Eliminated from the Queen Elisabeth – why?

Eliminated from the Queen Elisabeth – why?


norman lebrecht

May 11, 2021

Readers have observed an 11-1 gender imbalance in the semi-finals of the Brussels piano competition.

We have been sent this remarkable first-round performance by Mirabelle Kajenjeri of Ukraine, who didn’t make it into the semis.

See if you can understand why.

We can’t.

Watch here.


  • Peter Boogaerts says:

    58 candidates. One you liked. Strangely enough, not one of the musicians and journalists I know who, like me, follow the competition day after day, even noticed her.

    This is not the first time you try to disparage this competition, one of the most respected in the world.

    One wonders why.

    • The first, and by far the best, I and my parents noticed!

    • christopher storey says:

      I haven’t studied the requirements for the first round, but it was possibly a rather oddly chosen programme. On the other hand, so were those of the other entrants which I looked at. If everyone was forced to make strange choices of repertoire , then that is the fault of this rather minor competition, rather than the fault of the entrants

    • Morgan says:

      I suspect we all know several reasons she might not have been noticed but too base to mention. Her playing (even if one does not like the selection) is excellent.

      • Trifonovfan says:

        The jury is among the most biased in the entire piano competition World.
        Over 1/2 of them are either French or from Belgium.
        The winner is the principle resident pianist from the Queen Elisabeth Music chapel.

  • esfir ross says:

    Outstanding! Must be threat to designated winners. Shame on jury. I wish her luck and recognition.

    • SVM says:

      Without listening to *all* the competitors in the first round, it seems a bit unreasonable to cast such calumny on the jury’s decision (unless there were aggravating circumstances, such as a winner being a pupil of someone on the jury), especially in the context of an international competition of the highest calibre (in other words, a competition where even those who do not get beyond the first round are *supposed* to be outstanding).

      • Trifonovfan says:

        The winner announced today is the current residence pianist for the establishment. That’s a conflict of interest. He is French, of course. Mr. Fournel.

  • M McAlpine says:

    I can never fathom this term ‘gender imbalance’ when a competition is supposed to be decided on talent and performance. If the finalists are 100% male or 100% female it doesn’t matter as long as they are the best!

    • BRUCEB says:

      The clincher is in the last 7 words of your comment.

      Always tricky to prove a negative; but considering the abundance of kickass male *and* female pianists, an unequal distribution like this could attract attention.

      On the other hand, they surely realized they would be scrutinized to some degree, so hopefully they made choices they are ready to stand behind.

      Most competitions have an illustrious list of past non-winners that sometimes outshines the list of winners.

  • Kevin Kenner says:

    there are many worthy candidates that did not even make it past the selection rounds…..

    Everyone can’t win, alas. And not everyone can afford to transfer money to my account.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Surely there have been many past competitions where now-famous pianists didn’t make the cut at the time.

  • Pianist says:

    Weak performance. Barely surviving difficult passages in technical places. Balakirev. Barely can play octavas and the notes. Musically very not advance. Technically not free.
    Maybe that why?

    I have listened the entire competition. Many performances could have advance to the Semi-finals and did not. And they were way better then this particular pianist.

    • Strong performance. Difficult passages covered easily, and musically. Balakirev. Played all the octaves, and all the notes. Musically extremely advanced. technically free.
      No reason why.

      I listened to all the first round candidates, and only three stood out: Mirabelle Kajenjeri, Keigo Mukawa, and Vitaly Starikov. Given that pretty much all of the competitors play the piano to a very high technical level, it all boils down to whether they are able to transcend the musical limitations of a purely pianistic approach to phrasing, dynamics, and line; most cannot, to the detriment of the music. For piano buffs, music is, of course, very much a side issue whose only function is to highlight the pianism of the performer.

    • nimitta says:

      “Weak performance”, Pianist? “Musically very not advance”?

      I found it deeply musical – far more nuanced, expressive, and absorbing than many of the other performances. Her ‘Islamey’ had my heart racing (and that’s really saying something with that thorny old warhorse I’ve heard dozens of different ways). Why? Not because it was the fleetest or most note-perfect – the way my teacher played it a century ago for the Ampico – but because it was the most sonorous and dramatic – a breathtaking story. I also loved the Haydn – somewhat different but no less interesting than András Schiff’s, the last time I heard him live – and thought she was able to conjure some serious magic in Debussy’s dreamy arpeggio étude.

      There are some very promising young pianists in this year’s competition, and of course de gustibus non est disputandum. The technical accomplishment of young pianists today far surpasses that when I was coming along 50 years ago, too. Technique is much more than a simple matter of velocity, though, Pianist, and I haven’t heard anyone in this competition who has “way” more, or is “way better”, than Mirabelle Kajenjeri.

    • Violinist or any human being says:

      Then go and play in the competition Mr/Mrs pianist ! You sound like you have some complexes.
      What kind of judgement is that?

  • debuschubertussy says:

    Isn’t this type of thing going to happen in pretty much every piano competition though?

