Anyone familiar with Joseph Horowitz's "Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music" will know what to expect here - namely, an examination of the 1989 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition linked to another consideration of how the mass marketing of classical music has somehow degraded both the producers and the product. Or is it the other way around?
That's not to focus exclusively on the Cliburn. But representing as it does the biggest and most closely watched of American piano competitions, it stands for both the best and the worst of which the genre is capable.By the same token anyone familiar with Utah's own Gina Bachauer Competition should not be surprised by the questions raised here. Does it really advance the art to focus on the artist as though he were part of an athletic contest, with its inevitable losers? And what has been gained if, in making his ability more marketable, that focus has narrowed both the general public's interpretive perceptions and the repertoire?
"With their big, democratized audiences, their overcirculated sonatas and concertos, and their balleyhooed winners," Horowitz states, "music competitions are a microcosm, an exemplary lesson in what transforms and perplexes Western high culture in the late 20th century: its popularization."
In this country, he posits, they can also been seen as an attempt to repeat the unrepeatable, Cliburn's own stunning victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Seemingly overnight the world was given a new star, whose bridging of supposed artistic and political gaps earned him not only a thunderous reception in Moscow but a Lindbergh-style ticker-tape parade on his return home.
But that victory was not without its price, particularly for the artist. Suddenly he found himself with a major career, with its attendant pressures, in which audiences and concert managements wanted to hear the same pieces over and over again. Eventually he withdrew from the concert platform - as have so many other pianists of his generation - returning belatedly with the same concerto with which he clinched his Moscow prize, the Tchaikovsky First. Not coincidentally his recording of it became the first classical LP to sell over a million copies.
Few competition winners before or since have enjoyed anywhere near that level of adulation. Yet the phenomenon continues to grow, in size and number, as though winning were automatically the springboard to success.
Horowitz illustrates the fallacy of that via his profiles of past Cliburn winners and losers. Steven De Groote, Alexander Toradze, Andre-Michel Schub, Jeffrey Kahane, Jose Feghali, William Wolfram - all are given their say. And although I think Horowitz undervalues Schub (who walked away with the top prize in 1981), I would otherwise agree that the last gold medalist in any competition to sustain a major solo career was Krystian Zimerman, who won the Warsaw Chopin in 1975.
Nor are there many surprises in his coverage of last year's Cliburn. As usual, some of the most interesting pianists are eliminated on the first cut (including, for the second time, 1984 Bachauer winner David Buechner). Ditto the semifinals, where even his favorites do not always live up to his, or their own, expectations.
Interwoven with this are lucid observations about the makeup of competition juries (which, as Horowitz points out, even audiences no longer regard as infallible) and a remarkably evenhanded view of the Fort Worth types who bankroll the Cliburn. The rodeos and barbecues at which participants are feted may be treated with a faint air of derision, but the hospitality is real, host families, as at the Bachauer, tending to form long-lasting personal relationships with the competitors they take into their homes.
Eventually a winner emerges, Alexei Sultanov of the Soviet Union, whose all-purpose intensity is clearly not to Horowitz's liking. But even he cannot be blamed for the facile media exposure to which his victory is treated.
"How tall are you?" is the first question fired at him at the press conference following the awards ceremony. Which, as it turns out, isn't much different than what he faces the next few days on the "Today" show, Johnny Carson ("Would you please welcome Alexei Sultanov. Alexei?"), even David Letterman.
"I felt kind of silly," says semifinalist Kevin Kenner of his June 19 interview on ABC's "Nightline" (sans Ted Koppel). "Because the guy wasn't a musician. He wanted to simplify and pigeonhole everything. It certainly wasn't accurate. But I think for the public at large it was necessary to simplify."
To a remarkable degree Horowitz has done that, too. Which makes "The Ivory Trade" easier reading than his Toscanini book, without compromising its elitist stance. If I find it less engrossing, at least it doesn't shy away from questions or answers. Horowitz's own prescriptions for the Cliburn include retiring what he calls "the gold-medal itinerary," i.e., that pressured schedule of concert dates the winner has dropped on him; eliminating solo repertoire requirements that penalize the very pianists the competition seeks, namely romantic virtuosos; and, finally, doing away with the ranking of winners.
This last step is not likely to find much favor with competition or concert promoters, both of whom find it easier to sell medalists, although remarkably Paul Pollei of the Gina Bachauer Competition says he has considered it. (He also plans, in 1991, to do away with solo repertoire requirements, which may or may not spare us having to hear the same Scriabin etude or Ravel's "Jeux d'Eau" eight or nine times the same afternoon.)
But the big question - have competitions themselves outlived their usefulness - remains in a way that only time can resolve. Anyone interested in the outcome owes it to himself to read this book. And from the expanding size of the factory, that should be a lot of you.