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Audience, Experts Surprised by Tchaikovsky Jury's Ruling : Music: The panel made up of previous contestants of the international competition turns out to be a hard crowd to please.

July 02, 1994|BORIS LIFANOVSKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — The biggest sensation this year at the 10th International Tchaikovsky Competition--held every four years in Moscow and considered the crowning glory of Russian musical culture--was that there were no sensations.

The contest that in past years brought to light such international stars as pianists Van Cliburn and Vladimir Ashkenazy drew nearly 300 young musicians from 60 countries. But they elicited so little enthusiasm from this year's juries that nobody in the three instrumental categories--violin, cello and piano--was awarded first prize.

It was the first time since the competition in honor of composer Pytor I. Tchaikovsky began in 1958 that performers honored in previous contests made up the juries. Throughout the week of competition that ended Thursday night, they proved to be the toughest of audiences.

Even the contestants best loved by the public--American violinist Jennifer Koh and Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky--were judged worthy only of second prizes.

The jury's cool response to Koh surprised both the audience and the experts, most of whom expected the 17-year-old Oberlin Conservatory student to win.

Koh distinguished herself with what one Moscow Conservatory professor called "artistic freedom and passion for the music." Another Russian critic exclaimed that Koh "turned out to be a brilliant and gifted personality. Her technical skills are very impressive."

But two hours after the final round, in which Koh played Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos, the jury announced its stunning verdict: Nobody received the $5,000 first prize; the second prize of $4,000 was divided between Koh and an intriguing young Russian violinist, Anastasia Chebotaryova.

Koh was also awarded with three special prizes: for artistic performance, best performance of Tchaikovsky's work and as the youngest participant in the third round.

Only the vocal competition awarded a top prize, though the vocalists appeared to be at about the same level as the instrumentalists, and audience interest was not as intense. Hibla Gerzmava of Abkhazia, a breakaway province from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, won the $10,000 Gran Prix and Chen-Ye Yuan of China won the $5,000 First Prize.

Competitors in the cello category fared the worst from judges. For the first time in history the first, second, third and fifth prizes were not awarded at all. Georgy Goryunov of Russia and Elleen Moon of the United States were awarded fourth place.

Another surprise was the cello jury's decision to eliminate the most popular performers after the second round. The audience expressed its disagreement by giving German cellist Wolfgang Schmidt, one of its favorites, a 10-minute ovation when he received a "consolation" diploma.

World-renowned cellist Natalya Gutman, a member of the jury, explained that the unusual situation resulted from a deadlock among the judges.

"Yes, we (the jury) are very surprised too," she said. "We had a secret vote and as there were too many good cellists, members of the jury voted for different ones."

Other judges and observers said that although the average level of performances in this year's competition appeared to have risen, there was a notable lack of new stars.

"There are just a few bright performers now," said a Russian viola student in the audience. "Good performing is rare."

Moscow violin teacher Alla Vandysheva said none of the contestants in the violin section deserved first prize.

"Look at what they play: Brahms, Tchaikovsky," she said. "Brahms is a very special composer. A musician must be very mature to play Brahms. And no participant actually performed at the level of Isaac Stern or David Oistrakh. So, they've got exactly what they deserved."

At the same time, she said, "The tradition is being lost. As talents are inexhaustible, they always exist, but they do not have a chance to come to light. There is no real pedagogical tradition, no common direction. That's why, in general, there are not as many great discoveries among the performers now as it was 20 years ago. It is getting more difficult for the jury to award the first prizes."

Vandysheva said that Koh, the American violinist, was too tense during her performance and her sound came out too weak, drowned out by the orchestra. Meanwhile, the teacher said, Chebotaryova played stronger as the competition progressed.

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