As of Friday a.m. I'd have been tempted to call it the best of the Bachauers. Then came the concerto performances, so disappointing that night that afterwards when someone asked, "Well, have you heard the winner?" I replied, "Not yet."
The next day the phone rang. It was Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition founder/director Paul C. Pollei, asking if I'd like to sit in on the jury's deliberations after the final performances that evening. There were some restrictions, however. I wouldn't be permitted to report the actual vote tally. I wasn't to disclose the preferences of individual jurors. And I wasn't supposed to reveal where any of the competitors had stood in the jury's mind earlier in the competition.What, then, could I report? "How fair it is," he said. Then I knew why I was being asked, even though we both knew I would have a 10:30 p.m. deadline breathing down my neck. Because after Friday's concerto round there was virtually no chance the grand-prize winner would not end up being a student or former student of one of the jurors, or in the case of Kong Xiang-dong, the eventual winner, Pollei himself.
So was it fair? Probably. As usual there were some surprising cuts along the way, including Poland's Krzysztof Jablonski, who was eliminated following what many thought had been a stunning semifinal recital. But reportedly he wasn't entirely pleased with his performance and evidently most of the jury agreed.
At the same time it did appear as though Kong were almost the preordained winner. In the various advance stories written about this year's contest, I think ours was the only one to include interviews with and/or photos of any of the competitors other than Kong. "A Dream of a Pianist," one publication headlined its sidebar on him - this before, as far as I know, any of us had heard him play a note.
Of course, when he did play it was obvious here was an enormous talent. But as the competition wore on, his limitations became more apparent and, I think, less ingratiating. Indeed, I've yet to speak with anyone who really liked his Brahms concerto on Saturday. Even the audience vote reversed itself; until then he had been the favorite, but that night he came in third.
Yet he won. And all day Sunday my phone kept ringing, this time with the query, "How could it happen? Was it fixed?"
No, I don't believe it was fixed. Contrary to published reports, more than two people participated in the vote tally and, although close, it was definitely for Kong. But I do believe it was a mistake, because no way was that the winning performance. And if that's the concerto he takes on the road with him, I suspect others are going to think the same thing.
How will that reflect on the Bachauer? My guess is that it, and Pollei, will be credited with having made a real discovery. After all, it is an exciting story, this young boy from China who learned to play on a cardboard piano and went on, at only 19, to take the top prize in a major contest. But here at home one can almost hear the level of support eroding, as the outcome has been called into question by more than one previous Bachauer winner.
The irony is, had Pollei been given a choice between ensuring his protege's future or that of the competition, he'd probably have chosen the latter. He only discovered the one; the other he almost gave birth to.