Cliburn: An article beyond the pale…poison Iv(r)y

Just how far behind the times is the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Ivry?  Close to 10 years, and bravo (not!) to him for proclaiming that the blind should not be allowed to play concertos, so does he have a problem with the deaf writing music also?  You have to read his article to believe it…

So Benjamin Ivry doesn’t agree with the Cliburn jury’s decisions, nothing wrong with that although it is one non Pianist observer watching on the Internet versus 10 of the most esteemed Pianists around watching live.  However three things stand out.  Firstly this blatantly discriminatory statement about co-Gold medalist Nobuyuki Tsujii and any aspiring sight challenged musician:

Soloists who cannot see a conductor’s cues should not be playing concertos in public, out of simple respect for the composers involved.

Really?  So what he is saying is that music should have boundaries, that blind people should not have ambition.  I could write chapter and verse on this (and I will write about the two winners next week) but instead I will just offer a question and a thought:

Question:  So in that case if Beethoven was alive today, would Mr. Ivry suggest that he shouldn’t write music because he can’t hear it out of “respect” for the composers who can hear?

Thought:  I was at all of the rehearsals with Nobuyuki and the orchestra and with the combination of his musicianship and Conlon’s breathing, it was one of the most communicative and pure music making experiences I have ever witnessed. Oh and by the way, soloists don’t follow conductors cues, it’s usually the other way round!  By all accounts the Takacs quartet were very taken with him also and his ability to communicate through music, which by the way is a form of communication is it not?

Secondly: This from his diatribe:

John Giordano, who leads the aforementioned dispiriting Fort Worth Symphony.

NEWS FLASH:  John Giordano has not been music director since the 99/2000 season.  Way to go on checking your facts!  The music director since 2000 (3 Cliburns ago) has been and still is Miguel Harth-Bedoya…so Mr. Ivry what did you think of President Bill Clinton’s speech in Cairo last week?…..

And thirdly this, an obvious dig at the Fort Worth Symphony and then the Takacs quartet:

Texas boasts a number of accomplished orchestras, so why not give the Fort Worth ensemble a rest for the next competition and instead invite the world-class Norwegian maestro Per Brevig’s nearby East Texas Symphony or the Dutchman Jaap van Zweden’s Dallas Symphony as house orchestra in the spirit of healthy competition? Likewise, requiring all contestants to perform chamber music with the brash, imprecise Takács Quartet from Hungary did precious few favors this year to listeners or the art form of the piano quintet.

Now obviously as I am the FWSO principal pops conductor and assistant conductor for the Cliburn I am quite partial to the FWSO but I do believe them to be world class.  The East Texas Symphony much like my Springfield Symphony is a regional per-service ensemble, and I have not heard them live so I can’t and wont make a comparison (judging by the quality of the musicians in the DFW area they are sure to be very good), but I would be interested to know if Mr. Ivry has heard them live, or the FWSO live for that matter (perhaps at their critically acclaimed Carnegie Hall concert last January?) so he can accurately compare them.  Oh and by the way, it is a Piano Competition, not an Orchestra compteition.  Orchestras by and large don’t compete, that’s not what we are in to!  As to the Takacs, any suggestions for an alternative quartet from Southeast Wyoming for instance that you consider world class through the sonic wonders of your computer speaker system?

Paging Keith Oberlmann, I have a candidate for “Gold Medal” (no co winner on this one) for Worst Person in the WOOOOORLD…..cue Bach….

12 thoughts on “Cliburn: An article beyond the pale…poison Iv(r)y”

  1. Ron – thank you for some SANE comments! After seeing and hearing much of the competition live, it was evident that Nobuyuki Tsujii not only possessed incredibly solid technique, but was also an interpeter of rare sensitivity. His performances showed both command and exquisite taste, from his opening Chopin Études, op. 10 and Book I of Debussy’s Images. The two Beethoven sonatas exuded profundity and passion, and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 demonstrated he wasn’t to be rattled by an orchestra arriving at an unexpectedly faster tempo than he clearly desired, and in which he went on to achieve a performance of much depth. Neither Tsujii, nor the Takács Quartet from Hungary (actually now from Boulder!) merit this unbelievably obtuse commentary, reinforced by inaccuracies. Readers of Benjamin Ivry’s Opinion, beware!

