Friday, July 5, 2013

Why don't classical piano competitions identify superstars?

What would it mean for an artistic competition to "work"? Van Cliburn was catapulted to world-wide celebrity when he won Russia's International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, and since then his victory has been cited as the quintessential example of how such events can make a crucial difference in the lives of gifted artists. But Mr. Cliburn retired from the concert stage two decades later, burned out at the unripe age of 43, and most observers put much of the blame for his disintegration on the unnatural effects of his having become an overnight superstar.

Even more to the point, Mr. Cliburn is the only classical musician to whom such a thing has happened. It's been a half-century since any of the first-prize winners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition went on to have indisputably major solo careers. And Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, launched in 1962 in honor of the Texas-born pianist, is notorious for picking gold medalists who fail to make it into the top tier of renown.

Why are music competitions so bad at singling out potentially major artists? Because the winners are chosen by juries. A jury is at bottom a committee—and a committee, as John le CarrĂ© famously said in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is "an animal with four back legs." They exist to generate and perpetuate consensus views. They can't make great art, and it's all but impossible for them to agree on great artists. Such disagreement inevitably leads to compromise, which more often than not produces B-plus winners who please all of the jurors but thrill none of them.
--Terry Teachout, WSJ, on the downside of consensus