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Jury Member Explains Why They Gave No Gold to Violinists at the Tchaikovsky

Laurie Niles

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Published: July 2, 2015 at 5:05 AM [UTC]

After Wednesday's unusual outcome in the violin division of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, in which no First Prize was awarded and the rankings went 2-3-3-3-4-5, I stated in a comment that "It almost feels like a breach of contract, to fail to grant the awards as promised."

I received an e-mail from jury member James Ehnes, who was taken aback by this statement.

"The rules, as published on the competition website, state that a gold medal can only be awarded in the case of a competitor receiving a super-majority of first place votes," Ehnes wrote. "We didn’t have the numbers. You and your readers can disagree with the results, but to state that we failed to grant the awards as promised is untrue."

Ehnes is technically correct. The awards, though they were not granted as expected by millions of viewers, were indeed granted as specified by the rules of the competition. Here is an explanation of those rules:

The general rules of the Tchaikovsky Competition, as stated here, say that "depending on the results achieved and with account of the fixed quantity of prices, the juries have the right a) not to award all prizes, and b) divide prizes between contestants (exception: Grand Prix and 1st Prize)."

Also, the jury rules, as stated on this page, say that "The 1st Prize/Gold Medal (the tied vote is unacceptable) can be awarded by a majority of votes (with a deciding vote of at least 8 out of 11). For special prices [sic] each judge will give one name; prices will be decided by simple majority of votes. Jury decisions are final and not revocable."

I think that the "tie is unacceptable" clause led some people to believe that the jury was required to award a gold medal to one laureate, thereby required to actually come to that super-majority consensus. However, taken with the other rule, that states that the jury has the right "not to award all prizes," the jury apparently is not actually required to award a first-prize gold medal.

So the jury did its assigned job, but what was the result? I was ready to celebrate a competition that did a stunning job of attracting worldwide attention this time around, with a reported 10 million viewers via the Internet, and so many wonderful performances. But the failure of the competition to produce a winner in the violin category, or even a clearer ranking of the laureates, was both disappointing and deflating, for participants, for audience, and for the future of the Tchaikovsky and other violin competitions.

Tchaik 2015 finalists

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From 24.4.2.115
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 7:20 AM
Only politics can explain it, but not according to what this jury said. Even though it can be explained that way. Be honest, they can( of couse could have made) make a gold medalist for violin competition under no matter what such existing rules. It's just they tried so hard not to make it happen. And therefore explained as such. Ugly, disappointed, jury politicians...

"Hey look, you are clearly the winner amongst the 6 competitors, but I have no first prize for you, sorry, I can give you 2nd prize if you still want it..."

What a joke!

From 212.202.151.90
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 7:30 AM
I don't think it's that surprising. It just shows that music is not like a sports competition which produces a clear winner every time.
From 212.66.127.191
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 7:34 AM
I agree with Laury: this is no good for the future of Tciaikowsky competition. Why members of the jury changed?why Tarara that played very well were not in semifinale?
My personal ranking: 1 Conunova(the most charmant playing)
2 Myliukov(played a fantastic Sostakovic) and Kang( really very original interpretations: in a music world where interpretations are standard)
3.Tseng (very young and very musical playing) and Kazasian
5-Bonsori Kim( she plays very well with a litthe hands(I wish i play like her).
Also i can undestand that in a jury where there are Kavakos,Repin ,Vengerov ,Maybe not 1 prize can be awarded, but there are to much incostincenties.
But Guys ,it is fantastic that we in our home can assist to some competitions like Bruxelles or Mosca. This is incredible.What a luck. by-by

