corrected the post.

      • Some "Juilliard Guy" says:

        I also find it fascinating that today, NL comes to Melemed’s defense, when a few days ago, he was referred to simply as “Juilliard Guy” (see “Just In: Juilliard Guy Makes China Final”, featuring a picture of Melemed’s face for the article).

        I’m glad that Melemed is worthy of a name now, rather than having his personhood reduced to his school affiliation. I also have little doubt that had he won, NL would similarly be attacking his success as a sign of Kaplinsky bias.

        My personal observers think that no matter which hard-working young artist won this competition, the winner’s legitimacy was doomed to be questioned by NL and his anonymous “observers.” These young, industrious adults (and some teens) are certainly the objects of an awful lot of resentment from anonymous strangers on the internet for reasons outside of their control. Say what you will about Kaplinsky, but personally, I’m quite thankful that NL and his clan were not on the jury of this (or any) competition– our young artists rightly deserve better.

        • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

          This jury was no better, or worse, than any of the other juries of the major piano competitions; few people who truly understand and love music, but countless experts in the self-contained, and circular “art” of piano-playing. The world needs more musicians.

  • Bill says:

    What’s a riple of dissent?

  • LC says:

    A lot of the competitors in this competition knew that Tony was guaranteed to go to the finals since day 1, his family is a patron of this whole organization after all. It was a surprise that he actually got first prize because his Tchaikovsky was a disaster in my opinion.

    • esfir ross says:

      Congratulation to Tony-great hope for piano performing. I followed him on competition-the most spirited accomplished musician for his age. He was shorten at previous competitions.
      Look forward to hear and wish him great career

    • Wladek says:

      It is all a disaster

    • Cadence says:

      From where does one gets all this ridiculous false financial information, reassuring in its truth to the readers?
      Stop this nonsense, ugly lies, the hate and jealousy!
      Tony is an exceptional talent, rare combination of sincerity, a true poet, master of great sound projection, who has the ability immediately to communicate with his audience. His pianism and artistry is marvelous, listen to the Semifinal round with Bach Chaconne, Schumann Symphonic Etudes, Stravinsky/ Agosti Firebird and Messiaen.
      The conductor clearly preferred Tony’s performance, who played with conviction, and communicated so well with the orchestra.

      • Christopher Harling says:

        Tony is an exceptional talent, but aren’t all the competitors at this competition an exceptional talent? I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make but I guess you either just ignore or don’t care about how his “great sound projection” got completely lost every single time the orchestra played forte, or how he had rushed through both Allegro con spirito passages in the 1st mov like a machine and even had a memory lapse in one of them, or how each passage was heavily banged in his 2nd mov prestissimo was when it is marked LEGGIERRISIMO. And let’s not forget what happened in that 3rd mov coda… He may have played it better in the past, maybe he didn’t play his best, but regardless, the way he played at the competition is a mess and the gold medal fell into the wrong hands. I hope Kaplinsky’s good friend Raekallio will be happy with what she has done for him.

        • Cadence says:

          To Christopher,
          Just relax and know Tony has the Gold Medal because he deserved it. It’s ok to express yourself here no matter how wrong you are. Lots of people say stupid, jealous, nasty things. Don’t feel bad.
          Read conductor’s tweet about Tony’s performance:
          Tony Yun, you’re amazing. Congratulations and looking forward to many more together!

        • Iskra Volkov says:

          Cadence obviously has no knowledge or insight into the workings of this concerto. Not just to target her, but there are many uneducated people who do not understand the depth of the pianists musicality, articulation, best representation of the composer, etc.
          There are enough, however, that think Yun taking first place is a travesty.
          What proof do you have that the conductor clearly preferred Tony’s performance? Do you have inside information on this? Why don’t you share it with us?

