Frequent BMInt contributor Leslie Gerber became involved 25 years ago in the efforts to allow Vladimir Feltsman to leave the Soviet Union. Feltsman returned the favor by inviting Gerber to join the jury for the PianoSummer Institute and Festival’s Jacob Flier Piano Competition at its onset, 18 years ago. The following account, adapted from an article originally printed in the Woodstock Times, is presented here as a preview of the festival’s 18th season.
I was listening to a young pianist playing Bach, and I couldn’t hear anything interesting in the performance at all. Nervous, I glanced at the notes of the person sitting next to me. He had written, “Labored.” I was relieved. He didn’t like it either, and he knew more than I did.
I was a juror at the 2001 Yakov Flier Piano Competition, part of the PianoSummer festival organized by Vladimir Feltsman at SUNY New Paltz. Now in its 18th year, the competition is named for Feltsman’s piano teacher.
Feltsman had invited me to sit as a ringer on this jury, which is otherwise made up of established pianists who teach and perform at the festival. The competitors are all students, and their prizes are modest, but the level of competition is often surprisingly high. (There are many more competitors now than there were in 2001.) It was my third year as a juror, but I still had not gotten over the insecurity of being the only amateur on the panel. The other five judges were all professional pianists and piano teachers, all of them with international reputations. And I am just a critic.
The opinions of critics are read far more often than those of professional musicians. Yet all it takes is a few minutes at any master class for me to realize how much more detailed and acute than mine is the musicians’ hearing. Feltsman, who gives fascinating master classes, frequently showed the students important points in the music which they have missed in their performances. Often I’ve missed them also in my hearing. But as one of the other jurors pointed out during our deliberations, a critic is more representative of the way audiences hear music than a musician is. In that way I sometimes felt useful on this panel.
The Flier Competition is small potatoes compared with such internationally famous contests as the Tchaikovsky in Moscow or the Van Cliburn in Texas, but the Flier Competition prizes are opportunities to perform. The first-prize winner plays with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, a fine professional orchestra, conducted by Feltsman at the end of the PianoSummer, and second and third prizes share a recital. The first-prize winner in 2000 had been brought back to play a full-length recital of her own.
There are other reasons for competing. As Feltsman mentioned during his introductory talk, this contest can be useful practice for the constant rounds of competitions which are necessary these days for most aspiring recitalists. Winning the contest brings the player to the attention of all of these pianists and teachers who have influence throughout the small world of classical music. And the small concerts provide a useful bridge to the community, since most of them, like the competition itself, are open to the public at no charge.
We were first told that there would be a dozen contestants, but by the time the contest started half of them had dropped out. I wondered if it were because they had heard the others play and decided they didn’t have a chance, but Feltsman told us that most of the dropouts didn’t realize they would have to be ready to play an entire concerto if they won first prize, for which they weren’t prepared. By contest time we were down to five. It opened at 4 p.m. on a brutally hot Tuesday afternoon, in the Shepard Recital Hall at the college. There was an air conditioner in the room, but it made so much noise that Feltsman decided to use it only before and between performances.
By the time the first pianist was halfway through her brief program, the room had become uncomfortably hot, and it just got worse. Her opening Bach (all contestants must begin with a Bach Prelude and Fugue) was rather messy and rather too loud. She also played the first movement of a Schumann Sonata too loudly, then created some shading for the slow movement. But in her concerto, Prokofiev’s first, she was merely efficient, banging out her big cadenza rather brutally. I could tell by the expressions on the other jurors’ faces that nobody else thought much of her either; one of them mimicked hammering nails into a wall, and that while she was playing quietly. Her orchestral accompaniment was played in a piano arrangement by one of the jurors, Eteri Andjaparidze (she and Feltsman shared the accompanying duties), and there was much more nuance in the “orchestra” than in the solo.
After a brief pause for the air conditioner to cool the room off a bit, the second pianist began. His Bach seemed bland to me. He played a piece of Liszt that I normally can’t stand, the Sonata after Reading Dante, but he minimized the music’s bombast and built climaxes well. He was also quite accurate with some difficult music. I wished he had varied his tonal color more, but overall he was convincing. At this point, one juror complained about the heat and asked if we could open the door to the outside. “You can,” says Feltsman, “but it’s 98 degrees out there.”
