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‘More like a festival’: How classical competitions are reinventing themselves

In this photo provided by the Van Cliburn Foundation, Texas pianist Van Cliburn performs to a packed audience in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in Moscow, Russia, in April 1958 during the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, which he won. (Courtesy of Van Cliburn Foundation/Associated Press)
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The artist takes the stage an unknown, and leaves it as a star. It’s the most popular and enduring myth in classical music. And it’s a dream that music competitions dangle tantalizingly before every applicant and every member of the audience. In 1958, the gangly young Texan Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky competition and was welcomed home with a ticker-tape parade. The story imprinted itself on the minds of the nation that music competitions were a ticket to stardom — even though Cliburn never quite matched that experience, and no competition victory has ever been quite so important again.

Competitions can’t guarantee stardom. And yet, at a time when the classical music business is struggling to reinvent itself in a changing world, the field seems to cling to its competitions more tightly than ever. Some have closed — such as the William Kapell Competition at the University of Maryland, discontinued in 2013 after more than 40 years — but many more have sprung up. The Alink-Argerich Foundation, which monitors the spread of competitions around the world, estimates that today there are more than 800 competitions for piano alone.

So competitions, like the rest of the business, are redefining themselves. Rather than trying to produce the superstars of tomorrow, they’re increasingly focusing on the present: an end in themselves. Indeed, the line between the competition and other classical music organizations is increasingly blurred. “We try to make it more of a festival than a competition,” Idith Zvi, the artistic director of the Arthur Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv, told an interviewer in 2017. Competitions now function as presenters, putting on concerts year-round; competitions form management arms to steer their winners’ careers; competitions focus on fundraising and audience development. And competitions bill themselves less as a gateway than as an essential part of a musician’s training. This is arguably an easier role, and it certainly defends against the perennial charge that competitions fail to find exciting new talent.

“If your goal is to identify the world’s next great pianist, well, we all know where the concert world is these days,” says Joel Harrison, president and chief executive of the American Pianists Association, which holds quadrennial jazz and classical competitions. “There are indeed fewer opportunities.” But, he continues, “is your purpose to encourage high standards, goal setting, and [to] reward excellence? Then let’s have a competition on every street corner.”

In short, the traditional model of the music competition is dead. Long live the competition.

Alternative models

If you want to get people to buy tickets to a classical concert these days, marketing wisdom goes, you need to bill the concert as a big event. In this regard, competitions start with a built-in edge. They are big events. They happen once a year at most, and they offer the excitement of sports, down to the crowning of a winner or winners at the end. Are people interested? Look, they say, at “American Idol” — although reality TV competitions are themselves waning in popularity.

Certainly classical competitions have to market themselves — it’s too crowded a field not to. And while the focus is on the competitors, it is also essential to have an audience. “It’s useless,” says Jacques Marquis, president and chief executive of the quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition, “if you play to an empty hall.”

The Cliburn is Van Cliburn’s most lasting legacy, held by many to be the most important competition in the United States. Under Marquis, who took over in 2012, it’s working to cement its status as a major arts organization. Of its annual operating budget of about $7 million, Marquis says, only half goes to the actual competition. The rest goes to concerts, outreach and promotion — including live broadcast of its finals to movie theaters around the world. “We’re co-producing something like 250 concerts a year,” Marquis says. (The 2017 winner, Yekwon Sunwoo, is giving a recital for Washington Performing Arts on Oct. 24.)

Harrison’s APA competition shares features with presenting organizations, as well. Each competition takes place over most of a concert season, bringing the five finalists individually to Indianapolis for trials in different areas — a recital; a concerto with chamber orchestra; a three-day residency at a local high school — before convening them as a group for an intense week of finals. For the audience, it’s a full season of a range of different kinds of music.

APA winners also get two years of management — a feature offered by more and more competitions, in part to counter the problem of competitions churning out winners and then leaving them to fend for themselves with the rest of their careers. This is not just altruistic: Competitions are still measured, to a certain degree, by the success of their winners. But some canny organizations have managed to change the narrative, such as Young Concert Artists and Concert Artists Guild, two management organizations that hold annual competitions for young musicians and represent the winners for a fixed term at the end. Instead of being seen primarily as cutthroat competitions, both organizations are lauded for their support of young artists.

Meanwhile, regular presenting organizations have long used competitions as a way to develop and further their own missions. The Metropolitan Opera’s national council auditions have for decades helped maintain grass-roots support around the country, with 42 district and 12 regional chapters. On the other end of the scale, the small Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, a conductorless ensemble in Los Angeles, started a competition for performers as a way to spark interesting programming: It’s open to anyone, anywhere, on any instrument, playing a piece of their choice written for soloist and orchestra. “We wanted to open it up to people we didn’t know,” says Benjamin Mitchell, Kaleidoscope’s president. For their first competition this year, they got nearly 2,000 video applications from 88 countries. Six finalists traveled to Los Angeles for the final round, and the three winners all received a cash prize of $5,000 and will perform with the orchestra this season. The first, on Oct. 27, is Ekaterina Skliar, who will play a concerto by Joseph Tamarin written for the domra, a Russian folk instrument — an instrument Mitchell says he’d never heard of before the competition. “She just knocked our socks off,” Mitchell says.

The artist as competitor

Most competitions have an iffy track record when it comes to creating big names. Fifty years ago, there were fewer competitions, and a win such as Cliburn’s, or Leon Fleisher’s in the 1952 Queen Elisabeth Competition, could create a star. People blame the proliferation of competitions for the change in their status, as well as the shortcomings of juries: Teachers award prizes to their students, and the necessity for consensus means that sometimes the most exciting and divisive talents are left by the wayside.

The real problem, though, is that there just aren’t as many stars. In 2011, industry insiders told me that where once there were dozens of artists who could sell out a house, the number was down to five: Joshua Bell, Lang Lang, Renée Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Today, not even all of these illustrious names guarantee a full theater. Competitions do still crown stars, such as the pianist Daniil Trifonov, who won both the Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky competitions in 2011. But even Trifonov, revered though he is within the field, doesn’t have the same cachet with the general public.

If winning a competition is no longer a great career boost, losing one — when so many also-rans have historically gone on to bigger careers than the winners — is no longer a stigma. For many performers, therefore, entering competitions has become just another part of the job: something that keeps you performing, keeps you focused, keeps you in the public eye and might just get you heard by the right person — whether or not you win.

The cellist David Requiro is a competition veteran: He won first prize in the Washington International Competition in 2006 and the prestigious Naumburg Competition in 2008. He has a flourishing career as a working musician, including membership in one of the prestigious performing ensembles of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Bowers program. “When I auditioned for the Bowers program,” Requiro says, “it was important that I had some of these prizes on my résumé.”

But the actual benefits of competing were less tangible, and more lasting.

“It reinforced training like an Olympic athlete,” he says. “You map out these goals months beforehand.” And “in the end, it was the kind of preparation and experience I had training for something for months that helped me” when it came to actual auditions, actual performance.

Losing the focus on winning would take away what appears to be a competition’s whole point. And for people who aren’t natural competitors, competitions can become yet another obstacle to a successful career. And yet, the artists who do well in them accept that they have a role beyond simply crowning a victor and launching him or her on a fixed trajectory.

“I felt it paid off,” Requiro says, “regardless of the result.”