The Piano Wars

Queen Elisabeth Violin Brussels May 2001
Queen Elisabeth Competition

A couple of years ago, in Brussels on assignment for Smithsonian, I took a stroll along the rue de la Régence from the Royal Palace and the Royal Museums, and within a couple of minutes I came upon the Royal Conservatory of Music, a typically imposing Bruxellois edifice of cumbrously unidentifiable (but presumably royal) style. Smithsonian had asked me to pull together a story on concert pianists—it eventually appeared as "In Praise of Pianos and the Artists Who Play Them" (March 2000)—and I wanted to get a close-up look at some of the best young talent then struggling to break free of their church benefits and other such local triumphs in order to burst into the international big time, that most elusive and frustrating of all goals.

I could hardly have come to a better place than this, because placing in the eponymous Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, founded 50 years ago by Belgium's gracious, music-loving sovereign of the moment, skyrockets the careers of talented young soloists in four disciplines: piano, violin, singing and composition. Every four years one of the disciplines comes around again, and hopeful talents from all over the world flock to Brussels to try their luck. While most competitors are in their mid-20s, at least one, the Romanian pianist Radu Lupu, got in at 16, and the guillotine of the selection committee falls at age 30. The focus is on youth, then, but not babies. Lupu was an exception, explained Cécile Ferrière, then secretary-general of the competition.

"We don't want prodigies," she told me in her sunny office opposite the great music barn. "This is the most grueling of competitions, and we demand artists who have reached a certain maturity. We look for more than the circus act of pure technique alone. We're not impressed by Liszts. We get plenty of them in the first elimination round."

Casually eliminating Liszts is high-handed stuff, but the Queen Elisabeth is one of the world's toughest tests of musical talent and application, and only the strongest have a chance of surviving the three-week obstacle course that every year dominates the month of May in Brussels. The hundred or so applicants accepted for a first audition are mercilessly weeded out in less than half an hour apiece before a jury of top-level performers and professors. All but 24 semifinalists go home with a pat on the back, and then the torture begins for the last two-dozen, judged at this stage by formal, individual recitals of 45 minutes, in which competitors play not only classics they have prepared but also a common benchmark piece of a Belgian composer by which their interpretations may be compared.

It is a pitiless little world there in the recital hall of the Royal Conservatory, and music lovers from all over Belgium flock in to take advantage of the chance to hear possible future superstars against tickets priced (at this stage, anyway) at near giveaway rates. As the ancient and uncontested cultural event of springtime in Brussels, the Queen Elisabeth has its unwritten rules and decorum, and woe unto him who transgresses them. I discovered how far the degree of woefulness can go when I repaired for the first time to the tiny box on the left side of the theater to which the event's press office had assigned me. Since the four chairs squeezed into the exiguous space bore no numbers or other signs of priority, and since the box was otherwise empty, I insouciantly plopped myself into one of the two seats up front and waited for the performances to begin. Very bad idea. Only seconds before the first piano note was struck, my little domain was invaded by a pair of ogresses, two Brussels grandes dames who clearly were veteran Queen Elisabeth groupies and even more clearly were scandalized at my presumption of placement. "Monsieur," the elder one hissed through clenched teeth, "you are occupying our place."

Chastised, I retreated to the back of the box where I belonged, to enjoy the rest of the recital over their hats. Then I made a second mistake: I opened my little notebook to write down a few observations. With the perfect timing of a choreography that the Rockettes could not have bettered, the two powdered faces turned as one and glared at the guilty instruments in my hand. Nor did they fail, after the first composition had been played, to lecture me in colorful detail about the thunderous din of my notebook's pages turning and my ball pen writing.

Continuing through two days of the second round under the steely discipline of my septuagenarian proctors, I could appreciate the near-tragic dilemma facing young musicians today: there are so many of them, and they are so good. In spite of all their years of work and dedication, the awful fact of life is that there is simply not enough room in the world of the performing arts for any more than a handful of them to make a living as soloists. At the Queen Elisabeth 1999, each pianist I heard seemed better than the last, and I was successively convinced that the latest one to play must surely win the grand prize. Alas, none of my choices even came close, and the eventual winner proved to be a 25-year-old Ukrainian named Vitaly Samoshko.

This year the violin's turn has come around, and members of the selection committee are making ready to eliminate a few dozen Paganinis, in quest of the much rarer Oistrakh, Stern or Heifetz. Most of those who fall by the wayside will behave themselves, of course, but so much labor, time and passion is invested in creating a world-level musician that there is always the chance that a few of them will rebel, because the make-or-break pressure can cause some very curious behavior.

Cécile Ferrière told me of the time she watched a young Belgian pianist backstage with his coach, huffing and puffing and psyching himself up for the moment of his recital. The coach was feeding her protégé what appeared to be strawberries, which struck Mme. Ferrière as an odd but still rather sympathetic musical preparation—until she looked closer and saw that the strawberries were in reality chunks of raw meat.

You do what you have to do to win, then, and if tiger food works, you go for it. If cosmic justice is not served and you get eliminated, well, then your artistic temperament takes over and perhaps you indulge in some creative protest. A memorable example occurred some years ago when a (mercifully anonymous) pianist was eliminated in the very first round, and didn't think that was fair.

Come opening day of the second round, a sudden, unseemly commotion interrupted the decorous ceremony as the jury trooped in to take places for the first performance. From the back of the hall, the eliminated pianist had turned himself into a human trench mortar, and was lobbing eggs and rotten tomatoes upon the august heads of those who had done him wrong. It was, apparently, the best performance he had ever given, but he was eliminated from the hall all the same. I don't think he had much of a concert hall career after that.

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