Reflections on the 1998 TchaikovskyCello Competition
T.O.C. interviews Tchaikovsky CompetitionCello Judge, Andor Toth

T.O.C.: Almost every instrumentalistwho is any good, and many that aren't, have at leastdreamed of becoming a star. The person who is calledupon to replace Yo-Yo Ma at the last minute makes asensation and is a super star forever more. Most ofthese people also fantasize about entering and winningcompetitions and getting fame and stardom this way. Andor, this past summer you were on the cello juryof what many would consider to be the most importantmusic competition in the world, the XI InternationalTchaikovsky Competition. What does it take to winthis thing?

AT: You like to ask the easyquestions, don't you? Ok, the answer probably is talent,friends in high places, and luck.

T.O.C.: When you say, "friendsin high places," do you mean the competition is fixed?

AT: That's a hard question toanswer honestly. I think there is a great deal ofpredestination in something like this. Of the twelvejudges, four were current Russian cellists; one wasthe great Russian cellist, Michael Khomitser who nowlives in Israel; then you had judges from Latvia, Finland,and Poland who have long standing ties to Russia. Those judges that had no ties to Russia were from Germany,France, Japan, and myself.

There were 53 contestants thatfinally took part in the competition. Of those, 14were from today's Russia, and six were from the formerSoviet Union, and, in addition to this, six I believework in Germany with the wonderful Russian cellistand teacher, David Geringas. So 26 out of 53 contestantshad direct ties to Russia and were well known to theRussian judges.

What many outsiders don't realizeis that the Russians have an elimination competitionin February to determine which Russian students willbe allowed to compete. For the most part, the sameRussian judges who were in Moscow for the Tchaikovskyheard this competition and decided which cellists shouldgo. For me, in Moscow, it was the first time I heardthese cellists. I had no preconceptions. The Russians,on the other hand, knew very well who was having abad day, who was playing over their heads, and whowas getting by. I think it is a very hard thing toput aside such preconceptions. Also, I am sure theyhad a very strong idea of who among the Russian cellistswas the best, and perhaps should win.

It seemed to me that their viewsof the foreign competitors were more or less evenhanded. Most of these students were new to them, as they wereto me. This does mean, however, that a foreign competitoris at somewhat of a disadvantage, since their mistakesare not as readily forgiven.

T.O.C.: Do you really think thata foreigner should just forget about it? It seemsto me that you are saying there is a lot of weightgoing for the home team.

AT: I suppose I am saying thatto a degree that's true, but great playing can winout. For instance, the Australian/Chinese silver medallist,Li Wei Qin, was an unknown person to all of us exceptthe French judge, Phillipe Muller. His phenomenalperformance in the finals almost got him the Gold medal. I guess what I'm saying is that the performance ofQin would have made him a winner anywhere, while therewere some prize-winning performances that, in my opinion,only would have won in Russia.

T.O.C.: What do you mean whenyou say "luck"? Do you mean you are lucky if you areasked to play only parts that you know, or that youhave a great instrument, or what?

AT: Well, in most competitionsit's true that contestants present a program and thejudges ask them to play specific portions of it ratherthan the whole thing. In the Tchaikovsky this isn'ttrue. Each competitor plays the whole program thathe or she offers. I like this because it means thatno one can say they were cut off just before the partthat they were going to 'wow' the judges with. Asa judge this is sometimes trying if the performer reallyisn't ready, but it is only fair. Some contestantshave worked for a couple of years just for this moment. The least you can do is listen to them all the waythrough.

OK, what do I mean? I guess Imean that some are lucky they are just "on" the daythey play, while others might have had something badto eat for breakfast and have stomach problems, orthe flu, or whatever. You always want everything perfectwhen you play, but it rarely works out that way. Atthis year's competition there were other factors. In the 1st round the weather created particularly uniqueproblems. It was around a hundred degrees during thefirst days and the Rachmaninov Hall, where the firstround was held, is not air-conditioned. So they hadto open the very large windows. Unfortunately, therewas street construction, so we could clearly hear thejack hammers, and cars, as well as pianists and violinistspracticing. The occasional singer was also a problem. It should probably be pointed out here that Americanboom boxes have nothing on the Russians'. At timesit was really hard to hear the performance, and sometimesthe windows would crash shut. I really felt for theseplayers in the first few days. They showed heroicconcentration.

T.O.C.: How do you define "talent?"Are you speaking of technique, musicianship, or musicality?