  • Fliszt says:

    The jury must be jealous of her. But she needn’t worry – she won’t need the Queen Elizabeth.

  • Geoff Cox says:

    Brilliant performance! The Jury members should have the courage of their convictions and publish their scores. Why not?

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    Gender imbalance? Ridiculous comment. In a competition, gender has no place in the deliberation process. How well they play and how much music they actually make are the only factors to be considered. So, yes, gender imbalance is inevitable.

    • nimitta says:

      Quite right, LV: “…gender has no place in the deliberation process.”

      And yet it somehow finds its way in, doesn’t it? Short of putting contestants behind a screen during the solo rounds and announcing their names only after scoring has been completed and recorded, there is no way a particular human judge can fail to notice gender, nor respond to it in ways perhaps beyond your understanding or mine. Surely you’re aware of the overwhelming gender imbalance among great orchestras until the advent of screened auditions, LV – or are they ridiculous, too?

      A fresh example of the same phenomenon was provided just last week by the Grand Piano Competition. Make no mistake: co-winners Pyotr Akulov and Sergei Davydchenko were very promising. Indeed, I look forward to hearing many of the contestants again, but none more so than Anahit Stelmashova, the Audience Prize winner; and also the astonishingly mature 14 year old Haerim Park. She finished as a mere Diplomate – inexplicably, to my ears – despite a masterful solo round of Bach, Chopin (a fabulous 4th Scherzo), Tchaikovsky, and Liszt (Mephisto 1), then a fine Tchaikovsky 1st in the concerto round. (Davydchenko also chose this piece and rendered it quite convincingly in a massive, Matsuev-y manner…but I felt and enjoyed Park’s rather more.)

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    Great to see (a few comments up) that Vovka Ashkenazy said his parents enjoyed this performance. Having attended concerts by Vladimir Ashkenazy for many years, I’m so pleased to hear that he’s still following the musical world.

  • E says:

    She is an accomplished, poised, young
    professional, who will have a
    distinguished career ahead of her.

  • minacciosa says:

    It’s a competition; that’s how it goes. Move on. Geez…

    • It’s not just “a competition”, but one of the only still existing competitions considered meaningful which has a tradition going back to well before the 2nd World War.

      In 1952, when Leon Fleisher won it, there was only the Chopin competition in Warsaw and perhaps the one in Geneva (and maybe one in Budapest?) as far as international competitions went. Even the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow wasn’t yet established (the 1st prize of that one was won by Van Cliburn). There might have been others, but many did not survive.

      There is such a thing as a reputation to consider, even for competitions.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    How can the decision of the jurors be evaluated by us based on hearing one entrant who didn’t advance? Don’t we need to hear them all, as the jurors did? If anything it shows how tough and brutal it is out there for those on the competition trail, but that is
    dog bites man” news. I briefly studied under a violinist who was not even permitted to finish his initial round performance at the Tchaikovsky Competition. He was an excellent player – but I cannot say an injustice was done based on hearing the ultimate winners, and knowing the track record of that competition. I do happen to regard the QE Competition as a major one, at least it has been for violinists.

    • nimitta says:

      “How can the decision of the jurors be evaluated by us based on hearing one entrant who didn’t advance?”

      It can’t. Click on the link, though, and you can hear them all. They’re an excellent group, for sure, but Kajenjeri’s musicality is quite special.

    • I listened to them all (58 pianists), and Kajenjeri stood out.

  • BRUCEB says:

    Nobody is everybody’s cup of tea. I thought she sounded fine, but I could imagine people with different tastes not liking her playing.

    It’s always a crap-shoot when it comes to competitions or auditions: are you what the judges are looking for? And if not, can you overcome their preset biases? (Could anyone?)

    I compare this kind of situation to a 1950s casting call where a bunch of famous actresses show up.

    Director: Thanks to all of you for coming. You were all terrific. Unfortunately, we were looking for a blonde…

    Audrey Hepburn: Well, shit. Hey Liz, let’s go for a drink. [As they head for the door, Elizabeth Taylor pulls a flask out of her purse and hands it to Audrey.]

    Director: …with great big tits.

    Grace Kelly: Well, shit. Hey Audrey, Liz – wait for me.

    Marilyn Monroe: Hi everyone, sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything?

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    The winner, of course, is Joseph Haydn; those stunning piano sonatas!! So much more interesting than those by Mozart.

    Great to be able to watch and hear this competition, but it’s surely miserable without an audience!!

  • Balakirev says:

    Sorry, she seems very gifted but there are rudimentary elements that just weren’t done here in the first minute of balakirev. she does not intonate the melody well, the contrasts are inconsistent, unstable rhythm. That being said I do think she has a lot going for her in the future

    • Please explain which rudimentary elements were not done in the first minute. The rhythm is rock-solid, and melody clear and naturally-flowing.

      • Balakirev says:

        There isn’t much else I can describe. I do not agree about the melody. I hear an empty sound, when the direction changes from up to down she does not follow it. It’s immediately understandable that she is not on the professional standard of, I would say, all the people that passed to the semifinal. The jury is not comprised of people without ears. They noticed and this was the result.

