Art And Business Of International Piano Competitions

October 14, 1990|By DAVID ZINMAN

The Ivory Trade.

Joseph Horowitz.

Summit.

289 pages. $21.95. "The Ivory Trade" is not about cruel and unscruplous white hunters inthe sordid business of supplying elephant tusks to the world's ivory merchants.

The ivory trade that Joseph Horowitz -- a former New York Times music critic and author of the much-talked about "Understanding Toscanini" -- compellingly describes can be divined from the dust-jacket photograph, a chiaroscuro view of a piano keyboard on which a pianist's tense hands grip the keys with a tarantulalike tenacity: the sometimes glorious, sometimes depressing and peril-fraught business of international piano competitions.

Because of the vast numbers of pianists -- thousands are graduated each year from conservatories and colleges in this country alone -- piano competitions are accepted by the movers and shakers of the music industry as the best way of separating the wheat from the chaff, of discovering and -- much more important -- promoting new and exciting talents.

But I have yet to meet a winner, loser or judge of a major competition who has had anything really good to say about them. When pressed, most of them will say that they are a "necessary evil." As Mr. Horowitz relates in the book's pithy introduction:

"Competition-bashing is such an easy sport that it becomes hard to stop. Harder still is the effort to understand. Good or bad, right or wrong, they [the competitions] are here. They are less a cause than a symptom -- of what? Study them and you can find out how careers in performance are made. How classical music is perceived and marketed. How it interfaces with commerce, with the media, with the culture at large."

Mr. Horowitz begins with a coolly perceptive examination of the Van Cliburn phenomenon, one of the most remarkable fairy tales of our times. Mr. Cliburn's unexpected victory at the 1958 Tchaikovsky piano competition -- which took place in Moscow at the very height of the Cold War -- was received here with a lunatic frenzy comparable only to our later celebrations of landing men on the moon.

Mr. Cliburn was a legend at the age of 23, but Mr. Horowitz chronicles how, after the initial "shock" of his victory wore off, critics and audiences in America lacked confidence that he was everything he seemed. Mr. Cliburn's very popularity appeared to taint his reputation among musical highbrows. But if, by the time he stopped giving concerts in 1978, his musical reputation had reached its nadir, the music competition that bore his name was a flourishing endeavor.

There are chapters on the history of Fort Worth, Texas, before the advent of the competition; on the influence of the strong-willed, Texas-maverick matrons behind the competition; and on the history of music competitions from the times of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven until the present. But the heart of the book is five engrossing chapters called "Some Winners and Losers." Steven de Groote, Andre-Michel Schub and Jose Feghali (winners), and Alexander Toradze, Jeffery Kahane and William Wolfram (non-winners) are interviewed about their Cliburn experiences.

Mr. Horowitz sketches the pianists' background and character, explores their musical strengths and weaknesses, views the competition process through their experiences and shows how the competition affected (or did not affect) their careers. One is struck by the pianists' uncanny similarity to victorious or defeated Olympic athletes. If they are musicians, they are also gladiators.

Take William Wolfram: ". . . as a learning experience, competitions, for me, would be worth five concerts. I respond best when there's fear and pressure."

Better yet is this sanguinary description by Andre-Michel Schub, 1981's Gold Medal winner: ". . . a war -- it was the Battle of Gettysburg, and by the end the wounds and sickness were everywhere. It's the most awful period of your life, but you learn how tough you are."

Mr. Horowitz then takes us on an insider's journey through the preparations, preliminary rounds, semifinal and climactic final round. Here the book becomes a real page-turner, with the tense excitement and fascination of a mystery novel.

After reflections on the good, bad and the ugly of the competition industry, and suggestions about how it could be changed to better musical life, Mr. Horowitz ends with a description of what he calls our present point of musical evolution, the wasteland he calls "post-classical":

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