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Richard Rodzinski was the General Director of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The son of New York Philharmonic maestro, Artur Rodzinski, he was President and Executive Director of the Van Cliburn for twenty-three years, overseeing six editions of the illustrious competition. Rodzinski has served as artistic administrator to the San Francisco Opera and the MET. Below is the transcript of our May 16, 2012 conversation with Richard Rodzinski.
EH: It has been said that if Vladimir Horowitz were placed in competition today, his affected style and wrong notes would have him eliminated in the first round of a modern competition. Is the competition format an imperfect medium for judging the highest levels of art fairly and accurately ?
Rodzinski: That’s an excellent question. It all depends on how to assemble a jury which recognizes that level of artistry. A good jury will have little difficulty making decisions during the first rounds of a competition since they will be largely based on relatively objective criteria. It is fairly easy to determine who is interpreting a score incorrectly or who clearly reveals a lack of musicality. As the competition progresses, however, and as the issues become more subjective, you will find more controversy and a difference of opinions.
If you have a pianist as brilliant as a Vladimir Horowitz, who may play in a rather different and idiosyncratic manner, I think that a good jury will get excited by such an interpretation and recognize the great musicianship. When they hear that someone has something original to say, whether they agree with it or not, they will appreciate a fresh and personal approach.
Case in point: most recently at both the Chopin and the Cliburn there was a pianist who throughout the competition was quite striking, original, and exciting. In the end, the interpretations began to depart a little too far from what was indicated in the score. And at that point, the juries felt that it grew beyond that which was acceptable. I think it is important to remind good juries to please recognize not just the note-perfect competitor who offends the greatest number of people the least, but to recognize the musician who has something to say and the ability to say it, within certain musical parameters, of course.
EH: You’ve stated that “It is absolutely critical that competitions be conducted in such a manner so as not to be perceived as some sort of entertaining spectacle or as a sporting event,”. What are some of the great misconceptions about competitions like the Van Cliburn or the Tchaikovsky ?
Rodzinski: One of the biggest dangers and misconceptions is that the gold medalist is going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, that he or she is going to be “better” than the winners of the second and third prizes, and that he or she is fully prepared for a major international career. The public must understand that a winner is simply someone who a particular jury liked most during a particular period of a week or two.
I’m thinking of the 1956 Queen Elisabeth Competition, where five or six of the finalists (Ashkenazy, Browning, Berman, etc.) in that competition went on to enjoy major careers. Perhaps once every twenty years, you do find a gold medalist who is head and shoulders above all others as was the case when the winners were Pollini, Argerich , Michelangeli, or Van Cliburn. Most often, however, the differences among the finalists are a matter of highly subjective judgments and the success they may enjoy in the long run will not necessarily correspond to how they ranked in the end.
But to think that competition winners are all prepared to perform two-hundred concerts a year, that they are prepared emotionally and artistically mature enough is a great misconception. It is critical for their growth that everyone recognizes this. One hopes that someday the winners might become important artists, but it is very hard to predict this on the basis of winning a competition.
Competitions should be regarded as open auditions for a job - the “job” being a series of concert tours prearranged by the organizers of the competition. The jury is there to opine who they believe is most qualified to fulfill these engagements. A competition can thus serve as a screening agency. A major orchestra never engages anyone they’ve never heard of and will have a staff to listen to musicians in whom they are potentially interested. But smaller orchestras may not have the means to invest in the process of auditioning young musicians themselves. So they will trust their peers, the jury of competitions such as the Tchaikovsky or the Cliburn to serve this function for them. Offering to a presenter a medalist is not to tell the presenter that the musician is the next Van Cliburn, but it is an assurance that the winner will be a wonderful pianist and be able to sell tickets as a the gold medalist of a major competition. It makes sense to have an organization which filters out the best of the young crop when the supply is so large. And all must recognize that, unlike the Olympics where winning a medal is the end, winning a music competition is merely a beginning.
EH: As head of one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world, there must be a certain degree of pressure to identify and promote the proper talents, even as criticism comes from previous contestants and others. Why do you do what you do ?
Rodzinski: I used to work in opera. I spent a decade as artistic administrator of the San Francisco Opera and later the MET. When the opportunity arose to head the Cliburn, I regarded the position as a continuation of what I had been doing all along—discovering new talent, presenting them in the best possible light and giving them the most appropriate opportunities. It’s a wonderfully satisfying job to help usher in new talent. Interesting that in certain disciplines of the performing arts - theater, film, certainly in opera - new talent is welcomed with open arms. The public is always looking for a fresh, new, wonderful talent. In the piano world, because there are so many competitions and the field is so crowded, there often exists a curious reticence to celebrate the discovery of yet another pianist. But that is not invariably true. The most recent Tchaikovsky competition winner, Daniil Trifonov, has been immediately embraced by the most important orchestras and venues worldwide where he has performed with outstanding success—and in America he will perform this season with the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago and Cleveland Symphonies.
