Discord in Russian music Critical dissension and economic ills rage, but have not yet dimmed the brilliance of the country's artists.

July 19, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It wasn't what I heard at the Tchaikovsky Competition this summer in Moscow that made me worry about musical standards in Russia. It is what I smelled.

Imagine sitting in the Meyerhoff to listen to the world's best young pianists and the entire hall smelling as the bathrooms used to at Memorial Stadium on a sultry August afternoon.

The Tchaikovsky - which includes contests in piano, violin, cello and voice - is held every four years to honor Russia's greatest composer. For pianists, particularly, it is the world's most prestigious contest.

But Russia is beset by the precipitous fall of the ruble, by miners' strikes now several months' long and by the possibility that some of its nuclear weapons may turn up on the black market. Music does not occupy a high place on the agenda of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. And the plumbing systems of Moscow's major concert halls, which date back to the Stalin era, were clearly not equipped to accommodate packed audiences that cheered their favorites day after day for more than three weeks last month.

There is still extraordinary enthusiasm for classical music in this decaying country, where clocks are often wrong and telephone conversations are frequently terminated by inexplicable buzzing. Such enthusiasm probably explains why - when nothing else works - Russian music training continues to be perhaps the world's best. The final rounds of each contest of the Tchaikovsky were dominated by Russians; except for a Japanese coloratura soprano who took first place in the women's vocal contest, Russians won every first prize.

Russia's domination of the piano competition was almost total and included first-prize winner Denis Matsuev among six of the eight finalists. It is the piano contest that is the most celebrated and most closely watched of international music competitions. American Van Cliburn was rocketed to fame in 1958 by victory in the first competition, and the Tchaikovsky has served almost equally to launch Russians such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mikhail Pletneyev, as well as the occasional American (Misha Dichter) and even an Irishman (Barry Douglas).

But the distrust, dissension and economic failures troubling the rest of Russian society were apparent even in this fabled piano contest. In fact, the results of the piano competition created controversy, which raged among the audiences and made newspaper headlines.

A letter displayed on a bulletin board in the Moscow Conservatory, where most of the competition took place, was much discussed by audiences on the four evenings in which each of the eight finalists had to perform two concertos. While the letter approved of the audience favorite, 21-year-old Englishman Freddy Kempf, it referred to the other finalists as the "soul-dead seven."

Noting that four of the eight finalists were students of Sergei Dorensky, one of five Russians on the 14-member jury, the writer satirically suggested changing the name of the competition from Tchaikovsky to Dorensky.

In Izvestia, columnist Svetlana Antonova asserted the piano competition "had completely lost its international prestige and was being ignored by the rest of the world."

She blamed this loss of prestige partly on the failure of the Tchaikovsky Competition to pay its annual dues of $1,200 to the International Federation of Music Competitions and its subsequent loss of accreditation. Antonova also reminded readers of the "scandalous" 1994 competition, in which no first prizes at all were awarded in piano, violin and cello.

"The rest of the world still has not forgotten that the purpose of the competition is ideological - to show that Russians are still the best musicians in the world," Antonova claimed.

"What young professional musician," she continued, "would want to come to a competition in which the conditions were awful, in which the results might be rigged and in which no first prize might be offered?"

An editorial in the Commercial Observer criticized a selection process that failed to send jurors abroad to audition contestants or to videotape applicants - a common practice at other international competitions. The consequence of this failure, the Commercial Observer insisted, were "foreign competitors who could be called 'musical tourists' instead of musicians and whose performances could be compared to those of dancers in galoshes."

Further controversy erupted during the second round when Alexei Sultanov, the somewhat eccentric but unfailingly exciting first-prize winner of 1989's prestigious Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, failed to make the finals. Sultanov's elimination was blamed on Dorensky, who - according to sources on the jury - said the popular pianist was guilty of "bad taste, gimmickry, foppishness and pandering to the public."

The public airing of such criticism obviously affected Dorensky, who confessed to an American reporter that "everybody in Moscow hates me."

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