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2002 Tchaikovsky Competition Tries to Regain Prestige - 2002-06-23

The Tchaikovsky Competition is Russia's most prestigious musical contest and also its most controversial. Every four years, international contestants flock to Moscow hoping to follow in the footsteps of earlier winners, such as Russian Vladimir Ashkenazy or American pianist Van Cliburn.

But in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the competition's reputation declined, amid allegations of low standards, corruption and jury-rigging. This year, the Tchaikovsky Competition is trying to regain its former prominence by including international performers at the top of their fields among the judges.

Moscow's midsummer storms compete with 190 musicians from all over the world, tuning up their instruments, and rehearsing for the 12th international Tchaikovsky competition. The competition covers piano, violin and cello, with an emphasis on the works of Russia's romantic composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev.

Violinist Emil Chudovsky plays Prokofiev in the second round. He has competed in the Tchaikovsky competition before. An American, born in Russia, Chudovsky says he was fated by family and by history to be a musician.

Chudovsky: "My mother is a concert violinist and my father is an opera conductor, who died when I was one-and-a-half. It was his death-bed wish that I be trained as a musician."
Irris Makler: Are you fulfilling that?
Chudovsky: "Never, never fulfill one's parents expectations, or one's own."

This fantasy by Ravel is not a compulsory piece. Emil Chudovsky has chosen to play it. However, he says, he wasn't fully satisfied with his performance. He never is, especially at competitions which he finds nerve-wracking.

"It's unbelievably nerve-wracking. I've not been nervous before a recital for many years now. I've been nervous before concerts with an orchestra, sometimes," he said. "But there is nothing to match this, because it's a competition, and you're being judged, and there's something to compare you against"

And there is plenty to compare against; the judges confirm that the standard here this year is very high. John O'Connor is a renowned Irish concert pianist. He is one of a number of high-ranking international performers who is on the jury at this competition. "I've never been on a jury here before, but I'd heard about this standard, especially now in the second round," he said. "When they get to the big romantic pieces, you can hear them really playing their heart out and it's fascinating."

Russia is desperate to halt the decline in the standing of its most prestigious competition, and the controversy that has dogged the Tchaikovsky for the past 10 years. There is a perception that it has a strong bias, both in choice of contestants and in prize-giving, towards musicians from the former Soviet Union.

This probably reached it's low point in 1998 when the clear favorite for first prize, England's Freddy Kempf, found himself relegated to third place, behind two pupils of a jury member, who was also a professor at the Moscow conservatory. At the 1994 competition, none of the juries for piano, violin or cello could find an entrant worthy of the first prize.

John O'Connor believes that this is a pivotal year for the Tchaikovsky. "It has had a fantastic reputation up to the 1990's, then it dipped violently," he said. "We heard lots of stories of manipulation of jury, that the orchestra in final not good enough to accompany them. But, I think that, if we find a fantastic winner, it will restore the reputation of the competition."

Russian Andrei Shibko plays a sonata by Liszt. Like all the competitors, he is striving for the mixture of technique, musical feeling and star quality that will set the winner apart. This year, of the 55 pianists competing, 41 are Russian, or have trained with Russian teachers.

Despite all the politics and the backstage nerves, some performances reach dizzying heights. When Chinese pianist Zhin Zhu plays, the audience goes wild.

It was wonderful, miraculous, especially the Prokofiev, says Marina, a Russian music teacher attending the competition. She says it is so rewarding to hear Prokofiev played so well, so soulfully, by a Chinese pianist. "The standard this year is high, very high. I worry how the jury will be able to decide."

By the third round, there are only eight finalists in each instrument. They hope that on the last night, everything will coalesce, talent, training and that little bit of magic that will push them just ahead of the other contestants.

The winners of the Tchaikovsky competition will be announced Sunday June 23.