      • justin says:

        definitely not
        Malofeev deserved to win that

        • Marita McDonough says:

          Now, having followed the 2021 Leeds and Chopin competition, I’m coming to agree with Emmanuel Ax who says participating in a competition is like going to a 7 – 11 and buying a lottery ticket. By the time a competitor reaches the final, or even the semi finals, they are all pretty much superior musicians and it can be quite difficult to pick the best. Add to that the judges particular biases and/or musical preferences and, well, you pretty much have a crap shoot. No wonder Lang Lang’s and Yuja Wang’s teacher forbad them from entering. They didn’t need to anyway; they already had concert engagements.

    • Dale P says:

      what kind of BS… you are jealous of Tony because you lost. Well…makes sense

  • Fliszt says:

    Before stating your opinions of these contestants, please certify that you listened to every note played by every contestant in every round of the competition. Otherwise, you have no right to comment, period.

    • Dave Garland says:

      Oh come on everybody. Whoever doesn’t win always gets called the real winner. This is in all competitions. My mother was first runner up to Miss America in the 50s. They did a whole national campaign asking the country who the “real” winner was because of course she was neck and neck with the winner. Of course this is a great sizzling way to get people all fiesty and riled up. Give them a podium to speak their minds. But lord y’all are just mean and sound just jealous as hell. All three finalists can play. Apples and oranges. And as for it being fixed we all know everyone knows “somebody” as the music world is super tiny. The Russian was staying with his whole russian crew at the contest- why is that allowed?? Or rather… who cares. He’s young. Third place was terrific no question- and another great piece.. Second was terrific in a different way. First prize was terrific in a different way. The chips fall. Get over it. The conductor was fair and the jury was fair. Listen to the winners firebird in second round. Jesus god. They have to give it to someone and it fell to him that night and good for him. If it was the other two everyone would be screaming why then young Chinese poet didn’t win??!! These kids are 18-19. Buck up and give them
      All a positive comment. I loved all of them
      In different ways. All marvelous. I don’t care what school they went to. The music world is small. They all knew someone. Nothing is rigged. Tony won. Go get em Tony. Let him enjoy his prize and stop pouting. Imagine how someone his age feels with all these hateful comments. The conductor also said Yun deserved it. So there’s another bit of intrigue to get all balled up about. it’s all ok. It’s just a music competition and great for China to bring such a great orchestra and do it right. The Chinese are fantastic. I’m not Chinese. Good for them, too, and thanks china for spending all your money to support the arts. A Chinese boy won. A remarkable Chinese boy. There we have it. And he won fair and square in a terrific contest of fantastic players.

    • Cyril says:

      The winner should ace the romantic/20th century concerto round. After all, unless conductors will engage them, they have no career. No one can get established playing recitals only. Yun’s Tchaikovsky was terrible – sloppy, notes missing, the fiery parts lacking in fire. I have no idea of his playing in the earlier rounds and thus whether he deserved to be in the final.

      Melemed and Malofeev’s Rach and Prokofiev were very good to excellent.

  • Douglas Kurz says:

    This is a whole lot of jealous and irresponsible garbage. While I think the world of the other two finalists, it is sheer nonsense to say that the winner didn’t deserve to be there, or to win. In my opinion, he won the semifinal round hands down. Alexander’s Prokofiev Toccata was downright awful. His Ondine was lacking in artistry. His playing has become at times extremely mannered and unappealing. Yet he is fully supported by the Russian machine, and will no doubt be given the Tchaikovsky competition. Mackenzie’s playing was excellent. I can easily see why some would feel that he could have won. (Less so Alex, from my point of view.). What is missing here is an appreciation of the winner’s sheer artistry and musicianship. He is an excellent collaborator, as was seen in the vocal round, as well as with orchestra. He places himself in service to the music at all times. I’m sorry if some of you disagree with the result. We all have strong opinions when it comes to the piano. But stop tearing down the fine young man who won. I heard him play Scriabin’s Sonata #10 in New York a few months ago, which he learned in a few weeks in between all of his school coursework, required performances, and competition preparation. He killed it … he conquered it … he made it musical, and breathtaking. Most pianists can’t even begin to make any sense out of it. This is an exceptional pianist! Stop all the nonsense jealous sniping.

