Cliburn jury ties to competitors stir questions of fairness

06/03/2013 7:46 AM

11/12/2014 2:48 PM

When Fei-Fei Dong takes the Bass Hall stage tonight in the Cliburn semifinals, her teacher won’t be offstage to offer a last word of encouragement, or in the crowd watching anxiously during her chamber music performance. Yoheved “Veda” Kaplinsky, who has spent hours helping Dong perfect her Schumann piano quintet, will be sitting silently in the Cliburn’s jury box as her 12 fellow esteemed jurors assess every note.

Kaplinsky, chairwoman of the Juilliard School in New York, isn’t the only Cliburn juror who has a student in the semifinals. Two of juror Arie Vardi’s students, Claire Huangci and Beatrice Rana, performed Saturday. Jury member Dmitri Alexeev’s student Nikita Abrosimov played Saturday, too.

In all, nine of the 30 competitors who started the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition were current or former students of the individuals adjudicating it. Four of the jurors’ students advanced to the semifinal round, which started Saturday.

How, exactly, the mentors of these young classical musicians come to sit on the jury of a high-stakes competition in which their students are performing — and how it might affect the outcome — is a source of nagging controversy for the Cliburn.

Even as competition officials contend that it is a common practice in the insular world of classical music, questions of whether juror bias exists at the Cliburn continue to arise. In 2005, one screening juror received death threats over the issue; eight years later, bloggers, critics and fans continue to ask tough questions about it.

More than 750 piano competitions exist worldwide, and 300 take place each calendar year, said Gustav Alink, director and co-founder of the Alink-Argerich Foundation, which tracks international piano competitions. And while the World Federation of International Music Competitions requires its members to abide by certain standards — such as having a minimum of seven jurors — the rules on jurors as teachers of competitors can vary widely from competition to competition.

The Cliburn has a history of jurors having students in the competition, as do many other piano contests.

The Cliburn also maintains strict rules for teacher-jurors. They are not allowed to vote on their students. And they are not allowed to have any interaction whatever with their students — or any competitors — during the competition.

“Being on the jury, if anything, is a liability for your own student because you can’t vote for them anyhow,” Kaplinsky said. She also rejects the idea that jurors would try to lower scores of competitors to advance their own students, saying a dishonest juror would not be allowed back on to a jury.

Still, with a $50,000 cash prize — the largest in the 51-year-old Cliburn’s history — and three years of international concert engagements at stake for the winner, questions of the competition’s integrity have swirled both among those watching the competition in the hall and among audiences that have followed it on the live webcast, through social media and in international news publications.

Simply put, it is a problem of perception, Alink said.

“Teacher-student relationships have to be avoided as much as possible,” he said. “Even if the jury members are totally honest, people will talk, and you’ll get rumors and that’s very bad for the competition.”

The whiffs of a controversy began before the first note of the competition was played May 24.

During screening auditions in January and February by a jury that traveled to Hong Kong, Germany, Moscow, Italy, New York and Fort Worth, 132 pianists tried out. When the names of the 30 invited into the Cliburn were announced in March, eyebrows were raised at the fact that a third of the competitors had attended the Julliard School.

Adding to the whispers of impropriety, when the official program book for the Cliburn was unveiled in May, the names of the competitors’ teachers were not published. They had been listed in each competitors’ program biography since the 1966 competition.

New Cliburn Foundation President and CEO Jacques Marquis has responded to local critics and bloggers by maintaining that the competition is about the pianists and not their instructors.

“It’s not an issue about the teachers; it’s an issue about the music played on the stage,” Marquis said. “We have the focus on this competition to launch careers, and you don’t win a competition because of your teacher, you win a competition because you play well.”

Jurors and students at past Cliburns

The 2013 Cliburn jury consists of 13 distinguished musicians, piano teachers and a music critic representing eight countries: the United States, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, China, Japan and Colombia.

Since the first Cliburn Competition in 1962, in only one competition year, 2001, were there no jurors’ students competing, according to an analysis of previous Cliburn program books by the Star-Telegram.

The juror with the most students during a single competition was famed American pianist Leon Fleisher. Fleisher, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, had six students in the 1973 Cliburn, the highest finishing in the third stage.

Renowned pianist Vlado Perlemuter had five students enter the Cliburn when he was a juror in 1973. His pupil Christian Zacharias took home the second-place prize.

In 2005, Kaplinsky sat on the screening jury that traveled the world to choose which pianists would be admitted to the Cliburn. When seven of her students made it, she stepped down from the competition jury.

During that competition, Kaplinsky received death threats and harassing emails. Her student Joyce Yang captured the silver medal.

The police investigation was inconclusive, and Kaplinsky told the Star-Telegram then that she would reconsider serving on juries if her students were in the competition.

Kaplinsky returned to the Cliburn jury in 2009, and again this year, even as several of her students have made the cut.

“The most important thing to me is my reputation, and when I see it threatened for no good reason, it’s very upsetting, and I have no recourse because you can’t prove a negative,” Kaplinsky said about rumors that her students are favored at the Cliburn.

Yang’s second-place finish, she pointed out, is the only time one of her students has placed at the Cliburn.

“There is no way that I could prove that I didn’t do anything wrong” during the screening audition in 2005, she said, “and I figured the only way I could prove it is to go into competition again because I figured everybody would realize if I did anything wrong they wouldn’t ask me back, right? It didn’t work.”

Other competitions

In the world of piano competitions, the Cliburn is regarded as one of the most prestigious. A survey of the three others as highly esteemed as the Cliburn — the Chopin competition in Poland, the Queen Elisabeth in Brussels and the Tchaikovsky in Moscow — shows they have grappled with the juror-teacher issue in different ways over the years.

The International Fryderyk Chopin competition does not allow jurors to vote on their students, Executive Manager Jerzy Michniewicz said in an email from Poland.