  2. Thanks, Ron. Another little fact-checking problem in the Ivry article: the Takacs, from Hungary. Not lately! The first violinist is English, the violist American, and they’ve been resident in the US since 1983.

    What strikes me also is that Ivry has no idea what goes on in rehearsals. And no imagination about non-visual communication between a soloist and conductor. I wonder if he wants to keep deaf percussionists from playing concertos too.

  3. Ron:

    Ivry’s article was a disgrace. He should be fired.

    Fact checking? For starters, he didn’t even attend the Cliburn. And has the gall to castigate the players, the jury and the competition as he did? And not bother to mention in his “review” that he wasn’t even there? What an asshole!

    His glib, whiny, trashy rundown of people (Olga: a peasant; Kobrin: plodding; Conlon/FWSO: second-rate;) added up to nothing, and made it clear that any positive arguments he had were not likely to hold water either. It’s the antithesis of what thoughtful, valuable, critical analysis should do for caring readers.

    He obviously has no clue of the basic nature of juried arts events. A jury is an averaging process. In a music competition, a very common result is that the flamboyant/emotive/controversial performers evoke a love/hate reaction, and bubble down in the rankings. The relatively noncontroversial/note-perfect/middle-of-the-road types tend to advance.

    The finals this year were an odd mix. But you can sort rank them from least controversial (interpretively speaking) to most:


    Not too surprising that the three at the top got medals, and the three at the bottom did not.

    I sent a strong letter back to Ivry directly, and to the WSJ editor. I’ll paste it into the next comment.

    Michael Hawley

  4. From: Michael Hawley []
    Sent: Thursday, June 11, 2009 4:44 PM
    Cc: Michael Hawley;
    Subject: What Was the Jury Thinking?


    You and I have exchanged emails in the past. So I thought I’d just
    reply directly.

    Your recent article — What Was The Van Cliburn Jury Thinking? — is
    one of the more irresponsible bits of hack journalism I’ve seen. It
    does a great injustice not just to the Cliburn competition, but to
    readers of the Wall Street Journal. For starters, if you’d actually
    troubled to GO to Fort Worth to attend the events, and if you’d talked
    with the jury, you’d know the answer. Anyone reading your article
    would assume you were there. The fact that you didn’t explicitly
    mention that you weren’t is crassly misleading — and it’s certainly
    no basis for ladling out the glib, snippy cuts as you did.

    I was struck by this: “Soloists who cannot see a conductor’s cues
    should not be playing concertos in public out of respect for the
    composers.” (Art Tatum, Stevie Wonder, and Artur Rubinstein at 90
    come to mind). But what about music critics who don’t bother to
    actually attend the concerts they publicly trash?

    As it happens, I was in Fort Worth for the finals, every note. I did
    talk with the jury. So I do know what many were thinking. But let me
    first characterize my perspective for you.

