On the fourth day of the Eighth Tchaikovsky Competition, Leslie Spotz performed on the stage of the Great Hall at the Moscow Conservatory.

Outside, flags of 33 countries were flapping around the statue of the great Russian composer, as Spotz, a piano teacher at Swarthmore College, sat down at the conservatory's Hamburg Steinway in her yellow blouse, brown skirt and pearls.

Spotz's mother, Ellen Bunyan of Takoma Park, was in the audience. So was Leslie's Moscow roommate Alison Brewster, another of the 35 American pianists here to compete for the coveted Tchaikovsky prize.

Spotz put two years into preparing for her half-hour on stage, the last five days in Moscow, where she practiced four hours daily, slept to overcome jet lag and launched herself in search of a restaurant willing and able to serve her.

Given the curtness of Russian waitresses and the labyrinthine mysteries of the vast Rossiya Hotel where the contestants are staying, this last has not been easy. Still, when it was over, Spotz was pleased. "I've crossed a lot of hurdles just to get here," she said.

Whether she made the cut and advanced to the semifinals, she said, was almost incidental.


Sunday, as she sat on the steps of the conservatory going over the performance with her mother and Brewster, Spotz's hands were shaking.

"On the third page into the Chopin e'tude, I tensed up. And at the beginning of the Liszt, I tensed. But there was only one place where I missed half a run," she said.

She was pleased with her Bach -- "the best I have ever played" -- and on the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, she figured, if the judges found fault, it would be with her interpretation. And that, she said, would never change.

"I actually was smiling in the Beethoven," she said to her mother. "Didn't you see me?"

Today she found herself not among the 25 to 30 contestants selected for the semifinals from among the 111 pianists entered here.

With the preliminary round almost half over, only a handful of Americans are in the running. The semifinalists will be announced June 21.

Spotz and the others had not been warned that they would be told the day after their performance if they had been eliminated. Those who are, are then given 24 hours to move out of the hotel, or stay and pick up the bill themselves. Besides providing a return ticket home, the Tchaikovsky competition meets a contestant's expenses in Moscow, but only until the cutoff.

Spotz decided to stay a few more days to keep her mother company, her disappointment mixed with relief. "I did my best and I feel good about it," she said.

The size of the American group this year is testament to the draw of the Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most prestigious of international competitions -- not just for piano, but for violin, vocalists and cellists.

Pianist Van Cliburn's success following his win in the inaugural competition in 1958 has never been matched, but it still hangs above the competition like a beckoning star.

But for Americans, who have an easier time entering the competition than their Soviet counterparts, winning is only part of the game: The rest has to do with getting ahead -- or just surviving -- in the music business.

Leslie Spotz is not an unusual case. Now 29, she will have no other chance to compete in the Tchaikovsky, which limits competitors to those between 16 and 30. It is her first effort: Four years ago, at the last competition, she was not ready.

She began the process two years ago with a letter to the organizers. It was nine months before she got the brochure listing the requirements for entry.

Given the competition's prestige, entrance requirements for foreigners are surprisingly fluid. While Soviets must go through eliminating rounds, Americans simply write letters, with recommendations from a "well-known musician."

Spotz made the Jan. 1 deadline and for the past six months she practiced six hours a day on top of a daily teaching schedule.

Competing in the Tchaikovsky, she said, was "a childhood dream."

"I remember when I was 5 or 6. People were talking about Van Cliburn. I remember thinking, 'Wow, that would be great! To go off to Russia and play Tchaikovsky!' " she said.

Spotz began playing the piano at 4 1/2, astounding her teacher by reading notes at her second lesson. Both parents were amateur violinists and her mother, a chemistry professor at the University of the District of Columbia, had a piano in the house in hopes one of her three children would become a musician.

Spotz won her first competition at 8, and then "won everything until I was 14," she recalled. "It was really weird when I lost my first competition. Then I knew this was the big leagues."

With a part-time teaching job at Swarthmore, private lessons, about a dozen concerts a years and a job directing the choir at Philadelphia's Asbury Methodist Church, Spotz says, she earns about $7,000 a year.

The difficulties of living on such earnings are another major reason for coming to Moscow.

"If you win this, you have concerts for two years," she said. "Winning other competitions will get you lots of things but not necessarily the momentum you get here."