The contestant then played the first movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. While he was playing, Feltsman walked over to the complaining juror with a fan, waving it at his head. Although a contestant was playing, we all laughed. The pianist played Grieg earnestly, but he sometimes overstressed the music and used quite a bit too much pedal.
During dinner we talked mostly about other things than the contest, but there seemed to be a consensus that we had not yet heard a first-prize winner.
On Wednesday after a brief conversation, we decided to leave the air conditioner on, and I quipped that the day’s players would have an unfair advantage, since their lack of nuance would be harder to hear. But the first player’s Bach came through with plenty thereof, and I very much liked the way he played it. He then played a fearsome showpiece, Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.
This performance was going to prove controversial. I didn’t think he had the right idea of what this music is about; he played it for show value and missed the sinister quality that was the most important part of the music. But aside from his impressive technique (impressive to me, at least, although the jurors could all play just as well themselves) he did have a lot of color and impulse in his playing. At least something was happening.
His Liszt First Concerto also proved controversial. He played with color and variety, generating some excitement, and I particularly liked the dance-like quality he brought out in the scherzo section. But he wasn’t a disciplined player, and in the final section he let things get somewhat out of control; he sounded as if he were following his fast fingers instead of leading them.
The next player gave us what I thought was genuinely bad Bach, sentimentalized with romantic dynamics and severe ritards at the end of the Prelude and the Fugue that seem to me highly inappropriate. He did a little better with Chopin’s Fourth Ballade, but his tone was not colorful and his climaxes were inhibited. His playing of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto was well organized enough but similarly uneventful.
More controversy with the final contestant. Her Bach was rather mechanical. She played a wild piece by Scriabin, Vers la Flamme, with some color, and I was impressed by her offbeat selection of this item. Eventually I wound up feeling she had failed to capture the wildness in the music. But there was plenty of wildness in the way she played the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. She started out by playing much too loudly, drowning out the “orchestra” (Feltsman) that she is supposed to be accompanying. She also used too much pedal, blurring the music. Some of the soft passages were lovely, but when she got to the big moments, her fingers went wild and she started bashing, leaving my ears ringing. I felt her explosions ruled her out of contention.
Deliberations began. It turned out that I was the only one who really liked the pianist, Milan Miladinovic, who played the Liszt Concerto. The others felt he was undisciplined to a fault and — here they had an advantage over me — that he didn’t respond to teachers’ suggestions. He already had a budding concert career in Yugoslavia, where he came from, and they don’t think he is really interested in changing what he does. I said that the contest was supposed to judge what the pianists do at the contest, not what they had done in classes. But they did have a point.
The first consensus was that none of the other judges felt any of the contestants should receive first prize. I wouldn’t have minded hearing Miladinovic play that Liszt Concerto again with a full orchestra, but I was a minority of one, although a couple of the jurors said that I was probably right as far as the audience was concerned. All of the others had given lessons to the second performer, George Oakley, and they felt that he did respond very well to suggestion, and that his playing has improved noticeably in the few weeks since he had arrived in New Paltz. I was vehemently opposed to giving any prize to the last performer, Inga Kashakashvilli, simply on the grounds that someone who hurt our ears the way she did in her Tchaikovsky shouldn’t be encouraged. But some of the others found a lot of promise in her playing.
In the end, after some fairly heated arguments, Oakley got second prize, while Miladinovic and Kashakashvilli split third. They all would get to play in recitals, and the other two received diplomas of participation.
After Feltsman announced the results, the contestants all looked disappointed. I saw him take each one aside and talk with them, and from the little I overheard he spoke frankly about his and the other jurors’ reactions to their playing. This seemed likely to be useful.
Three hours after we started, we were finally done. This time went to a brew pub where the former Soviet jurors (half of them) drank tequila shots with beer chasers and we Americans drank very nice beer while eating fried calamari, pizza, and salad and telling endless jokes. (My best: What do you call a beautiful woman on the arm of a trombonist? A tattoo.) Some of our deliberations got pretty heated, but we are all friends now.
The 2012 PianoSummer Festival, running from July 14 to August 8 at SUNY New Paltz, will include Saturday night concerts by several faculty members: Alexander Melnikov, and Jeremy Denk. The Flier Competition events take place on July 23 and 25. The first prize winner will perform with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic conducted by Feltsman on August 3.
Leslie Gerber lives in Woodstock, New York. He has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.