Young Musicians Can’t Fake It to Make It

Are competitions or mentorship better for jump-starting a career?

The Wall Street Journal
By Stuart Isacoff | April 8, 2015

Young classical musicians have a tough time of it these days. Sixty or 70 years ago, with the right kind of talent and temperament, top performers simply swept into view like forces of nature. Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin, Glenn Gould and Byron Janis made their places in history without the accouterments of a competition medal or a glitzy marketing ploy. Lang Lang is the latest in that line. But he’s a tough act to follow. Most in this overcrowded field face a serious dilemma.

Of the options available for jump-starting a career, winning a competition seems less effective year by year. Van Cliburn, who at 23 won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 and promptly produced the first classical recording to sell a million copies, became the unrepeatable model. In the years since, international musical contests have exploded in number. In 1945, there were only five major international piano competitions. Today there are at least 750.

Now there seems to be a new trend emerging: Young musicians mentored by established artists. Renowned pianist Richard Goode shared the stage in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall this February and March with musicians he had mentored at the Marlboro Music Festival over several seasons. A similar approach has been brewing at the 92nd Street Y, the outgrowth of a conversation between Sir András Schiff and Hanna Arie-Gaifman, the Y’s director of the Tisch Center for the Arts. Sir András suggested choosing three pianists he had heard in master classes, giving them the right kind of exposure to enhance what they had already started by presenting them in New York, Berlin and elsewhere.

The mentoring route is attractive for many reasons: The endorsement of a well-established artist can make a world of difference; the musicians don’t face psychological pressures to be solicitous of a jury; and, unlike the sometimes burdensome repertoire requirements of competitions, each pianist chooses his own program. This last element “tells us something about the taste and the self-critical ability of the player,” explains Sir András.

Yet despite composer Béla Bartok’s observation that they are for horses not people, competitions offer advantages, too. They test the performers’ mettle and give them the opportunity to measure themselves against the field. And when the prize includes both significant money and career development, as it does in the American Pianists Association events, which alternate between classical and jazz contests, the payoff can be enormous.

To find out which path led to the most musically satisfying results, I attended two of the three recitals presented by the Y at the Greenwich Village venue SubCulture in February and March, and listened to a recording of the third. Then I joined the audience at the finals of the APA jazz competition in Indianapolis on March 27-28.

Sir András had chosen musicians with a variety of sensibilities. They included Kuok-Wai Lio, “a sensitive pianist with a strong affinity to Mozart and Schubert,” he said; Roman Rabinovich, “who is full of imagination, with playing that is communicative and joyous”; and Adam Golka, “a highly intelligent player who is not afraid of challenges.”

For a listener, the outcome was mixed. Any performer is faced with certain challenges: recognizing a work’s historical context, using all the technical resources needed to bring it to life, maintaining the integrity of the composer’s idea and yet investing it with a personal vision.

Mr. Lio’s ideas seemed lost in a sea of excessive caution and politeness. He simply did not bring enough of himself to the table. Mr. Rabinovich’s performance ranged from a very dry Bach, a bit lacking in structural cohesiveness, to splendidly jazzy Bartok, where the cranking repetitive phrases built steam like a locomotive chugging its way into action. His Brahms nicely balanced Romantic fervor and classical restraint, with dollops of quirky playfulness. But to my ears his rendition of Bedrich Smetana’s Czech Dances, though creative and colorful, sometimes lost sight of the underlying dance.

On the other hand, Mr. Golka, whose program consisted of two huge works—Brahms’s First Piano Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata—was something to cheer about. This was playing with dramatic flair and conviction, bold yet musical, filled with risk-taking. He threw himself into the performance with abandon, and he had the skill to pull it off. (Make what you will of the fact that Mr. Golka is a previous winner of the American Pianists Association classical competition.)

At the APA jazz finals, the pianists—Christian Sands, Sullivan Fortner, Emmet Cohen, Zach Lapidus and Kris Bowers—were all of such a high quality that it made the judge’s task impossibly hard. “If you had a contest in which the pianists were Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Bill Evans,” one of the jurors, Bill Charlap, confided to me afterward, “how would you choose?”

The organization’s brilliant director, Joel Harrison, gave the finalists challenges that would have proved daunting to almost anyone. There were sets of solo and trio playing in the intimate setting of a local jazz club, in contrast to the next evening’s program in a large theater. The effects of those different venues on the players was enlightening, and the second night also provided the opportunity to hear these very original talents in collaboration with mastersinger Dianne Reeves, as well as with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra.

The performances with Ms. Reeves were the highlight for me. They demonstrated the power of spontaneous communication between improvisers working at the top of their game, and provided moments of exquisite beauty. In the end, Mr. Fortner was declared the winner. But there were no losers in this group.

Mr. Isacoff is at work on a book about Van Cliburn and the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition.