You're Damned If You Do ... at the Gong Show of Classical Music, Nobody Really Wins

By Chang, Yahlin | Newsweek, June 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

You're Damned If You Do ... at the Gong Show of Classical Music, Nobody Really Wins


Chang, Yahlin, Newsweek


At the Gong Show of classical music, nobody really wins

THE BLACK-TIE OPENING GALA FOR the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition on May 22 had an unwelcome disturbance. Thirty-five high-society Ft. Worth, Texas, couples were graciously thanked for accommodating the competitors--and the borrowed Steinway grands--in their golf-course-side mansions. Cliburn himself (who gallivants around in a helicopter emblazoned VAN CLIBURN) danced with Mercedes Bass, and Jose Feghali, the Cliburn's 1985 winner, spoke on "the love for life, the love for others, the love for music." Then 1989 gold medalist Alexei Sultanov lurched toward the mike. "There's a fourth thing" he growled. "To hate people who don't like it." The audience laughed uneasily. "There is such a thing as a supreme being," Sultanov went on. "That's Van Gliburn, Horowitz and me." What was Sultanov's problem? "I'm pissed off," he told NEWSWEEK. "It's all a big lie."

It's certainly big. The winner of the Cliburn, to be announced on June 8, will get $20,000 in cash, $10,000 worth of concert attire, two seasons of management and tours, and a Carnegie Hall recital. Some say Sultanov--who won at 19 after playing so hard he broke a piano string--was too young to handle the pressure. Or was it the letdown? Times have changed since the young Cliburn got a ticker-tape parade for winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in cold-war-era Moscow. Of the nine Cliburn winners, dating from 1962, only Radu Lupu has become a name pianist. "Where are they?" asks 1969 gold medalist Cristina Ortiz. "You don't hear of them."

The biggest draw in classical music today happens to be a pianist--the disturbed, much panned Australian David Helfgott, whose supposedly uplifting life story was told in the film "Shine." But the odds are against a merely brilliant pianist making a concert career. Besides suffering from perennially dwindling audiences and record sales, the field has now become overrun with pianists of ever-higher caliber--especially those from Asia and Russia. (Of the four Americans in the year's Cliburn--three of them Asian-American--only Jon Nakamatsu made the semifinals.) The best young pianists in the world can't get a break.

This year's 35 contestants, aged 19 to 30, are better than ever before. There are no obvious standouts or losers--just one exceptional pianist after another trotting out to lay bare their souls for judgment. …

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You're Damned If You Do ... at the Gong Show of Classical Music, Nobody Really Wins
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