[This was an article I wrote for the Woodstock Times on my experiences as a juror for the Yakov Flier Piano Competition, part of the PianoSummer Festival held every summer at SUNY New Paltz under the direction of Vladimir Feltsman. The competition is named for Feltsman’s piano teacher. Feltsman has invited me to sit as a ringer on this jury, which is otherwise made up of established pianists who teach and perform at the festival. The competitors are all students, and their prizes are modest, but the level of competition is often surprisingly high. The particular competition I wrote about occurred in 2001. Since then, the number of contestants has increased greatly.]

I’m listening to a young pianist playing Bach, and I can’t hear anything interesting in the performance at all. Nervous, I glance at the notes of the person sitting next to me. He has written, “Labored.” I’m relieved. He doesn’t like it either, and he knows more than I do.

I am a juror at the Yakov Flier Piano Competition, part of the PianoSummer festival organized by Vladimir Feltsman at SUNY New Paltz. It’s my third year as a juror, but I still haven’t gotten over the insecurity of being the only amateur on the panel. The other five judges are all professional pianists and piano teachers, all of them with international reputations. And I’m just a critic.

People read the opinions of critics far more often than those of professional musicians. Yet all it takes is a few minutes at any master class for me to realize how much more detailed and acute the musicians’ hearing is than mine. Feltsman, who gives fascinating master classes, frequently shows the students important points in the music which they have missed in their performances. Often I’ve missed them also in my hearing.

As one of the other jurors points out during our deliberations, a critic is more representative of the way audiences hear music than a musician is. In that way I sometimes feel useful on this panel.

The Flier Competition is small potatoes compared with such internationally famous contests as the Tchaikovsky in Moscow or the Van Cliburn in Texas. The prizes are opportunities to perform. The first prize winner plays with an orchestra conducted by Feltsman at the end of the PianoSummer; second and third prizes share a recital. Last year’s first prize winner has been brought back this year to play a full length recital of her own.

There are other reasons for competing. As Feltsman mentions during his introductory talk, this contest can be useful practice for the constant rounds of competitions which are necessary these days for most aspiring recitalists. Winning the contest brings the player to the attention of all of these pianists and teachers, who have influence throughout the small world of classical music. And the small concerts provide a useful bridge to the community, since most of them, like the competition itself, are open to the public at no charge.

We were first told that there would be a dozen contestants, but by the time the contest starts half of them have dropped out. I wonder if it’s because they have heard the others play and decided they don’t have a chance. But Feltsman tells us that most of the dropouts didn’t realize they would have to be ready to play an entire concerto if they won first prize and they aren’t prepared. By contest time we’re down to five.

The contest opens at 4 on a brutally hot Tuesday afternoon, in the Shepard Recital Hall at the college. There is an air conditioner in the room, but it makes so much noise that Feltsman decides to use it only before and between the performances.

By the time the first pianist is halfway through her brief program, the room has become uncomfortably hot, and it just gets worse. Her opening Bach (all contestants must begin with a Bach Prelude and Fugue) is rather messy and rather too loud. She plays the first movement of a Schumann Sonata too loud also, then creates some shading for the slow movement. But in her Concerto, Prokofiev’s First, she is merely efficient, banging out her big cadenza rather brutally. I can tell by the expressions on the other jurors’ faces that nobody else thinks much of her either; one of them mimics hammering nails into a wall, and that while she’s playing quietly. Her orchestral accompaniment is played in a piano arrangement by one of the jurors, Eteri Andjaparidze (she and Feltsman share the accompanying duties), and there is much more nuance in the “orchestra” than in the solo.

After a brief pause for the air conditioner to cool the room off a bit, the second pianist begins. His Bach seems bland to me. He plays a piece of Liszt that I normally can’t stand, the Sonata after Reading Dante, but he minimizes the music’s bombast and builds climaxes well. He is also quite accurate with some difficult music. I wish he varied his tonal color more but overall he is convincing. At this point one juror complains about the heat and asks if we can open the door to the outside. “You can,” says Feltsman, “but it’s 98 degrees out there.”