  • esfir ross says:

    S.Yudenich’s teaching in Oberlin college with his eminent teacher W. Nabore. 2nd price Cliburn winner Yakov Kassman teaches in Alabama-great pianist.

  • Cyril says:

    The whole thing reflects very badly on the Chinese and on Kaplinsky. Judging by the final (I didn’t hear the earlier rounds), Yun had no business being in the competition. (Maybe he didn’t expect to make it to the final? Who knows.) Kaplinsky has on occasion inserted her students into the Cliburn woefully unprepared and unqualified.

    • fflambeau says:

      What do the following four people all have in common?

      A. Nigel Farage;
      B. Prince Phillip;
      C. Lee Harvey Oswald;
      D. Mozart

      Answer: None of them went to Julliard as a music student.

      There must be some reason, possibly linked with the nefarious piano teacher Kaplinsky, to explain all evil-doing in this world. No?

      Maybe Kaplinsky is the one who poisoned Mozart, or maybe she actually founded UKIP or at least taught people how to “milkshake” the Man From Brexit? She most certainly gave the modus operandi on how to get rid of Diana to the Prince, right? We will never know for certain, of course, but I do suspect strongly that she was the shooter on the grassy knoll (while cavorting on the lawn with the Prince who learned his killer instinct from her while listening to the devious piano teacher tickle the ivory). Friends of mine “in the know” make all this plain and factual.

      By the way, many posters here and also the eminent NL will be delighted to know that I have just heard that Kaplinsky has been cast as the evil doer intent on world domination and eventual planetary annihilation at the behest of her corrupt music school in the next James Bond movie. It’s a kind of Polish Dr. No but contains excellent music from the Julliard trained Philip Glass. Please don’t call it minimalist.

      Her Nome de plume in the upcoming movie: Julliarda Goldenfingers. Plot spoiler: she attempts to strangle Bond with piano wire from a Julliard Steinway but is thwarted when it turns out that her “Steinway” turns out to be a mere electronic mixer type instrument from China with no wires but many electric circuits. The dud instrument had been sold to her school for an outrageous price by a corrupt former member of one of her competition juries.

      Bond, as the movie ends, says, “there’s a reason why I ask for my drinks to be stirred and not mixed.”

      • Larry W says:

        Can we at least spell Juilliard correctly?
        Using two eyes, you can see it has two i’s.

        • fflambeau says:

          Kaplinsky made me spell it that way.

          • Larry W says:

            You keeping an “i” out for her?

          • fflambeau says:

            Well Larry, let me explain but first this warning: it’s a long story.

            Kaplinsky broke into my cottage in the Cotswolds, held a gun to my head, and dictated my long message above (complete with the misspelled words). Her card, put on a silver salver and carried to me by the man who buttles for me, Blunter, simply announced, “Madame Kaplinsky, New York City.” I thought she read palms or some such thing. Little did I realize at first that she was THE notorious, supremely evil Kaplinsky.

            What saved my life were two facts: I offered her a whiskey and soda and told Blunter to go to bed; and secondly, I was playing on my superb stereo system a Claudio Arrau CD. I also had some of my favorite recordings by Arthur Rubenstein nearby and one by Daniel Trifonov. She actually said, “he’s my boy. You have good taste; I couldn’t get to the other two because they died long ago.” Then she asked me if the grand piano in the corner was a real Bechstein or a fake one from China. I ignored her comment and instead poured her another drink since Blunter was sleeping. I also launched into a Bach composition to show her that I would never buy an electronic piano.

            She later asked me if I could serve on one of her piano juries, providing I gave her a 50% kickback of my fee. That’s when I realized that Kaplinsky was completely rotten. She did spare me a promised pistol whipping after I dictated the letter on the grounds that I might be working for her and doing “Julliard’s tasks”. She wants it spelled that way because the only thing she fears in life are corporate, trademark lawyers.

