Competitions Enthrall, Despite Mixed Reviews

November 26, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

For music aficionados, no sword is as double-edged as the international performance competitions that occur with increasing frequency these days.

The Van Cliburn Piano Competition, the Tchaikovsky, the Rubinstein, the Chopin -- everyone bemoans them. Dehumanizing marathons that reward stamina, not artistry, critics say. The technically assured, "play-it-safe" types win, while the genuine individualist losesout because stodgy old judges are offended by truly original playing.

Yet few things titillate the music world more than a dazzling pianistic Olympiad, which is exactly what events like the Cliburn and the Tchaikovsky have become. For the Cliburn, the hottest young pianists the globe has to offer descend on Fort Worth, Texas, for two weeks every four years to put their talent on the line for money, concerts,notoriety and, just maybe, connections with a booking agent.

At the Tchaikovsky Competition, an international field of contestants comes to the Moscow Conservatory where, with great trepidation, they play Rachmaninov, Mussorgsky, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky in the very hall where those Russian deities of the keyboard performed.

These are glamorous, engrossing affairs that capture the public's imagination asfew other musical happenings can.

A bit of this competitive excitement came to Annapolis last Sunday afternoon.

Admittedly, the sixcontestants were Anne Arundel County teen-agers, not the latest cropof international Wunderkinder.

The setting was a small music store on West Street, not the Bolshoizalle of the Moscow Conservatory.

The audience consisted of four judges poring over the score of Kabalevsky's third Piano Concerto, not hundreds of Texans or Muscovites rooting heartily for their favorites.

But in the nervous energy thatpermeated Ramsey's Music Store, in the rapt concentration etched on the young faces and in the prodigious finger work that occasionally emerged from these twelve hands, it was impossible not to feel that rush of artistic adrenalin that makes these competitions so irresistible.

"Competition is part of a musician's life -- period," said Karen Deal, conductor of the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra. The CYSO sponsored this contest, an event the orchestra management hopes will become an annual occurrence. "All musicians must audition at some point; all must at some point be rated against their peers to determine who sits where," Deal said. "It's a fact of musical life."

Deal,who will be conducting the competition's three winners in the Kabalevsky concerto with the CYSO on Jan. 25 at Maryland Hall, knows whereof she speaks. She survived one of music's most merciless winnowing processes to become a member of the Tanglewood Conductor's Seminar.

In their deliberations, Douglas Allanbrook of St. John's College, Carol Prochazka of the Peabody's Preparatory Division, and conductor Steve Gilmer discussed the contestants in the style of music jurists everywhere, frequently consulting with Linda Lessey, who ably accompanied the contestants.

"Has she ever done a competition before?" askedone. "She seems quite coachable."

"There was no second-guessing in the choice of tempo," said another. "The pacing was very secure."

"Clearly, there's talent there, but it seemed to get carried away."

In the end, 18-year-old Katherine Greenfield, a senior at Annapolis High, was selected to play the first movement of the Kabalevsky atthe January concert.

Tiffany Haughn of Arundel High was awarded the second movement. Also an accomplished ballerina, Tiffany was pleased with the outcome. "This is the biggest thing I've ever done on piano," she said. "And it's going to take a lot to get ready. No more free Thursdays, but it'll be worth it!"

Bee Elvy, another Annapolis High senior, impressed the judges with his rhythmic assurance in the jaunty third movement. "If you're going to be the soloist," he said confidently, "you have the whole orchestra behind you. You must have that rhythmic drive."

Perhaps these youngsters are getting a sense of what Ferrucio Busoni meant when he wrote: "Take it for granted from the beginning that everything is possible on the piano, even when it seems impossible to you, or really is so."

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