From Kevin Cheung
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 7:56 AM
So it means that if there is no clear winner, no gold will be awarded. This could happen when there are a few gold-deserving competitors who are all equally outstanding.
From 85.86.252.203
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 8:09 AM
So, if among the contestants there are two (or more) really amazing players, none of them will be awarded the gold medal?
Everyone had a favourite player, it´s a good thing! and that can be taken as a signal of the overall quality of the players, so I would have been happy if any of them won the award.
Although the decision of the jury may be technically correct I still feel disappointed.
From 98.249.4.147
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 11:48 AM
So once you have a winner you vote again to give him or her the needed supermajority. Easy enough. I always thought "no gold" meant the jury didnt see a player who they would rank with gold medal winners of the past.
From James Ehnes
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 11:51 AM
I would like to further clarify the situation. As stipulated by the official rules, all the jurors were given a secret ballot and asked to rank the six finalists 1 through 6. Adding together the numerical ranks by each juror for each competitor determined the final rankings, with (obviously) priority going from lowest to highest. This is not one of those “horse-trading” competitions where bargains are struck and compromises are made. We all voted our consciences, understanding what was at stake. These were sealed, and the results were known to no-one other than the jury coordinator - not even to jury chairman Valery Gergiev - until last evening an hour or so before the televised announcement. I can confirm that every judge ranked the competitors 1-6, with no first place ties (I don’t think there were any ties at all, in fact, though I’m not positive), as in accordance with our instructions. So it’s really very important that people understand that this wasn't a case of the jurors NOT assigning a 1st prize on our initial individual ballots. According to our instructions, that was not an option (to the dismay of a few of my colleagues, who felt this was an unfair limitation to our judicial authority). When, within an hour of the result announcements, the ballots were unsealed and it became clear to jury chairman Valery Gergiev that there was no significant majority decision for a gold medal, much less the supermajority required by the official rules, we found ourselves in a difficult situation.
During the following 45 minutes, there was passionate discussion of how to interpret the results, and the decision was made to:
1. award prizes in accordance with the original ballot results, and
2. confirm the choices through a new secret ballot with every juror.
Not having a gold medal necessitates having a tie somewhere. The clustering of three bronze medal winners should not be interpreted as indecision, but rather as a testament to the three very talented and very different musicians that received these prizes. They each received significant support from the collective jury, and to deny two of them a bronze medal when the jury’s results put them in what was essentially a dead heat would have been unnecessarily punitive and against the spirit of this event. This also allowed us to award 4th and 5th prizes to Clara-Jumi Kang and Bomsori Kim, rather than 5th and 6th, which is more reflective of the very close competition we had, and of their significant violinistic and musical gifts.
Whether or not Yu-Chien Tseng is “deserving” of the Tchaikovsky Competition's gold medal in some absolute sense is not something I am willing to discuss in a public forum, as it takes away from the dignity he deserves as the winner of this year’s top prize. As of last night, our relationship has changed from juror/competitor to colleagues, and I would like to join the rest of the music world in offering him, as well as the rest of the competitors, my sincerest congratulations.
Laurie, I appreciate (as always) your efforts in bringing attention to wonderful young artists. I can understand your frustration with these results, and assure you it is shared by many. But to break the very clear and explicit rules regarding the awarding of the gold medal would, in my opinion, have made a mockery of the competition’s oft-stated goal of being the most fair and transparent competition possible. One can disagree with the rules, but they have been in place and published for well over a year, and every competitor was able to see before entering the manner in which the prizes would be awarded.
It has been a wonderful experience being here, but I’m ready to get back to the real world of enjoying music, not judging it!
From Sal Peralta
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 1:21 PM
It seems like a slap in the face to the "winner" and to the field not award gold but to instead award a silver and three bronze.

I can appreciate financial constraints that probably contributed to the decision, given the cash distribution of prizes, but the message it sends is that no one was worthy of gold.

From Kevin Cheung
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 1:52 PM
It's great that Mr. Ehnes posted here to clarify the situation.

To me, the rules seem very clear and I doubt anyone can reasonably call into question the results when secret ballots were cast following the rules.

The only problem with the rules is that they could create the problem I stated: In the case when there are a few exceptional competitors who could win gold in an otherwise less stacked field, no one will win gold because the jurors will be divided on who is the best. It's like picking the best violin among the top few Cremonese instruments. What are the chances that one will win super majority?

So the rules become more and more problematic when the competition gets more and more fierce. I foresee that this kind of situation will happen more and more often given that the level of competition seems to be ever increasing.

From Scott Cole
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 1:53 PM
This from the official rules: " For special prices each judge will give one name; prices will be decided by simple majority..."

A couple of things come to mind:
A. Apparently,the jurors DO have a "price," though it doesn't give a precise dollar amount...
B. Putin's real agenda in grabbing the Crimea is his lust for "sekret spellchekzi kode." I say don't worry Vladimir, the west doesn't still see you as backwards just because you can't spell the rules right on the website of the worlds most prestigious musical competition...

All joking aside, has this happened before, at Tchaikovsky or any other competitions? And if so, is there a simple rule fix for the future that could guarantee a winner? And would it be desirable?

And most importantly, if there had been a gold, would Putin himself have presented the award bare-chested on a Shetland pony?

From Kevin Cheung
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 2:17 PM
No gold in 2011
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 2:41 PM
Some other competitions will not award a gold medal if they do not think the best performer is up to the standard of the previous gold medal winners. In this case the gold is only awarded if there is an "obvious choice" for the best of the bunch for that year. It's a little different.

The "winner" gets to write "Silver Medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015" in the little bio that goes into concert programs. Audience members, except those rare few who follow international violin competitions, will surely guess that someone else earned the gold. So, forevermore, he'll have to write, "Silver Medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015 (no Gold Medal was awarded)." I just think that's really awkward.