          • Larry W says:

            Thanks for the warning. I skipped it.

  • Barbara Rabkin says:

    Such pompous and mean spirited comments some of you have chosen to post ! We have been blessed with the most magnificent music, which should elevate us and fill us with gratitude. Instead you find fault and suggest lack of integrity. All of the contestants were remarkable. As the chair commented: all were deserving, and the rules required the choosing of three finalists. These three young finalists performed brilliantly. Tony Yun’s performance was passionate, sensitive, and memorable, outstanding in every way. He deserves our admiration and appreciation. I congratulate all of these talented young pianists. Bravo!

    • pianostrings says:

      I agree with you! Yun is such a GREAT talent. We should be lucky to have him. Looking forward to more!!

  • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

    Arseny Tarasevich-Nikolaev was the best over all.

  • Nick says:

    Nothing surprises me anymore! When Kaplinsky is a co-chair of the jury then a Juilliard student (even if not her own) must win anyway. They all do “favors” to one another:
    Kaplinsky to Raekallio today, Raekallio to Kaplinsky tomorrow, in the next competition. There is NO SUCH THING AS A FAIR COMPETITION IN MUSIC! Cannot be, by the very nature of the beast. The human factor is always there. But all three “winners” sound the same, all of them are little gray mice. No discovery here, even for US$150.000 and nobody expected it. All three are summer butterflies – will be gone by next season or two.

  • Nick says:

    Kaplinsky is notoriously known for being “problematic” in juries. It is not for nothing she had a huge scandal at the Cliburn Competition some years ago.

    • Marcellus says:

      More malicious fake news and crazy conspiracy theories. If Veda Kaplinsky is really so “problematic,” why does she keep getting invited to be a juror or chair of major international competitions, year after year?

  • These competitions are stepping stones for these young pianists. Whether they win a prize or not, it is what they take from this experience as budding musicians and business people that will contribute to their longevity in the arena of performers. Many will continue to learn more repertoire, others may go further into teaching, or administration, or starting festivals, or managements, or composition chamber music, arts journalism, or commissioning new music. Their lives can go in many different directions. I wish them well; go where life takes them, be open to exploring new ways to share music. Perhaps the connections they established in China will become lifelong relationships and friendships. No matter what people think of their playing or if they win or not, it is much more than that. I wish them well, and thank them for being part of the continuum of this great music, the evolution of music,

  • Paula says:

    It is too bad there is so much viciousness and many aggressively negative comments about such a wonderfully talented young pianist as Tony Yun! Congratulations to Tony and much success in the future, well deserved!

    • christopher storey says:

      I suppose this is why competitions are such a distorting influence on music. I listened carefully to Yun’s Busoni in the semi-final , which had much to like about it, particularly episodes of great delicacy, but which was splashy too in the difficult passages, and consistently was delivered in a mannered way with curious phrasing. Rather the same could be said about his Schumann, which was a strange performance with many of the essential cross rhythms glossed over or missing altogether, although many of the inner voices were brought out well. I moved on to the Tchaikovsky, and even making full allowance for the off sound engineering, I found it again a mannered performance, where phrases would be allowed almost to come to a standstill, and then in contrast the next few phrases would be charged through like a runaway bull, and in the 3rd movement this was accentuated by an inability to keep a consistent tempo. Some of the playing was too self-effacing where the piano should have dominated. Overall this gave the impression of a talented 17 year old who has an enormous amount to learn and who will find it difficult to forge a career. I can well understand the controversy

      • Iskra Volkov says:

        Unfortunately the truth hurts.