EH: On the subject of Daniil Trifonov, in your opinion, what qualities set him apart from the pack ?
Rodzinski: In two words: superb musicianship. There is no showmanship, it is just wonderful, honest musicality. There is also a winning humility and modesty about Daniil. When he performs he is communicating the music, the composer rather than ‘Daniil Trifonov’ the interpreter. And he is thrilling.
EH: Jury members and audiences alike have complained about today’s style - a lack of singing on the instrument, playing that speaks to the heart. By following the score to a tee, have we actually strayed further away from the freedom and spiritual message of music ?
Rodzinski: If you look historically at the adherence to the letter of the score – you had your pre-Toscanini period during which many liberties were common place, then you had the literal Toscanini period, and then there is what we have now, which is again allows for a more narrow interpretation. I think that a competition ought not to exhibit a different approach than what one would witness in a regular concert series. The note perfect and often sterile performance is a product of, more than anything else, the studio recording. It has little semblance to the excitement of what we experience in the concert hall. If a jury is poorly constituted, one with a dry, literal approach and little imagination, the outcome will not be a felicitous one.
EH: Your father was one of the great musical minds of the century, a musician from an entirely different era. If you don’t mind me asking, what are some of his ideas about Art, the ideals and aesthetics that have influenced you ? And what might he say if he were here to witness the state of music today?
Rodzinski: Well, first of all, I think he would be very unhappy to see me working in the field of music (laughs). He was very glad that while he was alive I was primarily interested in the natural sciences. He had suffered so much, and had so many difficulties as a result of his uncompromising artistic integrity; he often fought with Philistine management, and was always reaching for an unattainable artistic goal. He was a disciple of Toscanini’s and was very faithful to the score. His performances were infused with an enormous amount of energy, precision and excitement. He felt most comfortable in late German and Slavic repertoire-- Wagner, Strauss, Shostakovich, Prokofieff and much of the 20th century repertoire. I think he believed, more than anything else, in powerful, unmannered, direct communication that plumbed the depth of such works as his beloved Tristan and Isolde. What has rubbed off on me is the appreciation of a powerful communicative experience. Even if the playing is wonderful, if it’s a boring performance I quickly lose interest.
EH: Do the musicians of the past influence your ideas on what the future should sound like ? Are we trying to reproduce the past ?
Rodzinski: I think the results cannot be satisfactory when people try to imitate something from a period that was right then but cannot be reproduced today without sounding artificial. It’s fascinating to listen to what had been the accepted performance practices in years past. Harold Schonberg, who was Chief Music Critic of the New York Times, would often play old recordings from the 1920’s, surprising audiences with the enormous liberties and departures from the score that were once acceptable. If you go back to the first solo recitals in Rome that Liszt performed in 1846 where one would improvise an introduction into a movement of a Beethoven sonata, then improvise a transition into another work, a concert became a unique, free flowing experience. A new book called After the Golden Age by Kenneth Hamilton examines the early practices of piano recitals. It’s quite a revealing read.
EH: Piano technique. In your opinion, has it improved or declined since the Golden Age of Pianism ? If it has improved, are untouched audiences simply not listening carefully enough ?
Rodzinski: It certainly has improved. The level of technical proficiency is extraordinary today but must be regarded primarily as a necessary tool. It is assumed that if someone is going to attempt very difficult repertoire they will be able to play it extraordinarily well. It is no longer an issue of whether or not they can play the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, it’s whether or not they can make music. Most musicians or jury members are not so impressed by technique anymore.
EH: Competitions have earned the reputation of being politically motivated and there are even rumors of competitions being decided before they happen. How true or common is this, and would you advise a young contestant to study with as many jury members as possible ?
Rodzinski: I’ve been a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions for over twenty-five years and have witnessed some questionable practices that at least appear to be the result of certain improprieties. But I think that the ethical level of the top competitions is generally very high: the Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Cliburn, and the Queen Elisabeth. One proposal that has been adopted by the Federation is that no jury should include more than two directors or jury chairmen of other competitions; otherwise, you run into a circuit of heads of competitions that frequently travel from one competition to another, having just heard the same competitors. These jurors will inevitably evaluate the performance of a competitor differently than a juror who is hearing the competitor for the first time—either positively or negatively. The playing field must be a level one for competitors.
