Among the piano soloists listed for this summer's concerts at the Hollywood Bowl are Garrick Ohlsson, who in 1970 won the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw; Jon Nakamatsu, who won last year's Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth; Natalia Troull, silver medalist at the 1986 Tchaikovsky in Moscow, gold at the 1993 Monte Carlo Piano Masters; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, gold at Young Concert Artists in New York in 1981 (after several silvers). The lineup of violinists includes Gidon Kremer (gold at Tchaikovsky/Moscow, 1970) and Cho-Liang Lin (gold at Queen Sofia in Madrid, 1977).
This just skims the surface of the roster. It is hardly news anymore that admission to the inner circle of world-class concert soloists these days is best buyable with a solid piece of gold or the equivalent 30 pieces of silver. The exceptions are few: The late Sviatoslav Richter was one; the current phenomenon Yevgeni Kissin is another. Sometimes, of course, a good, solid scandale will serve almost as well as – perhaps even better than – a contest win. Witness, for example, the much-touted Ivo Pogorelich incident. At the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1980, the flamboyant Pogorelich was the favorite of the crowd – and of at least one outspoken juror, Martha Argerich – by several miles; when the jury refused to advance Pogorelich, Argerich resigned in a well-publicized protest. (Moral: Pogorelich moved on to instant celebrity and a big recording contract, but can anyone name the winner of that year's competition? Try Dang Thai Son of Vietnam, whom you can hear, along with 14 other pianists, in a five-disc Chopin miscellany on the cheapo LaserLight label and, so far as I know, nowhere else.)
Last month I succumbed to the closet hedonist in me and accepted an invitation to look in at the aforementioned Piano Masters Competition in Monte Carlo, the seventh since the event was founded in 1989 by the charming and wily Jean-Marie Fournier, who also heads the venerable Salle Gaveau in Paris. This year's running was somewhat beset by the strike at Air France; only eight of the scheduled 12 contestants were able to get to Monaco. I also consented, with some reluctance, to serve as a judge, but that ended up as no problem, since the final choice was unanimous. Dang Thai Son, by the way, was one of the jurors.
One distinction at Monte Carlo was that all contestants had to have been winners previously somewhere else, hence the “Masters.” Another was the admirable decision to up the maximum age from the customary 30 to the more sensible 40. Some of the eight pianists I heard – all in their early or middle 30s – had obviously spent a fair amount of time on the competition circuit. One semifinalist, the German-Russian Igor Kamenz, 33, had since 1982 carried off seven firsts and four seconds in competitions all over Europe; a finalist, Japan's 30-year-old Yasuko Toba, had placed high in seven. Aside from the enlightened attitude toward age, the requirements at Monte Carlo were pretty much the normal competitionese: a first-round repertory culled from Haydn or Mozart (“without repeats,” the rules rudely stipulated), Chopin and Liszt; more Liszt, Rachmaninov and a big Romantic sonata in the second round; more of same plus Beethoven and Debussy in the semifinals; a concerto (the “Emperor,” Brahms, Rach 2 but not – hurrah! – 3, Tchaikovsky) with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic for the final. Since competition programs are not planned with any consideration of kindness toward the judges, we ended up heavily immersed in the Liszt Piano Sonata and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. A powerhouse 32-year-old Georgian woman named Mzia Simonishvili, truly handsome (rather than, for a welcome change, merely cute), was everybody's obvious choice to win the honors and the $30,000 cash prize.
To what end? I spent some time renewing an old friendship with Paul Badura-Skoda, who served as jury president; now 70, he has mellowed from everybody's favorite Viennese dimpled darling in the early days of the LP – those Westminsters with their echoey, bloated but sexy sound. Dimples and all, he's had a good life as a thinking pianist, an authority on classical-era pianos and Mozart performance – and with a secret yen nevertheless, he confessed with a twinkle, to take on Mussorgsky's finger-bustin' Pictures at an Exhibition. “I never won a competition,” he recalled, “because I never had to. I didn't; Alfred Brendel didn't; Jorg Demus – yes, he did, once. What I did in my early 20s, instead, was to play in small halls, private homes, chamber music, anyplace where I could make my name recognized by patrons and concert managers. It was easy then; the American record companies were all over Vienna, and we were giving them repertory that nobody had ever heard before: Schubert's four-hand music, for example.
“You can't do that now. Patrons will pay $2 million for a van Gogh, but not to support an unknown young musician. And so we have competitions. Yes, there are too many of them. And that means, of course, that the winner of a competition this summer will have to act fast, before the winner of next summer's competition comes along. The best are the small competitions that are more regional. If you win the Geza Anda in Zurich, for example, you have a pretty good chance of getting engagements in Switzerland; if you win the Busoni in Bolzano, you might get to play in Italy. I am more worried about the international competitions, like the Cliburn; there is something wrong with their method of judgments, compared with the realities of music today.
“One advantage with competitions,” Badura-Skoda continued, “is that we can guarantee these young contestants the fairest judgment they may ever get in their entire careers. The pianists we've heard this week – they've had their memory lapses, their fingering problems. My way of listening is to try to find a conception, a projection of an attitude toward the music; the technique can always be dealt with. Take Horowitz. At the end he was playing terribly. But he sat there at the piano, and you knew that there was some relationship going on between him and the music. That's what I want to find in a new musician, to learn whether that musician is meant to remain.”
And this week's Monte Carlo master, Mzia Simonishvili, whose account of the Tchaikovsky Concerto I found dazzling and even somewhat joyous? “Yes,” said Badura-Skoda, “I think she will remain.”