  • Lovely playing by Mirabelle Kajenjeri! I enjoyed it very much (in the contestant biographies, I think she is listed as being from France?).

    There is a wonderful video clip of Jack Benny (he also played the violin quite passably) playing the violin together with Jascha Heifetz in a radio skit. During a rest for his part, he turns to the audience and asks: “Can you hear the difference?” He also did the same shtick with Isaac Stern in the 1st movement of the Bach Double concerto. Although it should be easy even for non-musicians to tell which violinist is Heifetz (or Stern) and which is Jack Benny, the question is not so easily answered here in the Brussels competition.

    I listened to Ms. Kajenjeri’s first round performance, and by now to the first-round performances of three of the semi-finalists. I admired the musicality, technical proficiency, and professional level of preparation of all four of these excellent pianists; however, I have not heard anyone yet whose performance “grabbed” me, if you know what I mean — in spite of the fact that there are numerous differences of approach which one can like or dislike, as the case may be. But I can say that as far as I am concerned, none of these four contestants played any better nor any worse than the others. The only thing which might have detracted from Ms. Kajenjeri’s performance of Balakirev’s “Islamey” was that she makes it sound so easy! It is a work which was considered by many to be the most difficult piece in the piano literature at the time; Ravel wrote the last movement of “Gaspard de la nuit” (“Scarbo”) with the intent to write something which was “even more difficult than Islamey”. With this work in particular, Balakirev published numerous “ossia” passages which are optional variations of the printed score. When comparing this performance to others, it is vital to take these into consideration because many pianists will play these passages differently.

    But there are nine more semi-finalists I should listen to before stating an opinion. It seems likely to me that Ms. Kajenjeri certainly deserved to advance to the semi-finals based on the merits of her playing alone; however, there is a numerical limit for each round where some selection must be made. If I find that anyone who advanced to the next round played significantly worse in the first round than this pianist, then the case could be made that some non-objective criteria were involved.

    I look forward to discovering all of these pianists, none of whom I had previously encountered. But it will take some time.

    • “There is a wonderful video clip of Jack Benny (he also played the violin quite passably) playing the violin together with Jascha Heifetz in a radio skit.”

      Well, the video was of Isaac Stern with Jack Benny — there can obviously be no video if it was a radio skit. 🙂

    • In the meantime, I must say that I am very surprised and disappointed at the choice of finalists here. Mirabelle Kajenjeri and Aidan Mikdad, and probably numerous others, should have definitely advanced to the finals.

      I do not think that any of the finalists, judging from what I heard in previous rounds, will stand a chance of supporting an international career of the scope to which we have become accustomed from previous prizewinners of this most prestigious of competitions.

      Too bad! 🙁

  • In the jury regulations, it is stated: “The members of the jury may not vote for their own students…”

    However, there seem to be some students of jury members competing. At least one has made it to the finals.

    This does not look good.

  • Violinist or any human being says:

    Mirabelle Kajenjeri played Tchaikovsky concerto and piano concerto at the same year , I think she is a genius and she is super cool that does not need to see any comments here , but I congratulate your effort to write all those comments -S.B.

  • If anyone still does not see how unfair the jury selection has become, I hope they are watching the finalist performances this week.

    Of the five I have heard so far, I was only impressed by Keigo Mukawa. He played an extremely interesting semifinal round and a very competent Prokofiev 2nd concerto. But I didn’t like the Mozart concerto so much (left hand too loud many times; somewhat too uniform 16th-note phrasing), and I still have no idea how he plays standard romantic works (the Rachmaninoff Corelli Variations can hardly be called “main stream”, although they were very well played). But he showed great musical poise and a large variety of tonal color in the Rameau “Gavotte et six doubles”.

    The other four very simply should not have advanced to the finals. Mirabelle Kajenjeri, Aidan Mikdad, and Su Yeon Kim easily play circles around these candidates, from both a musical and technical standpoint. I get the impression that some of these candidates never actually played together with an orchestra before.

    I am looking forward to Jonathan Fournel’s Brahms 2nd concerto tomorrow.

    All just IMHO, of course.

  • “Aimez-vous Brahms?”

    If not, you should listen to Jonathan Fournel’s performance of the 2nd concerto from Saturday night — I think you will certainly love Brahms after this extraordinary performance! And if you already adore Brahms, like most people, you will experience a unique artistic sense of fulfillment.

    For once, we hear a mature musician who does not rush every four bars, plays with passion and inspiration, and who is not ashamed to accompany the orchestra when necessary and let the other musicians breathe — of course, this is very important for this work. The excellent ensemble playing was clearly evident for once (it’s really a very good orchestra, especially the first-chair players). And he doesn’t leave out any notes in order to simplify matters.

    Any reservations I might have had about his playing in earlier rounds were completely blown away by this finale. I also liked his Mozart concerto very much. If he wins 1st prize, it will be worthy of this auspicious event.