The contestant then plays the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. While he is playing, Feltsman walks over to the complaining juror with a fan, waving it at his head, then at his crotch. Although a contestant is playing, we all laugh. The pianist plays Grieg earnestly, but he sometimes overstresses the music and he uses quite a bit too much pedal.

Most of the jurors go out for a sushi dinner, during which we talk mostly about other things than the contest. But there seems to be a concensus that we haven’t heard a first prize winner yet.

On Wednesday after a brief conversation, we decide to leave the air conditioner on. I quip that today’s players will have an unfair advantage since their lack of nuance will be harder to hear due to the background noise. But the first player’s Bach comes through with plenty of nuance, and I like the way he plays it very much. He then plays a fearsome showpiece, Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

This performance is going to prove controversial. I don’t think he has the right idea of what this music is about, and that opinion will be generally agreed on; he plays it for show value and misses the sinister quality that is the most important part of the music. But aside from his impressive technique (impressive to me, at least, although the jurors could all play just as well themselves) he does have a lot of color and impulse in his playing. At least something is happening.

His Liszt First Concerto will also prove controversial. He plays with color and variety, generating some excitement, and I particularly like the dancelike quality he brings out in the Scherzo section. But he isn’t a disciplined player, and in the final section he lets things get somewhat out of control; he sounds as though he is following his fast fingers instead of leading them.

The next player gives us what I think is genuinely bad Bach, sentimentalized with romantic dynamics and severe ritards at the end of the Prelude and the Fugue which seem to me highly inappropriate. He does a little better with Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, but his tone is not colorful and his climaxes are inhibited. His playing of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto is well-organized enough but similarly uneventful.

More controversy with the final contestant. Her Bach is rather mechanical. She plays a wild piece by Scriabin, Vers la Flamme (Towards the Flame) with some color, and I’m impressed by her offbeat selection of this item. Eventually I wind up feeling she has failed to capture the wildness in the music. But there’s plenty of wildness in the way she plays the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. She starts out by playing much too loudly, drowning out the “orchestra” (Feltsman) that she is supposed to be accompanying. She also uses too much pedal, blurring the music. Some of the soft passages are lovely, but when she gets to the big moments her fingers go wild and she starts bashing, leaving my ears ringing. I feel her explosions rule her out of contention.

Deliberations begin. It turns out that I am the only one who really liked the pianist, Milan Miladinovic, who played the Liszt Concerto. The others feel he is undisciplined to a fault and–here they have an advantage over me–that he doesn’t respond to teachers’ suggestions. He already has a budding concert career in Yugoslavia, where he comes from, and they don’t think he is really interested in changing what he does.

I say that the contest is supposed to judge what the pianists do at the contest, not what they have done in classes. But they do have a point.

The first concensus is that none of the other judges feels any of the contestants should receive first prize. I wouldn’t mind hearing Miladinovic play that Liszt Concerto again with a full orchestra, but I’m a minority of one, although a couple of the jurors say that I’m probably right as far as the audience is concerned. All of the others have given lessons to the second performer from Tuesday, George Oakley, and they feel that he does respond very well to suggestion and that his playing has improved noticeably in the few weeks since he arrived in New Paltz. I am vehemently opposed to giving any prize to the last performer, Inga Kashakashvilli, simply on the grounds that someone who hurts our ears the way she did in her Tchaikovsky shouldn’t be encouraged. But some of the others find a lot of promise in her playing.

In the end, after some fairly heated arguments, Oakley gets second prize, while Miladinovic and Kashakashvilli split third. They will all get to play in recitals. The other two will receive diplomas of participation, whatever that is.

After Feltsman announces the results, the contestants all look disappointed. I see him taking each one aside and talking with them, and from the little I overhear he is speaking frankly about his and the other jurors’ reactions to their playing. This seems likely to be useful.

Three hours after we started, we’re finally done. This time we go to a brew pub where the former Soviet jurors (half of them) drink tequila shots with beer chasers and we Americans drink very nice beer, while eating fried calimari, pizza, and salad and telling endless jokes. (My best: What do you call a beautiful woman on the arm of a trombonist? A tattoo.) Some of our deliberations got pretty heated, but we are all friends now.

Leslie Gerber

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