    I think you recall a bit about me. Obviously, I’ve made my career in
    other domains, but music is my first love: I studied with Earl Wild,
    Claude Frank, Ward Davenny; had a music scholarship at Yale; have
    given recitals in several countries, and concerto appearances with
    BSO, NJ Symphony, Fort Worth of course, etc. I played three times in
    the Cliburn competition for outstanding amateurs (bombed out once, was
    a finalist once, and a winner once). After I “graduated,” I gave my
    time to serve as a juror (a lot of work), and as a blogger the next
    year (a lot of work). Many jurors over the years have become friends,
    as have competitors. I’ve attended several of the “professional”
    competitions (including especially the last three) and chipped in most
    recently as a blogger as you may have seen. I’m mentioning this
    simply so you know I’ve taken real time to get to know the foundation
    and its competitions, from many perspectives, thoughtfully and over
    the years. I was in Fort Worth not only for every note of the finals,
    but for all the symposia, parties, schmoozing opportunities; I
    compared notes with audience members, friends in the press. I not
    only listened to music, I took Andrea Lam and her Dad to dinner —
    partly because I was taken with her playing and was eager to know her
    a bit better. I spent as much time as I could with many others. My
    fiancee, Nina, was with me, and we had a chance to reflect on these
    many dimensions together. We drank plenty of Margeritas with
    Mariangela Vacatello, and I gave my database of 15,000 scanned PDF
    piano scores to Mischa Lifits. I spoke with Nobu Tsujii and his Mom
    several times. We were brushed off by Evgeni several times, and by
    Yeol Eum; not big talkers. I asked Haochen about the playlists in his
    ubiquitous iPod, and about his ping pong prowess and other hobbies.
    We chatted with your favorite, Di, whose playing and sincere passion I
    enjoyed, too. I took time to get to know them as people as well as
    listening attentively to all their performances. And no, the Cliburn
    doesn’t pay me or even “comp” me (as they would you): we bought our
    own tickets, hotel, taxis, meals.

    Here is my perspective as a somewhat seasoned observer.

    Murky? First, and foremost, of all the competitions I know, the two
    major international competitions that the Cliburn runs are the least
    “murky.” They are truly run more like festivals than nail-biting high-
    stakes competitions fraught with political intrigue, or ruled over by
    a cult of arbitrary screwball judges. Pianists pick their own
    repertoire, and recitals are treated as concerts, not clinical exams
    — attended by the public at large, and broadcast (which is to say
    webcast, these days). When competitors don’t pass on to the next
    level, they still have the pleasure of playing additional concerts at
    other venues (and Fort Worth has some real beauties). Outside of
    concerts, there are public symposia run by jurors and musicians,
    master classes, movie screenings, parties galore. Pianists are
    adopted by host families, and Steinway ships pianos to homes that need
    them. It’s all about as un-murky, and as wonderfully musical, as it
    can possibly be given the circumstance. Even at the outset, before
    the competition, a screening jury flies all over the world, a grueling
    odyssey, listening to a hundred applicants perform live on their home
    turf (or as near as they can get) — quite extraordinary, really.
    It’s not as if they’d just settle for watching a webcast, and then
    have Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul pass judgment.

    Second, their two notable competitions are just a part of the larger
    work of the Cliburn foundation — which is to encourage wonderful
    music making. The Cliburn Concerts series are superb and attract
    wonderful performers yearlong. They run outreach programs in
    schools. The Cliburn competitions feed into that, of course, and gain
    great notoriety, but competitions per se are certainly not the be-all
    or end-all. Just by creating the Amateur competition, the Cliburn has
    helped spawn dozens of similar piano love-fests around the world. And
    while obviously the three medalists are boosted heavily via concert
    management for three years, ALL of the six finalists are promoted to a
    considerable degree, and many other competitors are as well. The
    Cliburn staff work as thoughtful matchmakers on behalf of the
    deserving pianists — not just the obvious medalists, but spreading
    the overflow of concert opportunities to the other finalists and
    semifinalists, too. Just by making it to Fort Worth, a pianist will
    be heard. I’d be surprised if any other foundation comes remotely
    near them in terms of exposing young talent to a broader public. And
    of course, it’s not by accident that so much was webcast to the world
    — not only the performances, but documentaries, intimate
    backgrounders on all the competitors, inside peeks at the volunteer
    staff and process, discussions among the jurors, rehearsals with
    conductor, orchestra, chamber groups. This is an open book, and I’m
    not sure how it could realistically be any more open.

