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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Is it ever a good idea to conclude a major competition, without awarding a gold medal?

July 1, 2011 at 5:13 PM

This week in Moscow, the Tchaikovsky Competition came to a conclusion, without awarding a gold medal in the violin division.

Is it a good idea to conclude a major competition in this way?

One argument in favor of not awarding a gold medal is to keep the standards of the competition high, to send out the message that everyone is going to have to attain a higher level if they expect to carry home the gold. But if the standards were not high enough, exactly whose fault is that? Is it just an overall degradation of talent in the violin world? I highly doubt that, with so many more talented people, started so young. Is it the fault of the competition itself, for not attracting the talent it hoped to attract?

And really, is that even true? It seems to me that the level was extremely high. In that case, was it because the judges simply couldn't agree? Were there politics involved? Of course, there are always politics involved. But a jury must be capable of meeting minds enough to make decisions. If they can't issue the awards as they were intended, then perhaps some blame lies with the jury, or the composition thereof.

If you don't award a gold medal, how does that affect your competition in years to come? Will people be even more determined to meet high expectations? Or do talented musicians simply gravitate to other competitions, where they know a prize will actually be rewarded for their extreme efforts on behalf of musical excellence, and for putting themselves in one of the most stressful situations imaginable?

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 1, 2011 at 5:39 PM

Any contest that requires a jury to qualify a contestant for round one should award a first prize. Besides since when has the first prize in any contest been the guarantee of a career?

From Albert Wrigglesworth
Posted on July 1, 2011 at 5:52 PM

To not present the award, to my way of thinking, is a slap in the face to the performers.  There is so much prep done on the part of the student, and to knowingly walk away from a performance which the student and audience knows to be noteworthy and not receiving the recognition is truly a downer. 

I had previously watched a competition, free style section of competition, where every one else thought the 3rd place should have won the top award, but because of a certain style of bowing used within a section of the piece (which is frowned upon by these particular adjudicators) cost this performer the competition placement of first place.  There was no where in the "rules" where this particular bowing technique was expressed as being "banned".

Yes, sometimes politics gets in the way, but so does prejudice.

I find it hard to not have a winner of the top award, unless the presentation of the award depends on the actual scale of points (marking).

From Hendrik Hak
Posted on July 1, 2011 at 6:32 PM

Hi Laurie,

The jury awarded 2 silver medals and no gold. Methinks that if they had felt the performances did not messure up to gold medal standard they would have handed out only one silver medal. As it is it looks like a 50 -50 split vote  on the 2 top candidates.

Maybe they wanted to award 2 gold medals but weren't allowed?

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on July 1, 2011 at 6:43 PM

Many years ago I was at an international cello competition held in the Colston Hall (Bristol, UK). The adjudicator was Paul Tortelier (as he was in previous and subsequent years). On this occasion he clearly was not satisfied with the overall standard of the finalists, and, sitting only a few feet from him, I could see it on his face. At the presentation at the end he said he was unable to award a gold but would award two silvers. This was the only occasion, that I am aware of, when Tortelier didn't award the gold, and it was a decision that I and others present agreed with – he must have been 100% satisfied that none of the finalists was able to meet his exacting standards for a gold.

At that level of competition the winner might well expect a recording and touring contract to go with the win.  Such a competition is no place for performers "with potential"; they should be ready and able to produce the goods there and then at a fully professional level. 


From bill platt
Posted on July 1, 2011 at 10:08 PM

Competitions bastardize the art that is music. They encourage people to not take risks, to standardize and to follow certain rules to be graded on.

Yes, they can have their place, but there are too many of them. And they are given too much importance.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on July 2, 2011 at 11:16 AM

To be honest, I'm not a fan of these types of elite competitions.  From my perspective the level of playing is so uniformly high that I can't tell the difference, technically or objectively, and it all comes down to matters of style and taste.  The same can be said for Olympic sports that rely on judges rather than head-head competition to award medals, such as figure skating.  Such competitions are prone to favoritism and abuse.  One can still enjoy the exhibition and the skill of the players, but I think one always has take the results, and the whole competition process, with a grain of salt.  In that light, I think the judges can do what they like--award 15 gold medals, or zero.  It's just making transparent the way the system works.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 2, 2011 at 11:56 AM

 Karen, I quite agree. In fact I think that there is only one Tchaikovsky Prize winner that I can remember after all these years: Van Cliburn. Perhaps someone will remind me of another past winner who is famous but clearly not (for me) because they won the Tchaikovsky. 

 Not awarding the gold is a slap at the contestants-- we qualified you and advanced you through the rounds but 'hey you really weren't good enough for us but we couldn't tell that until the final round. Very sorry--our bad, oops no your bad.'

From Mark Roberts
Posted on July 2, 2011 at 1:43 PM

Quote attributed to Bartok:  "Competitions are for horses not musicians".

From elise stanley
Posted on July 2, 2011 at 6:36 PM

I agree about the competitions - they give the illusion one person is better at everything than another whereas this is very very rare.  However, they are a rite of passage for future star violinist - and hence a career and not a musical test and perhaps a necessary evil.

I agree with the lack of a gold.  Competitions are brutal anyway - coming second is just as much a slap whether or not a gold was awarded so I am not moved by that argument.   

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on July 2, 2011 at 10:18 PM

All very thoughtful comments.  Do the judges state why they make such a decision?  Maybe this is such a prestigious competition that if someone can say they won the gold but aren't nearly as "good" as someone who won it previously, doesn't it cheapen the meaning of gold in some way?  (In fact, see the wikipedia article I site below for one possible reason.)  And I don't agree that they should take the attitude that they should just stop the competition if the quality of the competitors isn't what was expected.  Then no one would win anything!  And I'm not sure getting a silver, even if there is also a gold awarded, is a "slap in the face".  Not everyone can be a winner.

Recently I read the wikipedia article on Kyung-wah Chung, who was awarded the gold medal along with Pinchas Zukerman in the Leventritt competition.  The details given are riveting.  The article also says, "in some years the judges picked no winner when they felt that the candidates were not ripe for major concert appearances."

From Joyce Lin
Posted on July 3, 2011 at 1:10 AM

Competitions provide opportunities to those young talents who don't have the connections and the fortune to be discovered to make names for themselves, and hopefully launch their careers (although there is no guarantee). People like Bell, Midori, Chang and Hahn did not need to enter competitions because they were already established by the time they met the minimum age requirements for the major competitions. Do you think the Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan would have had the opportunity to tour the world and play with top orchestras if he did not win competitions?

From Asher Wade
Posted on July 3, 2011 at 7:29 AM

I fully agree with Bill Platt & Mark Roberts [above]; after all, a Violin Competition is not a "foot race" (for heaven sake!). The 'real' competition is when you go out into the world and try to earn a living doing what you love {hopefully: making beautiful music}. "Real" people will inform you (quickly enough) if they want you to perform for them, ...or not! Competitions aim for the "cookie-cutter" approach; real people like "real" {re: authentic} musicians; otherwise, we could just buy studio-engineered, spliced-together, digitalized CD's and be done with it. 

From Deborah McCann
Posted on July 3, 2011 at 1:09 PM
If that particular year there is no person who plays up to the mark, then it cheapens the entire event. It will tell future performers to do excellent work in preparation. As a teacher, I am tired of "everyone is a winner" attitude. I can not sit 6 students in the Concertmaster chair. As a profession we are facing challenges, and to slip our standards down is not going to help us. The aspire to the level of Bell, Chang, et al is admirable. But to play at that level takes more than to dream. And just because you get into the competition does not mean you will find anyone worthy of the top honor.
From Glenn Kotnik
Posted on July 4, 2011 at 2:59 PM

If my memory of the Tchaikovsky  competition serves me correctly, there is a history of not awarding a gold.  Historically that was attributable to David Oistrakh ruling the competition with an iron fist, He could not bear the thought of one of his students not winning the gold.   Also, I'm sure he feared the Communist party bosses would throw him in the Gulag if he gave the gold to a non-Soviet. If a foreinger was better than one of his students, he would award them both silver and no one got gold. Please correct me if I am wrong.

From Mark Roberts
Posted on July 4, 2011 at 3:18 PM

I checked up the Bartok reference:  Daily Telegraph page 26,  1 may 2008:  "Competitions are for horses,  not musicians".   One thing that no one has mentioned is that violin competitions practise age discrimination no one over 26 can enter,  unlike some competitions for the classical guitar which are open to any body.

From arthur grumiaux
Posted on July 7, 2011 at 6:10 PM

I did agree with the jury. The artistry and technique levels of the finalists did not measure to the recent other 2 top level competitions: Indiana and Sibelius. No finalists in the violin section seem to me have the same level of artistry and technique of Clara Jumi Kang, the gold medalist of Indiana, and Nikita Borisoglebsky of Sibelius. But Nikita was placed 2nd in the 13th Tchaikovsky and now he matured to be more complete technically and artistically. Dogadin still quite young and has the potential to grow. Does Dogadin need a better violin?

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