Rhinegold Publishing

Tchaik thrives

3:56, 5th August 2015

The International Tchaikovsky Competition returned for its 15th edition and its second outing since Valery Gergiev was tasked with restoring its international reputation. Ismene Brown reports from Moscow and St Petersburg.

Watchful gaze: Tchaikovsky's portrait hangs above the laureates
Watchful gaze: Tchaikovsky’s portrait hangs above the laureates

In the course of a month of heats from 9 June to the winners’ concert on 3 July, the Tchaikovsky competition kept up its reputation for news-making. A highly politicised event ever since its inception in the Soviet era in 1958, when famously the American Van Cliburn was awarded the top piano prize, the Tchaikovsky International Music Competition competition found itself embedded in political turmoil yet again. With Russia’s isolation by the west over its interference in Ukraine, and the nationalistic recent utterances of the country’s cultural leaders – not to mention the fact that 2015 is Tchaikovsky’s 175th anniversary year – conditions seemed potentially in place for a reverse towards the dubious judgments of past years, especially given the overwhelming predominance of Russians among the 623 entrants.

On the contrary, while the shortage of European and American candidates was no surprise, one of the event’s biggest stories concerned a French pianist, who despite coming last in the finals was hailed by the Russians as a uniquely compelling musician. Lucas Debargue, 24, had a relatively scant professional training, as his teacher, a former Moscow Conservatoire alumna, explained. A devotee of jazz, he taught himself much of his music by ear. His playing captured the imagination of listeners both live in Moscow during the piano rounds and in the extensive Medici.tv broadcasts to the world.

Although judges placed him lowest in the piano final, due to his total inexperience in playing with an orchestra, jury members Boris Berezovsky and Denis Matsuev swiftly made known their views that he is exceptional. The Moscow critics awarded him their prize for artistry and two Debargue recitals were quickly announced, in St Petersburg during the White Nights Festival and Moscow in December.

Capturing the imagination: 24-year-old Lucas Debargue
Capturing the imagination: 24-year-old Lucas Debargue

The Debargue excitement overshadowed the fine achievement of the piano gold medallist, the thoughtful Siberian Dmitry Masleev, 27, (who had lost his mother during the competition), and the warm Russian reception given to the ebullient 19-year-old American George Li, joint silver medallist. They are expected to appear on the international winners’ tours this autumn under Valery Gergiev.

The Mariinsky chief was once again chairman of the competition’s organising committee, and repeated his successful formula from 2011 of engaging an international group of star performers and leading agents as judges – rather than teachers – and using a ‘blind’ voting system. The system was widely considered to have proved its integrity; some ten million viewers of the copious Medici.tv streams of all performances were able to test the judgments against their own.

Also notable was the continuing East Asian surge in classical excellence. The Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, 27, won the $100,000 (£64,400) Grand Prix as well as the male voice gold medal and $30,000 (£19,300) first prize, and the young Taiwanese violinist, Yu-Chien Tseng, 20, was silver medallist, winning $20,000 (£12,900) in his category. As in 2011, no first prize was awarded by the violin jurors, who included James Ehnes, Maxim Vengerov and Salvatore Accardo.

The voice competitions were also somewhat lacklustre, both Ganbaatar and the Russian mezzo-soprano Yulia Matochkina being predictable winners. The outstanding Matochkina, 32, already has a career going with the Mariinsky Theatre under Gergiev, and has sung at the Edinburgh Festival and the Proms. Given her established profile, it is a mark of the importance Russians attach to visible honours that she risked entering the competition.

The risk was demonstrated by the failure of two former Tchaikovsky medallists to improve their records. Cellist Alexander Buzlov, second in 2007, and at 31 a well-regarded international soloist, only won third this time in a strong cello section, headed off by the gifted 20-year-old Romanian Andrei Ionița. The 2007 bronze medal pianist Alexander Lubyantsev did not even get through the preliminary auditions and he aired his disappointment in an unfortunate YouTube video claiming that he could no longer support himself except by entering competitions.

This ‘competitionitis’ was noted by judges as a rising hazard in building a music career nowadays. However, in his awards speech, Gergiev stressed that the Tchaikovsky competition was no longer a harsh win/lose arena but a place for opportunity, and that all the finalists could expect nurturing and assistance. Even though President Putin attended the winners’ gala, declaring the Tchaikovsky a Russian national asset, it was broadly felt that at the XV competition music had beaten the politics.

Valery Gergiev will be conducting Mariinsky Orchestra and winners of the competition in concerts at Cadogan Hall, London (26 October) and Symphony Hall, Birmingham (28 October 2015) 



Valery Gergiev, competition chairman: ‘The one task is to make your art speak so clearly with such warmth and beauty that it will become infectious. We’ll do our utmost to help you find your place in this huge world of classical music’

Lukas Geniušas, joint 2nd piano finalist: ‘It feels like a responsibility to be here. The early rounds are like an exam. The final is more of a festive occasion’

Thomas Quasthoff, voice juror: ‘What I miss with young artists, a little bit, is the fantasy. Sometimes I think there’s a bit too much control – is my tongue in the right place, am I standing right, and so on. Music has to be really an obsession, otherwise do something else. Because this profession needs 100% of your energy, your spirit, your heart, your physical presence – and if that isn’t there, do something else’