I do appreciate Ehnes taking his time to explain the rules to us, and I certainly agree that once the rules were in place they had to be followed exactly, but it's still the observer's prerogative to feel a little cheated.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 2:53 PM
James, thank you for clarifying what happened. I think it's extremely important for the public to know that the failure to award a gold medal had nothing to do with the quality of the competitors but instead was an inherent problem in the voting system.
From James Ehnes
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 3:42 PM
It is indeed the observer's prerogative to feel a little cheated, Paul, and I know many do! But in the end the collective jury came to results the we felt reflected our experiences as listeners and followed the published rules of the competition. Which is not to say that there wasn't strong disagreement among individual jurors!
Laurie, I think your comment about not awarding a gold medal being due to an "inherent problem in the voting system" assumes that the organizers of the Tchaikovsky Competition see their gold medal as being the equivalent of a first prize at other contests - this is not the case. And as I wrote above, a discussion of whether or not the jury felt that Yu-Chien Tseng was deserving of a gold medal in some absolute sense is not constructive, and diminishes the dignity of his victory. The competition is over, the results are final, and we should now all celebrate the wonderful music making that has taken place these last 3 weeks.
My thanks to all who commented for your passion in following these fantastic young musicians. They all have tremendous futures, and my fellow jurors and I wish them nothing but success in their musical journeys.
From 24.7.192.70
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 7:14 PM
Having met Mr. Ehnes before and studied with Liana Isakadze, I have every confidence in the integrity and sincerity of the jurors.
However, I think Laurie is right to smell a flaw in the system, which has to do with the way it handles the statistical data it receives from its jurors.
Requiring a majority or supermajority puts an emphasis on consensus, which has tangible value. But it does not tolerate statistical noise in the data well. It insists on having one competitor who is detached from the rest of the pack. It has no way of distinguishing between the absence of any outstanding competitor and the presence of many particularly outstanding competitors. If Heifetz and Milstein both showed up, how on earth does one get a supermajority?
If consensus is a priority, the competition should use something akin to instant runoff or ranked-choice voting, as with certain municipal elections. As the candidates with fewer votes are eliminated by the computer, there votes are reassigned until there are two preferred candidates, one of whom gets a majority. I want to say Hanover does something like this, as they want the winner to have a majority of 1st-place votes from the jury.
The jury should not feel at all haunted by this issue, but the organizers ought to consider the way it appears to the public as they organize the next edition of the competition.
Bravo to all the competitors!
From Bill Palmer
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 8:20 PM
In my opinion, Benny Tseng can write in all truthfulness "Winner of 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition" in his bio. Confusion eliminated. He got a higher placing than anyone else, didn't have to share pride of place, if the rules dictated that his medal had to be silver rather than gold, that doesn't change the fact that the judges as a group scored him ahead of everyone else.

And who's to definitively say that though his performance may not have been enough of a standout compared to his competition to merit the gold medal under the rules in place this year that it might not have been sufficient to win gold in another installment of the competition? It's enough of a fool's errand to try to compare the competitors within a single competition; to try to compare the winners from different years seems even more dubious. I am privileged to count among my friends and acquaintances a number of laureates and prizewinners of the Tchaikovsky violin competition, and I certainly wouldn't want to attempt such a comparison between them!

I'd like to thank JE for contributing his explanation of what went on behind the scenes!

From Ramón G Castañeda
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 8:27 PM
From my perspective, when no first prize is awarded in a competition, that unequivocally means that no one in the entire field of competitors showed the required level of achievement to deserve the gold or first price.

That must devastating to ALL competitors. But if that's how the jurors felt, so be it.

From Bill Palmer
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 8:41 PM
A follow-up comment: it has not always been the case that the rules dictated having a clear winner to award the gold medal. In 1982, Viktoria Mullova and Sergei Stadler were both awarded the gold medal.
From Vivian Guo
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 9:08 PM
If a figure skater falls in his program and still wins a gold metal because he beats other contestants, the fact that Tchaikovsky competition does not award its gold to the winner is a joke. Maybe Tchaikovsky competition should take a look at how Golf tournaments award their players.

Thank JE for his explanation, but I still standby the "joke" statement.

From 184.76.107.27
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 11:22 PM
The way the RC Church does it in Consistory for the new pope seems to be something this competition might want to consider; the ballots--always secret--are simply repeated (without discussion in between as far as I know) until a clear majority emerges...for after all, it would be unthinkable to have two popes...oh, wait a minute...well, you see the picture.

To award a SILVER medal implies there must have been some sort of inferior majority...

The rules may need reexamination, since it would often take a miracle to achieve consensus the first time around with so many fine musicians available to compete.