      • Having just now heard his Chaconne online, I concur in this Yu description and find it moreover on the generous side. Every August I cover a large number of young pianists doing something similar in Boston, not remotely a prestigious competition but with some fine playing, much even of that ultimately meh, but occasionally outstandingly mature work (Beyer, Niu Niu, Zhang, Haftman, Lu, Fang). So very much intense work shown. Reading this thread is therefore utterly fascinating, and not only the ‘opinionatedness’. It’s hard to see clearly what the future holds for even the best, much less the very good, least of all the middling — all of whom are of higher technical quality than any norm decades ago.

  • fflambeau says:

    From a Tweet sent by Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin:

    Follow Follow @nezetseguin
    Incredibly talented pianists: alexandermalofeev , tony_yun01 and pianopoika , all medalists of the cimc_official . Congratulations to them, and especially to the wonderful gold medalist, tony_yun01 !!

  • Classicalmusicmatters says:

    None of the finalists can be compared to Tony. They are piano players, but Tony makes music.

  • Chiu says:

    I was in the audience and Yun’s performance was so emotional. I almost cried

  • Professional Pianist says:

    A few thoughts for everyone here becoming combative about the outcome.

    One of my teachers, a famous juror of major competitions, said that a competition is only fair if you or a person you support wins it. Otherwise, it must obviously be corrupt. I agree with him. The moment you change a jury or the voting procedure, the outcome will change.

    Look no further than the 1975 Leeds Competition when Dimitri Alexeev won first prize. Do you know who won the other prizes? 2nd prize was Mitsuko Uchida, and 3rd prize was tied between Sir Andras Schiff and Pascal Devoyon.

    Does that competition have any real importance on who made a career? Not really. Plus, does anyone ever remember who won Chopin when Pogorelic was eliminated by the third round but received more press than any medalist because Martha Argerich left the jury in protest?

    Now in terms of the results – competitions are strange. If a mathematical voting method is in use, the person who is the least offensive yet artistically reasonable but most consistent tends to win. The more individualistic the artist, the more likely they are to offend someone on the jury who will vote them down. I’ve seen it time and time again where the result is not the most inspired but instead the most reliable.

    Another issue is who the jury is. I do think there is a difference between having teachers judge and concert performers in the jury. Although many teachers are distinguished performers themselves, they most often don’t have active careers and I think that makes a difference in terms of what they listen for. I find that the juries who have gone to great lengths to include a handful of soloists on the jury have better outcomes because those soloists are far more sensitive to the “it-factor” than just excellent performing.

    I do agree that the first prize winner of this competition was not as compelling as some of the other finalists, but I would bet good money that nobody who has an opinion her has listened to every single round of the competition. Plus, listening over computer speakers or headphones is never the same experience as sitting in the audience in person. Only the jury sat through every single minute of music performed – sometimes even though a final concerto is not so perfect, the performances in earlier rounds – or even the consistency in earlier rounds – can be the deciding factor on the overall ranking of the competitors.

    At the end of the day, the person who is meant to have the career will. It always works that way.

    • Guy says:

      I agree. Yun’s Second round was absolutely phenomenal. His semifinal round carried me all the way through

  • DJC says:

    No unbiased ear would have chosen Yun as winner. His solo playing earned him entrance into the final round. Then he played the Tchaikovsky like a commonplace amateur. Something more going on behind the scenes here. Can’t help but believe heritage had a role in this one.

  • Jorge Ignacio Zorro says:

    For me Alexander Malofeyev should be the winner he has Extraordinary technique and virtuosity, deep conception and musicality in his performance, beyond any expectation.

  • Astrid says:

    for my opinion Malofeev has to win the gold medal

  • justin says:

    malofeev should have won

  • Richard feerick says:

    What a joke that this kid won over Alexander Guess the Chinese fix was in!!!

  • British Skittish says:

    Malofeev’s interpretation of Prokofiev 3rd was the best I ever heard. He has more spark, intensity, ingenuity and true feeling in his little finger nail than anyone else of his generation, and that’s saying something. He should have won, in my opinion, but no matter – he is a bright star, he will have the career.