Dmitri Bashkirov, piano juror: ‘The Russian public needs to be divided into those who feel the music, and those – unfortunately the larger part, and not only in our country – who react strongly to the technical externals of playing. There are some very talented people, but they play in such an extreme way that it’s not music, it’s as if the music doesn’t contain everything but needs the sturm und drang. Those who really love music soon get tired of listening to it’

Pablo Ferrández-Castro, 4th-placed cello finalist: ‘The only thing you can ask for in an event like this is to feel good playing, and at least whatever happens you can have a good feeling about yourself’

Sir Clive Gillinson, cello juror: ‘In most countries if a concert lasts longer than two hours people start leaving. Here the Russian people happily sit in a concert for four hours. The arts are held to their hearts by the Russian people in a way that I would say is unique in the world. For instance no other country would name their aeroplanes after musicians and artists’

Gerrit Glaner, head of artists, Steinway & Son: ‘Even though we all know it’s a pianists’ competition, it’s also Formula 1. Here are the drivers, and here are the cars. You feel you can never let a pianist down, could you? Because what they do is so delicate, so absolutely on a knife-edge’




1st prize (gold medal and $30,000) and Round II Concerto prize: Dmitry Masleev (Russia)

Joint 2nd (silver medal and $20,000): Lukas Geniušas (Russia-Lithuania) & George Li (USA)

Joint 3rd (bronze medal and $10,000): Daniel Kharitonov & Sergey Redkin (Russia)

4th ($5,000) and Moscow Critics’ award for artistry: Lucas Debargue (France)



1st (gold medal and $30,000) and $100,000 Grand Prix: Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar (Mongolia)

2nd: Chuanyue Wang (China)

3rd: Hansung Yoo (South Korea)

4th: Dmitry Grigoriev (Russia)



1st: Yulia Matochkina (Russia)

2nd: Svetlana Moskalenko (Russia)

3rd: Mane Galoyan (Armenia)

4th: Antonina Vesenina (Russia)



No 1st prize

2nd: Yu-Chien Tseng (Taiwan)

3rd joint: Alexandra Conunova (Moldova), Haik Kazazyan (Russia), Pavel Milyukov (Russia)

4th and Round II Concerto prize: Clara-Jumi Kang (Germany)

5th: Bomsori Kim (South Korea)



1st: Andrei Ioniță (Romania)

2nd: Alexander Ramm (Russia)

3rd: Alexander Buzlov (Russia)

4th: Pablo Ferrández-Castro (Spain)

5th: Seung Min Kang (South Korea)

6th: Jonathan Roozeman (Netherlands)

Round II Concerto Prize: Fyodor Amosov (Russia)



 Hervé Boissière, founder of Medici.tv, on the huge operation to live-stream the entirety of the competition – and the impressive results


This is the first year you’ve filmed the International Tchaikovsky Competition – how has the response been?

We were hoping that the competition would have a very big impact, because it’s probably one of the most prestigious and influential in the world, but it has surpassed our expectations. It means everything to know that there are so many people around the world watching and discussing these young artists, because most of them are appearing for the first time in front of an audience of this size. It really is the best justification for everything we do, and it’s very exciting.

It’s also the first time you’ve broadcast a competition from start to finish.

Maybe that explains why there’s a strong viral impact. People follow the competition as if it were the Olympics. From what we’ve seen on social networks, they’re really enjoying the suspense and want to know more about the candidates. They like being able to trace their progress through each round. We broadcast Operalia every year, and we’ve also done a few others, but the Tchaikovsky competition is the biggest and most challenging we’ve ever done.

There has been quite a lot of activity on social media too.

This time it’s even bigger than Operalia or anything else we’ve done. It’s a great way to create a buzz around the performers. We’ve just been measuring the response through the official Twitter hashtag – we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of people discussing the competition, and there are many more who aren’t using it. But it’s great to see such an enthusiastic response, because the Tchaikovsky competition is such good music, and can really help young musicians in their careers.

Where is the majority of the audience coming from?

Around 30% from Russia, 20% from the rest of Asia, 20% from Europe and 20% from America. Most of our viewers are from Russia, then the USA next, then Germany. We broadcast the competition differently in China, because we know it’s difficult to deliver live-streaming from Europe because of the internet system they use. We’re using a delayed channel which makes it available for everyone, and we’re hoping that will really increase the audience in the coming weeks. We couldn’t really open it before the competition, so we started it on Day 1.

Is the audience interested in a particular round or category?

Not really. Everyone seems to be following the competition through its different rounds. The diversity of contestants is great, and anyone could become a finalist – it’s totally open. You can’t predict what is going to happen, which is very exciting. The jury and audience have been especially impressed by the quality of the contestants this year. The viewers are really enjoying being part of that adventure.

Will this new partnership continue in the future?

Yes, of course! We’d be happy to have a regular partnership. There aren’t many competitions like this one. We’re showcasing the stars of tomorrow – when you see what Trifonov has done over the last four years, it’s incredible. It’s a great opportunity to be able to support these young people. Some of them have already made a name for themselves, and others are completely unknown. We’re helping them to show their work to a wide audience in the best possible conditions early in their careers, and that’s a great reward. We want to be useful!

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