From 188.29.165.97
Posted on July 2, 2015 at 11:47 PM
It is difficult to not interpret the result as that the jury believed no one deserved the first prize, when back in 2011 this was published on the XII International Tchaikovsky Competition:

"As Valery Gergiev said, 7 of 11 violin jury members voted for no first prize in violin discipline. And Gergiev supported this decision because if such great musicians really decide it, he considers necessary to concur with them."

From 96.255.232.210
Posted on July 3, 2015 at 1:19 AM
Why not give each contestant points and the person with the highest number of points wins 1st prize?
From 174.21.220.16
Posted on July 3, 2015 at 4:13 AM
If you look at the history of the judging, no first prizes were awarded in: 1974, 1994,2002, 2011, and now 2015.

Not all that uncommon or unusual.

From Eun Hwan Bai
Posted on July 3, 2015 at 4:43 AM
I have enjoyed the new Medici.TV's internet technology, they have served very high quality of sound and videos which came to 10 Million viewers all over the world.
Competition makes young musicians work very hard for their musical future whether they win or not. I do not care for the numbers of the raking...it is only a number. Music is a live time long journey. Congratulations for all the competitors not only 6 finalists but also all violinists who have participated.
From 86.1.85.241
Posted on July 3, 2015 at 10:38 AM
A superb service offered by medici.tv, I enjoyed every minute of the competition and the ones I missed could be seen on the Replay service. I hope they keep the service on-line as I would also like to hear the cello and piano performers. Regarding the awards. I felt that Maxim and Salvator made it a bit of an anti climax, the girl who won 5th place wasn't sure of what to do. It all seemed so half hearted. And yes, Thank you James for clearing up the point regarding the judging, and whilst I agree that rules are followed, I also feel that there must have been a majority vote for one single player - why else would the silver winner be awarded that position.

Whatever, the debate will go on for sometime to come, but nothing will take away from the superb performances give by all the candidates (the 25, not just the final 6)

From Reginald Perry
Posted on July 3, 2015 at 4:51 PM
I would assert that the rule for giving gold is flawed not because of the implications, but because in this era where everyone around the world is getting much the same instruction and you have a set of judges with such subtle and diverse tastes, finding the one musician that's clearly "a cut above" the competition such that you get a supermajority is going to be really tough. They will have to exhibit just enough personality to make the judges notice but not too much to go out of the ranges of all of the judges tastes. In addition they will have to make every single note of every piece have clear meaning. The reason for this is precisely because the judges have such diverse experiences, each one will have in their mind, knowing or unknowing a number of key phrases in each piece that will "tell them" that this person is expressing the music in a significant way. I assert that this will make the voting only turn out a gold medal in rare cases. Maybe once in 5 to 7 events unless the voting method is changed. If one looks at the piano and cello competitions, were the gold medalists clearly "a cut above" the other participants?
From 50.67.234.199
Posted on July 4, 2015 at 1:23 AM
I'm OK with the fact that some years, juries feel that there is no one who played to the level worthy of first prize. However, this year, there are no indications that the jury felt this way. If in fact that is the case, I feel it denies Yu-Chien Tseng his deserved victory. There is a flaw in the system if the top competitor wins only second prize due to voting, where the jury was perfectly willing to award first prize.
From lee junming
Posted on July 4, 2015 at 2:57 AM
Every action or decision made is a statement made to the world. Look at the situation in the developping country , especially ethiopia. People want cheap coffee and so they have it . At the expense of coffee farmer . For every 60kg green coffee bean , farmer is fetching about $106. Coffee was once considered a cash crop now its not because of the statement we made to the world . So now its justifible NOT to award gold medal . Cos if they are not up to standard or expectation then they are not worthy of the gold medal . If jury were to award gold medal because competition needs it then they are just one of the culprit to destroy the classic music world.
From 107.77.70.32
Posted on July 5, 2015 at 4:37 AM
You can't put 16 violinists in a room and expect them to produce a gold medal winner. It's a matter of Ego. You can't deny that violinists are some
Of the biggest divas and the Tchaikovsky proves that. And Maestro Accardo had some interesting things to say after the competition like apologizing to the audience for not entering back in the glory days. Statements like that give a little insight into the mindset of the judges in my opinion. And why does the violin division need 16 judges while all the other divisions have the same amount? Am I the only one who finds this a little odd? Anyways, congrats to all of the contestants. I hope we can see a gold medal winner in the next 20 years maybe.
From Brent Hudson
Posted on July 6, 2015 at 11:38 PM
The trouble is that, making reference to the the rankings by themselves, one doesn't learn anything about the overall level of this competition. Do they differentiate subtle shades of Really Great, or something less? The failure to award Gold implies, to some, the latter.

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