AT: No. Of course all thosethings come into play, but I am speaking more aboutthe ability to project your ideas, and pace yourselfover a three-week period. Doing well in a marathoncompetition like the Tchaikovsky requires special abilities. To succeed you have to be able to learn and play wellthree rounds' worth of music. Then you have to keepit up and keep practicing while you wait your turn. You have to be able to work in not always the bestof conditions, or be rich enough to have an air-conditionedhotel room. Most of the rooms that the competitorsstayed in were poorly air-conditioned. You have tobe able to stay calm when you see your colleagues goingdown in flames, or perhaps when someone you are jealousof does well. There is nothing normal about the competitionatmosphere. In my original answer to your questionI suppose I should have included artistry. Now you'regoing to ask me to define that next, so I'll beat youto it.

T.O.C.: Thank you.

AT: Artistry is the ability tofocus and create with total control that which youhear in your mind's ear. It includes all the intensity,color, and direction that you wish to present. Itmeans that the person who plays with artistry grabshis or her audience and doesn't let go until the end. If you are able to do this you will do very well. If you are able to do this all the time you will probablywin. Li Wei Qin was a complete artist in the finals. That performance was without a doubt the most artisticplaying by anyone in the whole competition. No onewas able to play like that in all three rounds, andno one else was able to do that for a complete round. Playing of this caliber of course means that thereis no blemish that gets anyone's attention. Therewas a lot of passion displayed over those three weeks,but mostly it was accompanied by some sort of flaw. The person who played with this kind of passion andwhose blemishes were the least objectionable to thejudges did the best.

T.O.C.: Do you mean that it wouldhave been better to play with less passion and morecontrol?

AT: Not necessarily. If youplay with passion and have a fault that makes me crazy,but doesn't bother the other judges, it might evenhelp you. Maybe my score would be so low that it wouldbe thrown out, and then your average would be raisedbecause I didn't like your playing.

I know of one example where a personplayed the Locatelli sonata. I was furious. He playedit faster than anyone could imagine, and seemed intenton making it strictly a show piece with no grace ormusicality whatsoever. I was even more irate becausehe was in complete control and had chosen to play likea real pig. He played from my point of view like ademon. I of course gave him a very low score. LaterI talked with Erkki Rautio, the judge from Finland. He waxed rhapsodically about this "pure" performanceof the Locatelli. He thought it was the first honestand wonderful performance of it we had seen. It wasa completely honest reaction. While I thought theplaying was "demonic" he was thinking more of Paganini. What bothered me had no effect on Erkki at all, whilewhat he loved about the performance was completelylost on me. Erkki Rautio is a musician I completelyrespect. Erkki was on the "counting" troika and knewthat my low score was thrown out. He told me thatI had actually helped this man.

T.O.C.: Whoa. What scoring systemdid they use?

AT: By far the most problematicaspect of the competition for the judges was the judgingsystem. This system is also being used in a few othercompetitions. I hope it's scrapped as soon as possible.

It works like this. There is a25 point scale with 25 being 'super.' We must giveeven scores not partial scores. For instance I couldgive someone 21 points, but not 21.5. If anyone'sscore is more than 3 points off the average, it isthrown out and the score is averaged again. So ifthe average score is 23.45 and I give someone 20, myscore will be tossed out and the score will be averagedagain. Without my lower score the average is now higherthan it was before. Also, if two people have scoresmore than 3 off the average, one lower and one higher,the chairman of the jury decides what to do. The chairmancan decide to throw out the high score for instance,and then average the scores again. Perhaps the scorethat was lower than the average by 3 is now withinthe 3 point margin. Or the chairman could do the opposite,or he could throw out both scores.

T.O.C.: You mean he has the discretionto raise or lower the votes of the contestants withoutconsulting the jury?

AT: That's right. But it's evenworse. There was a "counting troika," or committee,which counted and averaged our votes. On the firstday the chairman nominated two other members of thejury and himself to be the "counting troika." Thechairman, by the way, also is a voting member of thecommittee. Thus 3 of the 12 members of the votingjury know all the total scores as we go along. Noone else is given this information, it is supposedto be a secret. These people know exactly how manypoints a contestant needs to advance or be stoppedfrom advancing. They also know where to point theirvotes so as not to be too high or too low. Most ofus spent our energy trying to figure out where to putour scores so they would count, rather than givinga score we thought someone deserved.

In the last round it got reallyterrible. The scores are cumulative so the averagescore of the contestants at this point is pretty high. After each round we are given the spread of highestto lowest scores, but not who belongs to these scores. We are forced to give pretty high scores to keep ourvotes from being thrown out. If we thought certaincellists were the favorites (and we pretty well knewwho they were) we would be forced to give them higherpoints than perhaps someone we thought played better,just to keep our votes in and perhaps lower the overallscore of the person we didn't like! Otherwise ourvote gets pitched, and the person we didn't like getsan even higher score, and the person we liked fallsfather behind.

