By Brian Wise
Questions about fairness and transparency in music competitions have been in the air since the days when a young Van Cliburn was prowling concert stages, fresh off his Tchaikovsky Competition win. In 1961, New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, just back from a contest in Bucharest, wrote about the phenomenon of “jurymen faced with their own pupils.”
“Customarily,” he explained, “the interested party abstains from voting. But such is not always the case, and in any event, it would be more than human if the jurymen did not attempt to throw some weight toward the cause of his pupil.”
Nearly 60 years later, prominent competitions have taken various steps to tackle nepotism, murky balloting procedures, and jurors who tactically vote for each other’s students. Yet doubts can linger: A candidate may suspect some kind of foul play, but is never exactly sure, so he or she must either ignore it or accept it.
“If one is averse to politics or unfairness then they shouldn’t involve themselves in music competitions,” says violinist Tessa Lark, at 29, a comparative veteran of the competition circuit. “There’s just no way to do it perfectly.”
As second-prize winner at the 2014 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Lark says that competitions were “absolutely crucial” in preparing her for a career as a soloist. Still, she avoided some events after seeing the jury lineup. “I thought, ‘I don’t stand much of a chance if that person is there, because they have this reputation.’”
Then there is this predicament: If students of jury members win at a competition, they may face doubts about whether they won in their own right—even if they did. And audiences are quick to suspect malfeasance.
Consider the Singapore International Violin Competition (SIVC), which attracted scrutiny in 2018 when five of its top six prizes were awarded to current or former students of jury members. First prize, valued at $50,000, went to Sergei Dogadin, a Russian violinist who is also a student of jury member Boris Kuschnir, according to the teacher’s website (Dogadin previously won first prize at the 2015 Joseph Joachim Competition in Hannover, Germany, which Kuschnir also adjudicated). There were 31 competitors from 11 countries in Singapore.
A list of scoring rules and procedures, tucked into audience programs, states that jurors must declare any ties to candidates beforehand. When a connection is brought to light, that juror abstains from voting for that candidate, and an average vote is calculated based on the marks of the other jurors.
Singapore Competition spokesperson Mindy Coppin said in an e-mail that after the teacher-student links were questioned by the website Slipped Disc, “the SIVC organizers had looked seriously into the process and remain confident about the integrity of the process.” Thus, after review, the competition stands by its jury’s decisions as to the top performers in Singapore, but going forward, how can a competition avoid this kind of controversy to begin with?
Defining a Teacher
“Yes, it looks bad,” says Lisa McCormick, a professor of cultural sociology at the University of Edinburgh, when asked about the frequency of jurors’ students winning contests. “Nobody’s going to argue that it doesn’t look bad. Of course, everybody’s left wondering: ‘What happened? Was there some kind of undue influence?’”
McCormick, who is author of the 2015 book Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music, says that one must also flip the question around. “If we just make any teacher ineligible, as many competitions are starting to do, who’s going to judge them and is everyone going to accept that? Of course, everybody wants performing professionals. Everybody thinks of that as the ideal.” However, she adds, “They’re the most difficult to coordinate in terms of schedule.”
The Carl Nielsen International Competition this past March became the latest event to ban teachers from its violin jury. Voting rules on its website state that the first round takes place behind a screen, and that the jury is not given candidate biographies beforehand. The second and final rounds were live-streamed via Medici.tv. “Of course, it can never be 200 percent waterproof but this is what we aim to,” says Nielsen director Jacob Soelberg.
There were some hiccups along the way. While the nine-member violin jury was teacher-free (led by artistic advisor and violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider), the flute and clarinet sections were not, due to a scarcity of non-teaching performers available for those instruments. And while the combined percentages for each of the 14 violin semifinalists were posted online, plans to publish individual juror votes did not materialize. (Soelberg said that these would be released upon request.)
Competition juries were once frequently comprised of composers, critics, conductors, and celebrity soloists. McCormick writes that David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, and Emil Gilels all judged the Queen Elisabeth Competition in the 1950s. The jury for the Leventritt Competition in 1962 included Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, while the Busoni and Van Cliburn competitions included Schonberg of the Times.
The pendulum has swung back over time. But the definition of a teacher isn’t always clear: Does a single performance at a master class count as a teacher-student relationship? How about a few lessons at a summer festival?
Glen Kwok, executive director of the Indianapolis Violin Competition, says
the onus to disclose ties is partly on the candidates. “The students may not have listed jurors as a teacher,” he says. “But there are many competitors who seek out jury members and get lessons with them prior to competitions. You wouldn’t necessarily consider them your teacher but you’ve specifically spent time with them prior to a competition to go over your repertoire.”
