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International Tchaikovsky Competition | Return of the Tchaik

12:27, 3rd December 2014

Gergiev’s new broom and Daniil Trifonov’s win did much to put the one-time world’s most prestigious competition back on the map in 2011. As it gears up for another edition in 2015, its new artistic director Peter Grote talks to Kimon Daltas about root and branch reform

How is a competition’s success and reputation judged? The past 25 years haven’t been particularly kind to the International Tchaikovsky Competition, from James Gibb’s allegations of bribery in 1990, via favourite Freddy Kempf placing third in 1998, to Julian Lloyd Webber early this year singling it out as an example of why young musicians shouldn’t get involved with competitions at all. But really the story of the institution’s fall from grace is less about corruption than it is about parochialism.

Trifonov - c. Dario AcostaGlittering prizes: Daniil Trifonov, winner of the First Prize, Gold Medal, and Grand Prix at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition. © Dario Acosta

Van Cliburn’s win in the first ever edition, at the height of the cold war in 1958, was such a historic event that the competition was saddled with a glorious past before it even got going. Since then, as the statistics built up and Russians dominated the winner’s tables, the whiff of favouritism began to dominate. Nevertheless, a list of piano laureates including Grigory Sokolov, Andrei Gavrilov, Mikhail Pletnev, Boris Berezovsky, Nikolai Lugansky and Denis Matsuev is hardly something be ashamed of, and if you throw in John Ogdon, John Lill, Peter Donohoe and Barry Douglas too, Russocentrism might be a valid criticism, sexism perhaps more so – but the artistic standards are beyond reproach.

Premier choice: first winner Van Cliburn with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev
Premier choice:
first winner Van Cliburn with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev

The same cannot as easily be said for the other sections of the competition: violin, cello, male and female voice. Gidon Kremer, Viktoria Mullova, Jennifer Koh and Deborah Voigt are about the only truly top-flight international artists on those lists, give or take a couple of cellists whose instrument of choice may have imposed a bit of a glass ceiling. A competition’s reputation depends on the reputations of its winners – in order to attract the best, you need to show that you’re picking the best and giving them worthwhile exposure.

Valery Gergiev was given control of the 2011 competition with an express remit to bring transparency and crucially take the winners under his wing and give them concerts once the competition finished. The cello and voice sections were moved from Moscow to St Petersburg, and in a fitting gesture of internationalism, he appointed Richard Rodzinski, the long-time president of the Van Cliburn competition, as general director. He brought in big-name jurors: Maxim Vengerov, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Renata Scotto, Ileana Cotrubas, Barry Douglas and Dmitri Alexeev among them.

For the 2015 competition, it was equally important to appoint a non-Russian to take charge. Enter Peter Grote, a German cellist and for 25 years artistic director of the Kawai organisation – in which capacity he organised concerts, masterclasses, recordings and competitions. He is married to a Russian, he speaks half a dozen languages, including Russian and Japanese, he has contacts all over the musical world and he is prepared for the labyrinthine Kremlin bureaucracy.

And that’s crucial, because the Tchaikovsky competition is both funded and operate by the government. ‘Everything has to go through the ministry of culture,’ Grote says, ‘and the board of the competition is headed by Gergiev and Olga Golodets, the deputy prime minister.

Bringing transparency:  Valery Gergiev © Alexander Shapunov
Bringing transparency:
Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

‘On the one hand it’s a wonderful thing because it means we have state support. It is the biggest competition of its kind in the world. We engage around 50 judges and ten orchestras. No one else in Russia, apart from the government itself, could run such an event.’

On the other hand, everything has to be approved and signed off by a notoriously cumbersome state apparatus and there has never been long-term planning for the legacy of the competition and the promotion of its laureates. Grote hopes to change that, though he is limited by a rolling one-year contract which there is never a guarantee will make it through the bean counters.
‘After the 2011 competition, everything was shut down,’ he says. ‘There was no agency, no office, nothing.’ They even had to change the web domain because they couldn’t work out who had the details for the previous one.

That is all up and running now, however, and hopefuls can register and create a profile online to begin the application process. The full juries have yet to be announced, but 24 international engagements have already been planned, and will be apportioned between the winners.

‘In Russia it is regarded as the highest cultural event,’ says Grote. ‘It gets a massive amount of public attention.’ Can it regain its international reputation? That remains to be seen, but Grote knows his work will be scrutinised, and he’s certainly pushing in the right direction.

Applications for the XV Tchaikovsky International Competition close on 1 February 2015

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