T.O.C.: That must have been awful. Early on things surely weren't so clear cut. Howdid you feel about things then?

AT: At first glance the rulesseemed reasonable. The only non-Russian judges whosaw the problems were the French and German judges. I must say I was really slow to catch on to the problems.

T.O.C.: I'm curious about theearly stages. You seemed to indicate, if you werea contestant, you should choose a strategy. If youwere a contestant and your goal was to get to the secondround which path should one choose -- to be very careful,or let it all hang out.

AT: It depends on your purposeto some degree. If your goal is to get to the secondround and then see what happens, you would be bestoff playing with control, at least in Tchaikovsky Pezzo-Capriccioso.. It's the one piece everyone is required to play inthe first round and you won't get to the second roundunless you nail it. In the first round we had to listento 53 people play it. We were only allowed to advanceat most half the contestants to the second round, sowe were really listening for a reason to eliminateyou, as well as for your good qualities. This is especiallytrue if we have some favorites and are afraid of toomany others having high scores. Several contestantsdid both. If you intend to try and win the thing thenyou'll need higher scores. The people who did bothseemed to be in real control, to the point of beinga little boring, and then cut loose in their otherpieces. This was probably a smart way to go. Thereis no way you will get to the finals by boring us.

T.O.C.: I want to back up. Whatdoes it take to get to the second round? It seemslike the judges had very specific things in mind.

AT: That's true. We were lookingfor the best players, on the one hand, because thisis the first round, but we were also looking for thosewhose playing deserved to be rewarded. We knew theyweren't going to the finals, but they did somethingvery well or special. To get to the second round firstyou had to nail the Pezzo. Everybody who advanceddid that except one person who had a memory slip inthe opening slow section, though the rest of the piecewas super clean. You had to play with a good vibrato. I was really surprised by how many people only vibratedsometimes! Then you needed a beautiful sound, at leastsome of the time. There were some who got to the finalswhose forte sound I found really harsh, but they didplay quieter things really beautifully. These werepeople intent on "projecting" to the back of the hallno matter what.

Many of the people who didn't goto the second round had good left hands, but had soundsthat were too harsh. They seemed intent on puttingon a "show" and they had no control of their sound. You also needed to play with "taste." I was amazedby some of the nonsensical and occasionally gross thingspeople did. Well, if you get all egocentric and non-traditionalwith Pezzo you will bring down the wrath of the Russianjudges. If you're going to the Tchaikovsky, at leastlearn what it is to play in the Russian style.

One performer asked me to critiquehim after he didn't get past the first round. He didn'treally want to hear what I had to say mind you! Whathe wanted to do was show me why we were all wrong notto recognize his immense talent. I pointed out thathe didn't really follow the score in Pezzo. I askedhim if he had listened to any recordings. He said,"I never listen to recordings. If I did that it wouldn'tbe my music. I have to create my own music. I couldn'tever be like these robots here who all play alike."

I asked him if he didn't thinktraditions were important. He said, "That's what myteachers are for. They tell me about traditions."

I asked him if he didn't thinkthat maybe he might have a better understanding ofwhat his teacher had to say if he listened to somerecordings. Of course I needn't have wasted my breath. It was a lost cause. He did get the message though. At last he said, "People really love my playing. I could tell the people here love my playing, (he gota good reception). That's why I play. I have to playmy music my way [his, not Tchaikovsky's or Bach's]. Maybe I should just play concerts and not do competitions."

Now I want to point out that thisperson is a very talented cellist. It's just thathe knows nothing about music, and it would seem, hehas no intention of learning what's out there, beyondhis own ego.

What does it take to do well inthis competition? A beautiful (not necessarily big)sound, a free and not too slow vibrato, nail Pezzo,and do something well in at least one of your othertwo pieces, while not bombing anything. You don'thave to play both of these pieces superbly but youmust show something in one of them.

T.O.C.: I really enjoy hearingwhat you are thinking on the inside of these competitions. I know you have to go now and I really want to thankyou for your time. I would like to continue this discussionabout the second and third rounds. It seems to methat many of my readers might have questions of theirown. Would you be willing to answer their questionsif they send them in?

AT: Sure, that would be interestingfor me as well. I won't answer questions like, "Howdid J. Bloke do in the second round." I kept notesof each performance so I would be happy to tell J.Bloke what I thought if asked. As long as my answerwon't cast negatives on any of the contestants I'dbe happy to answer any questions.

T.O.C.: Super! Can we try anddo this next time?

AT: That would be great.

T.O.C.: Until next time then,thanks and good-bye.