“Jurors have to declare who from the list of participants is/was their student,” Michniewicz said. “The term ‘student’ is precisely defined.”

The Queen Elisabeth competition, which ended Saturday, also does not allow jurors to vote on their own students. But it has also faced controversy this year, as audience members were left wondering why the jury advanced a semifinalist to the finals after he abruptly stopped playing in the middle of his Mozart concerto and had to restart a section with the orchestra.

The International Tchaikovsky Competition used to allow its jurors to votes for their students.

“They had a very serious problem in the past,” said Richard Rodzinski, general director for the Tchaikovsky and former Cliburn chief. “It was filled with teachers who blatantly and openly were voting for their own pupils.”

Rodzinski helped the Tchaikovsky implement the mathematical scoring system he used at the Cliburn before he resigned in 2009. This system lessened the influence of teachers from the Moscow Conservatory, he said.

Although it may seem like the world is filled with concert pianists and teachers who could adequately judge a piano competition, Rodzinski said, there actually is a small pool of talent to draw on for contests at the highest levels. Therefore, he said, it would be impossible to eliminate teachers altogether from juries like the Cliburn’s or the Tchaikovsky’s.

“I think [the criticism of the Cliburn] is a little bit unfair,” Rodzinski said. “There are certain master teachers and obviously, Veda [Kaplinsky] is a master teacher. She’s also a wonderful juror.”

But not all piano teachers are eager to be put in a position to judge their own students.

William Nabore, a Rome-based instructor who has five students in this year’s Cliburn — two of whom made the semifinals — has made it a personal policy not to be on juries because so many of his students enter competitions.

“If you go to be on a jury, if you vote one way, people are going to say you favored this one,” he said, “and if you vote another way, people are going to say you did something.”

A question of transparency

As these questions of honesty and fairness have dogged top piano competitions, the competitions have come up with a number of ways over the past decade to make their proceedings more transparent, Alink said.

More are publishing complete rules of their competitions, whether in their program books or on their websites, and more information is being disclosed to the public about how juries decide a winner.

The Chopin competition, for example, publishes all the scores given by individual jurors to individual competitors.

At the Cliburn, Marquis said he believes that it would be harder to attract quality jurors if their ballots were revealed. He declined the Star-Telegram’s request to be present in the jury room during the balloting after the first phase of the competition Thursday night but offered interviews with individual jurors the next day.

The Star-Telegram has been allowed in the jury room during voting in previous Cliburn competitions.

“I believe in this moment when they get their ballots, they need their privacy to work because they’re looking at their notes,” Marquis said.

The Cliburn published its entire voting procedure this year in the competition’s program book, describing a new “yes/no” scoring process. (This system also allows jurors to add “maybes” in case there is tie among competitors for the sixth spot in the finals.) If a juror places a “yes” or “no” next to his or her student’s name, the vote will be thrown out.

Marquis said the “yes/no” or “pass/fail “scoring system ensures more definitive results. No ties will be allowed.

“The worst case for competitions is the lack of transparency, and we have to change that, and a lot of competitions are going to the yes/no process,” he said.

The Cliburn jurors are also to fill out their ballots in silence after each round of the competition, said John Giordano, who has been jury chairman since 1973.

The one time he allowed open discussion and open voting — during deliberations in 1977 — there were problems, he said.

“It really is not fruitful,” Giordano said. “That 1977 jury had a lot of luminaries — important people in the music business — and there’s always a perception, whether it’s true or not that someone, a major artist, can influence others.”

During that competition, there was dissension among the jury, and some of them didn’t speak to each other again after the votes were revealed, Giordano said.

The Cliburn vets its jurors, conducting a background check and examining their work at other competitions, he said. The jurors also have to sign affadavits identifying the relationships they have had with competitors.

“We have been very careful throughout the years to engage jurors who aren’t in a bloc,” Giordano said. For example, during the Cold War, the Cliburn competition intentionally did not choose multiple Soviet Union or Chinese judges who could have been perceived as voting together.

Over the past decade, several competitions have experimented with varying judging methods — some that use numerical scores, and some that use a pass/fail type of vote.

Alink said a new hybrid system that combines the two methods has been tested at the Queen Elisabeth and the Chopin competitions. This procedure, he said, is more objective and is harder to manipulate if a particular juror wants a specific competitor to win.

“It’s impossible to be totally objective, especially in art,” Alink said. “But of course, it’s difficult to accept that because people want to have a fair judgment.”

No matter the voting system used — whether a yes/no procedure or a numerical calculation — ultimately, judging music and musicianship is subjective, Giordano said.

“The cream always rises to the top,” he said. “Now, there can be disagreement between what the cream is, but the general quality of the competitors has risen to the point where we hear very few youngsters who can’t play the piano well.”

As Marquis considers what type of jury he wants to assemble for the 2017 Cliburn, teachers likely will be a part of it, whether or not they have students in the competition, he said.

“For me, the first thing I’m looking for is someone who is competent and has an open mind,” Marquis said. “And if it is a teacher, because the [scoring] system is well-done for that, I will not have a problem to invite her or him to the competition.”


Teacher-jurors and competitors

Year Students with teachers on the jury Jurors with students in the competition* Highest finish of the competitor
2013 9 3
2009 7 3 Finalist
2005** 7 1 Second
2001 0 0 0
1997 3 2 Preliminaries
1993 6 3 Semifinalist
1989 2 2 Fourth
1985 4 2 Preliminaries
1981 2 2 Semifinalist
1977 7 2 Third Stage
1973 5 1 Second
1969 1 1 Sixth
1966 3 2 Semifinalist
1962 Teachers not listed in the program

*Includes screening jurors.

**The juror involved was only on the screening jury and not on the competition jury.

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