    Third, the jurors’ instructions are remarkably plain: they’re asked to
    look for musicians who are ready, now, to play three years worth of
    concerts around the world. The jury is a mix of teachers, critics,
    performers, conductors — and each of them puts their life on hold to
    come and listen to every single note for 17 days. Frankly, thoughtful
    dedication is more important than a celebrity factor here. The
    actual decision is essentially an averaging process. Pianists are
    given numerical scores that are normalized and averaged,
    algorithmically: the cream is skimmed off to advance to the next
    round. Those that fall in a gray area, or trigger statistical
    aberrations, are discussed. Regardless of the mix of jurors,
    averaging by committee tends to promote consistency and demote
    idiosyncrasy. It’s not rocket science to predict that a middle-of-the-
    road, note-perfect player who smiles will generally fare better than a
    wildly flamboyant, strongly opinionated performer who snorts and
    emotes. And at the end of the day, we all know that one’s likes or
    dislikes are purely subjective: different performers connect (or not)
    with different individuals. It’s so often the case that a juror will
    be smitten with a pianist who, for one reason or another, does not
    advance. They’ll buttonhole that person, and so often, friendships
    and really valuable connections result.

    Like many, I was struck by the fact that the jury’s cut from 12
    semifinalists to 6 finalists was 100% in agreement with the online
    internet vote. Did you think the jury suddenly changed in the final
    round? Here’s my sense of it. The playing in the final round was
    uneven, and there was far less consensus (in the blogs, in the online
    voting, and in the jury results). People who had been weaker in the
    semifinals played better; people who had been stronger favorites after
    the semis stumbled.

    Several notes in your article struck me as painfully out of tune.
    I’ll forget about the obvious errors of fact. How about your curt
    pronouncements on musicians:

    Radu Lupu: “great”
    Olga Kern: “provincial sounding”
    Alexander Kobrin: “plodding”
    Di Wu: “the most musically mature and sensitive”
    Nobuyuki Tsujii: “student level, out of his depth”
    Haochen Zhang: “talented but unfinished:
    Yeol Eum Son: “bland”
    Marcello Abbado, Tadeusz Strugala, John Giordano: “less than stellar”
    James Conlon and the Fort Worth Symphony: “mediocre”
    Per Brevig & the East Texas Symphony: “world class”
    Takacs Quartet: “brash, imprecise”
    Andrea Bocelli: his musical appearances are stunts
    Van Cliburn: “admirable” Chopin recordings, but he faded out.

    Good grief. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but whether I
    happen to agree with any of yours or not, glibly dissing pretty much
    everyone, save for one or two who were your pet favorites, and doing
    it without taking time to come and listen, and interact, or begin to
    understand the jury and judging process you trashed — this is the
    antithesis of a thoughtful, insightful, useful commentary. Not only
    does this not add up — it undermines any credibility for the few
    positive points you try to make. And your kvetching about the Takacs,
    or the Fort Worth Symphony — do you have a sense of what their
    commitment means, in terms of sheer hours and bodies and places to
    stay? What the cost would be in importing and feeding and housing
    ANOTHER orchestra — when you already have an orchestra in town? An
    orchestra that has probably played more piano concertos than any
    other? I played with the Fort Worth Symphony and the Boston Pops: the
    Pops was fun, but the FSO with Miguel Harth-Bedoya was superb.

    I’ll offer a final observation about Nobu. I regard his gold medal as
    a watershed event, analogous in a way to Cliburn’s winning the
    Tchaikovsky in 1958. When I talked to several jurors, they told me
    similar things: “We had never heard of Nobu, and were caught
    completely by surprise. We were all in tears after his preliminary
    round.” Or: “When Nobu played, I found after a few minutes, I’d set
    aside my notepad, and just watch and listen.” Look, I think any
    seasoned, savvy listener understands the vast differences between a
    person like, say, Arcadi Volodos and Nobu. But I can assure you, the
    people who heard Nobu play, many of whom had tears in their eyes, will
    remember it for the rest of their lives. So what if Rach 2 isn’t
    impedance-matched to his skills? Other pieces are, and audiences who
    hear him thanks to his Cliburn attention may have their interest in
    live concerts rekindled. People are struck by Nobu, poignantly,
    because it is so abundantly clear that he has truly found what he
    loves: making music. This is not an experience that transmits through
    a decimated webcast.