Regarding the idea of competitors studying with jury members before a competition, it’s a requirement in almost all competitions that jury members declare their professional relationship with a competitor and abstain from voting for those who have studied with them. Jury members must abstain if their ability to judge has been compromised.
EH: The Cliburn Competition recognizes the importance of celebrating “achievements that seem so outstanding that not honoring them is to deny some supposed values of the society.” In your opinion, what is the importance and purpose of Art ?
Rodzinski: I think one of the dangers that we are running into in society, in America and Europe as well, is the marginalization of culture and a lack of recognition of how important culture is in creating a better human being. A number of years ago, I happened to be present at a large meeting in Paris attended by about 400 people during which the Ministry of Culture was announcing the allocations which were going to be granted for the forthcoming year for orchestras, operas, theaters, and ballet companies. It was a particularly stormy session, because the Ministry had decided to fund disproportionately more to the major organizations and less to the regional ones. At one point, someone rose up and to ask a question but prefaced it with a comment about how commendable it is that the French government recognizes that the support of culture, of art and music, makes for a more “sensible” citizenry, better people for France. I was deeply impressed that this sentiment was a given not disputed by anyone. A further thought: we should not be looking for music education to make our children better at math – that’s nonsensical. Classical music, in its own right, is essential in cultivating a more complete human being.
EH: People have spoken about the overwhelming personalities and grandeur of past artists. Are some of these missing in today’s artists, and are they essential in drawing the interest of the public ?
Rodzinski: Not just in the context of music, but I would say in all walks of life - political leaders, writers, actors, painters, etc. There was a period when the world was filled with larger-than-life personalities. We had Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Churchill, Picasso, Shostakovich, Horowitz, Olivier, Hemmingway, Callas, and on and on. There were so many giants in whose shadows we seem to be living today. I don’t know what it is or what has happened. It’s too bad, because to have an Artur Rubinstein bounding onto the stage and performing with his huge joie de vivre is something that we do miss today.
EH: Now that you have the luxury of hindsight, if winning a competition does not guarantee a flourishing career in music, what elements or qualities have you noticed among those who do enjoy overwhelming success ?
Rodzinski: There is so much that goes into the making of a career. No two careers are the same. I think that certain qualities of those who do go on to enjoy success include musical individuality, personality, or at least great musicianship. Careers belong to those who are the outstanding communicators.
EH: Ideally, what can we do to turn the attention of the greater public back to classical music ?
Rodzinski: At a recent conference of American orchestras, someone from the world of commercial advertising remarked “You people in classical music have no idea how to promote your product. You’re back in the Dark Ages when it comes to knowledge in marketing and advertising. Look at, for instance, what film can do for classical music. Look at what film did for Mozart’s Elvira Madigan concerto, look what it did for the Elgar Cello Concerto, or what Shine did for Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto” – even though it was so poorly performed. The potential for the broader public to appreciate classical music is much larger than you realize.
We might have much to learn from East Asia, where classical music is so highly valued. In China, in Korea, and in Japan, the importance placed on musical education is similar to what existed in American during the latter part of the nineteenth century. There is an explosion of classical music and musicians. I think classical music has an enormous future if potential audiences are properly exposed to it.
EH: What is the ideal mindset you would advise to those entering competitions like the Tchaikovsky ?
Rodzinski: One of the things I used to enjoy telling all competitors when they arrived at the orientation meeting at the Cliburn competition was to bear in mind three important rules: “don’t play for the jury, don’t play for the jury, don’t play for the jury.” I think the best way to enjoy a competition is to regard all the rounds as real-world concerts performed for the audience present. At the Cliburn, the competitors have a free choice of repertoire and at the Tchaikovsky, we also now have a much broader range of allowed repertoire. This offers the performer a much more real world experience rather than a music school exam. The competitor must concentrate on simply playing a concert at which a jury is just happening to be present in the same manner that a music critic might in regular concert.
EH: What is the single greatest pianistic performance that you have ever witnessed ? Who was it, what did they play, and what was so unique about it ?
Rodzinski: From early childhood, I was taken to so many incredible performances. But perhaps what was most exciting was when Artur Rubinstein would take a long time to warm-up during the first half of the concert. Occasionally, he would not be quite ‘in the mood’ to perform that day. But he would begin to warm-up during the second half and would realize that he needed to make up to the audience for the first part of the concert. At the end, he would play encores-- six, seven, maybe eight encores. He exhibited such joy as he communicated his love of music to the audience. This was what music-making ought to be all about.
EH: Mr. Rodzinski, it’s been an absolute pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you for taking the time.
Rodzinski: It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Elijah. Thank you!