Benjamin Woodroffe, secretary general of the World Federation of International Music Competitions (WFIMC), which represents 131 competitions, says he tends to define teachers as having a longstanding relationship. “It’s usually for at least a year,” he says. “A master-class session is difficult to quantify but we ask competitions for full disclosure between jurors and candidates in advance.”
At times, even competition administrators can be caught off guard. At the 10th annual Mirecourt International Violin Competition, in November 2018, one of the two first-prize winners, 22-year-old Ukrainian Yuliia Van, was a student of the jury chairman Krzysztof Wegrzyn at the Hannover Hochschule of Musik (the other winner was Roman Kholmatov, 24, who has no established links to Mirecourt jurors).
Marianne Piketty, the event’s artistic director and a Juilliard-trained violinist herself said she was unaware of the link at first. “I didn’t know too much about what was going on around Wegrzyn when he came to Mirecourt,” she says. Piketty says she discovered his ties to Van after the event had begun, but vote tallies showed that Wegrzyn did not vote for his students.
Wegrzyn underscored this point in an e-mail. “In not any moment of the Mirecourt Competition were the teachers allowed to vote for their students,” Wegrzyn says [his emphasis]. “In this particular case it means that I was allowed to vote only after my student was placed/given the prize.”
Piketty adds, “For me the competition was completely clean. It was hard to keep it clean. But I’m convinced the top three winners were all the best.”
Publishing Juror Scores
The WFMIC publishes a seven-page set of guidelines but it does not aim to be an industry watchdog, and expects each contest to make its own rules. On the question of publishing jury scores, Woodroffe says it’s a matter of local cultural values, with Nordic countries most favorable to the idea. “The more transparent the system is, the better,” he says. “But it would take every juror to be happy to operate in this system.”
Indeed, publishing votes may risk exposing jurors to angry attacks, says Kwok. “I strongly believe that jury members should feel extremely comfortable to vote however they want to vote, without the pressure of wondering what someone else is going to think,” he says. And a bad score posted online may damage the candidates’ reputation. “That would be completely demoralizing to that violinist.”
But David Stern, chairman of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, points out that musicians may have to deal with negative reviews in their careers. In Shanghai, jury scores are published once a candidate has been eliminated. At that stage, he or she meets with the jurors for feedback. “That’s my favorite part of the competition,” says Stern. “It’s sitting and having a chance to talk to each one of them and say, ‘try this,’ or ‘think about this.’ There are a lot of jury members and each one has an opinion.”
Stern has been outspoken about transparency, and says he wants to honor the spirit of his late father and the event’s namesake. Among other measures, he says he looks out for the highly demonstrative juror who tries to influence colleagues on the panel through subtle words or body language (the telling glance, the gasp in delight).
That strategy resonates with Pamela Frank, the noted violinist who will chair the jury at the 2020 Yehudi Menuhin Competition, in Richmond, Virginia. “As far as I’m concerned the most fair way of conducting the process is by not talking,” says Frank. But this guardrail is not a failsafe as subtler forms of pressure can be exerted outside a panel. “Of course, I’ve seen and heard people talking in a cab,” she says. “If I see it, I try to gently remind people that we shouldn’t be talking.” (The Menuhin does not prohibit teachers from voting for students on the premise that it’s impossible to remove every possible link; however, teachers are asked to disclose any relationships.)
Among other measures, Stern says he looks out for the highly demonstrative juror who tries to influence colleagues on the panel through subtle words or body language.
Technology is often seen as a path toward greater transparency. In Indianapolis, juror votes are fed into a computer program that grades the spread (instead of just the individual points) in an effort to catch any unusual anomalies. An accountant oversees each round and the entire process is explained to audience and competitors. “When they understand it better, then they will not make—as often happens at these—allegations that are completely unfounded,” says Kwok.
Similar software is in use at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Cliburn competition. Other events promote online video streaming as a sign of openness. The Carl Nielsen competition says it drew 750,000 viewers from 155 countries over the ten days via its Medici.tv live-stream in March.
Could competitions adapt video replay, just as football referees settle close and controversial calls? McCormick isn’t convinced. “We’re fetishizing technology if we think it can answer this problem,” she says. “There’s the whole idea of ‘no discussion,’ and ‘let’s let the computer decide.’ Part of the consequence of that is the jurors themselves don’t understand the result, because it’s not a product of their interaction.”
Lark, the violinist, says that ultimately, prize winners are bound to be very good musicians, if not necessarily the best. What’s more, no system can produce a pure result, unaffected by non-musical factors. “Even if you have a jury of amazing pedagogues and not even a single student of theirs is in the competition, they still get to know these young artists and they are going to be biased,” she says. “We are all human.”