Written & Directed by Bill Fertik
Brian Williams Editor
Produced by Robert Dalrymple
Camera: Juan Barrera, Robert Wagner, Daniel Canton
Sound Bob Duffus Jr.
Boris Berezovsky 1st Prize Piano USSR
Akiko Suwanai 1st Prize Violin Japan
Violin and Piano competition held in Moscow every four years.
Review/Television; Backstage at the Tchaikovsky Music Competition
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: Tuesday, December 25, 1990
Documentaries about musical competitions are usually so similar that one wonders why so many are produced. The competing musicians are shown in glimpses too brief to leave any real impression. And the behind-the-scenes elements are typically an unvarying collage of hand-wringing, worrying, collegial backslapping and sound bites about the difficulties of making musical careers.
This ground is covered faithfully in "The Ninth International Tchaikovsky Competition," a 90-minute look at the violin and piano contests held at the Moscow Conservatory last summer. But the program, which is to be shown on Channel 13 at 9 o'clock tonight, also tells a few more interesting stories.
Among them are allegations of corruption, both in Moscow generally and, surprisingly, at the Tchaikovsky Competition, which has been regarded as one of the world's most prestigious musical contests since it was founded in 1958. Its winners include the pianists Van Cliburn and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the violinist Gidon Kremer.
The program was written and directed by Bill Fertik, who also filmed the competition in 1982 and 1986. But where Mr. Fertik's earlier programs showed Moscow to be a comparatively placid and orderly, if somewhat militarily dominated, city, the backdrop of this year's installment is the chaos of a society in disintegration. Soviet soldiers, fixtures of the earlier shows, are scarcely to be seen. Instead, there is a picket line of striking musicians, a street poet shouting anti-Communist verses, and passers-by who are eager to complain about their Government.
This disarray took its toll on the Tchaikovsky competition. Because of cuts in government financing, amenities like cars, buses and translators were in short supply. In one sequence, a pianist about to play a concerto in the final round tries to discover the tempo that the Soviet conductor is going to take but they have no language in common. And in the orchestral round, contestants had to bear with a distractingly substandard orchestra.
The musicians, some of whom said they had fond memories of the 1986 contest, complain about the hotels -- plenty of roaches, no hot water -- and about restaurants that will not admit them unless they promise to pay in dollars. Amid these grievances, Oleg Skorodumov, the chairman of the organizing committee, suggests this might be the final Tchaikovsky competition.
The nightly news has inured Americans to stories of disarray from the Soviet Union. But allegations of corruption at competitions have been infrequent. The first inkling that something is amiss comes during a contestants' dinner, when one of the accompanists announces "the scandal of the day," and tells of finding the North Korean juror, Pac Co Sun, coaching one of his competing students between rounds. Although it is not unusual for jurors to have students among the competitors, jurors and their students are supposed to keep their distance during the contest.
Later, James Gibb, a British juror who teaches piano at the Guildhall School in London, tells of being approached a few weeks before the contest by a contestant's uncle who wanted his niece to have some lessons. Mr. Gibb gave her a lesson, and says that when it was over the contestant's uncle handed him a sealed envelope. In it, he found $1,000 in American bills, which he returned.
When he arrived in Moscow, Mr. Gibb discovered that other jurors had given the niece lessons as well, although he said in a telephone interview on Thursday that he was unable to determine whether any of them had been offered, or accepted, unusually high fees. His suggestion that the pianist be disqualified was rejected by the majority of the jury.
Nor was it the end of the matter: Yevgeny Malinin, a Soviet juror, announced that the contestant's father had donated a new Hamburg Steinway piano, worth about $88,000, to the Moscow Conservatory, where the competition was held. And to muddy the waters further, the judging rules were altered so that, unlike previous years, jurors would not know how many points their colleagues gave to each contestant.
Here Mr. Fertik's documentary drops the ball. Apparently in the interest of stressing the music rather than the scandal, this intriguing story is interrupted several times as the camera returns to the stage, and eventually it peters out inconclusively.
The pianist at the center of the controversy is not named in the program, leaving the viewer to wonder about all the women who played. In an interview last week, one of the jurors, Daniel Pollack, of the University of California, identified her as Hae-Jung Kim, a 25-year-old Juilliard graduate. Mr. Fertik said last week that Miss Kim was not shown in the documentary.
Nor is Miss Kim given an opportunity to tell her side of the story. She could not be reached for comment, but her sternest critic, Mr. Gibb, said on Thursday that he believed Miss Kim had been unaware of what her father and uncle were doing on her behalf. "The shame of it," he added, "is that she was a very competent pianist, and might have gone as far as she did on her own merits, had this not come up."
Nor does the program say what became of Miss Kim, although since all the piano medalists were men, it was clear that she did not win. She was, Mr. Gibb said last week, eliminated in the second of the three final rounds.
The incident raises some troubling issues. Until now, critics have assailed competitions on artistic grounds, arguing that the process rewards technical polish at the expense of interpretive individuality. Now the integrity of the competition process itself must be called into question. The Tchaikovsky is, after all, one of the biggest international competitions, and the musicians who judge it also serve as jurors in other European and American contests. This is not, in other words, a problem that can be ascribed to corruption in the Soviet Union.
It is also notable that when Mr. Gibb raised the matter, the jury refused to deal with it. The implication left in the film is that other jurors may have taken fees that could be interpreted as bribes. What would have happened, one wonders, if someone less scrupulous than Mr. Gibb had been approached? And who knows whether other contestants, or their eager relatives, pursued the same course, either at the Tchaikovsky or at other competitions, without anyone finding out?
The competition went on, of course, despite the mounting rumors of misconduct. And as a counterpoint to its more troubling sides, the documentary includes a good deal of honest, energetic music making.
Like other competition programs in recent years, the show uses fancy editing techniques to compress information, including the cutting of performances by several players into a single, seamless work. The point is to show as many of the musicians as possible, but the result invariably plays into the hands of critics who insist that today's competition players are virtually indistinguishable.
The medal winners, not surprisingly, are given the most extensive hearings. Akiko Suwanai, the 18-year-old Japanese violinist who won the gold medal in the violin competition, is heard in a fairly electrifying account of the finale of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. And Boris Berezovsky, the 21-year-old Soviet pianist who won first prize, is heard in a movement from the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto and in fragments of solo works.