    Shame on you.

    Michael Hawley

    • Bravo! Agree with all your points. I started watching the Webcasts and enjoyed them so much, that I started attending some of the performances. What a great experience! Went to the Bass Hall for some; watched the live feed in the Cliburn Recital Hall for others. The day after Nobu’s Chopin piano concerto (which I saw in the recital hall), I was listening to WRR, as they played the second movement. Although I had heard it the night before, hearing it again had me nearly in tears. I can’t explain it, but I recognize it.

      I think the jury did get it right.

      And have the DSO at the Cliburn? I think that Amon Carter would roll over in his grave!

  5. You tell him, Mike. We look forward to seeing you again in Texas (maybe not so much Mr. Ivry, though we didn’t see him in the first place).

  6. Now, I’m probably in an even worse position than Benjamin Ivry to make any comment about this, as I saw nothing of the Cliburn, live or on the web. But to be fair:

    – In past versions, the Ft. Worth Symphony has struck me as quite mediocre, and made me wonder why the Cliburn folks didn’t splurge on the nearby Dallas SO. OTOH, I generally take the view that any orchestra that pays a decent wage these days is at a minimum likely to be good, if not excellent. So perhaps things have improved here. Or maybe they just needed a little more rehearsal time.

    – The Cliburn has a rather poor track record of picking winners who go on to greatness. Radu Lupu is arguably the only one who has done so, though we might need to give some more recent winners a chance.

    As for the comment about a blind pianist, that’s sheer idiocy. If he can make great music, that’s all that matters.

    • Marko
      The FWSO is a fantastic orchestra, continually improving. The Cliburn schedule is grueling (4 and sometimes 6 concertos a day including rehearsals) and they handle it with worldly class. Plus, the Cliburn happens in Fort Worth, always has and always will….it’s where Van himself calls home, so no other orchestra will ever be considered.

      I think the picks this year actually represent the awareness that winners have to be selected based on many things including most importantly potential for growth, something that sometimes may not have been done in the past. Christina Ortiz is a past winner and great, so is Andre Michel Schub, and don’t forget Steven de Groote who was phenomenal but tragically his life was cut short in his 30’s.

  7. I would like to add an observation that I have not seen elsewhere.
    Nobu was clearly on his way to a solo gold until the Rachmaninoff 2nd. It was that one performance that turned supporters into doubters and probably caused a tie for the gold rather than an outright win. Now, I only saw it on webcast, but it seems clear that Conlon and the orchestra are partly to blame. They entered at a different tempo and it took most of the rest of the first movement to get things back together. It made Nobu unsure of himself and of what was going on, that is why he was tentative throughout most of that performance, leading some to question whether he had what it took to play Rachmaninoff, apparently including Mr. Hawley when he asks “So what if Rach 2 isn’t impedance-matched to his skills?”
    Well, how often has the FWSO and Conlon performed with a blind pianist? Once before, in the Chopin concerto with Nobu, the previous night I believe, and that went brilliantly in spite of limited rehersal, perhaps leading to a false sense of security. Playing with a blind pianist is something that takes more practice time than they had, and that was a big part of the problem.
    As to whether Nobu can play the Rachmianoff with an orchestra, I refer you to the following, absolutely brilliant performance from a year earlier with an orchestra and conductor who have played with Nobu before:
    I hope that dispels any thought that Nobu is not up to the task of playing this concerto, at least when he is working with a conductor and orchestra who are used to him and with enough practice time so that everybody knows what is going on.

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