Are prizes worth the price?

Do competitions really encourage musical excellence or do they break more players than they make?
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With the Van Cliburn piano Olympics issuing its quadrennial challenge, and two international contests about to open in London - string quartets at Goldsmiths' Hall, pianists at the South Bank - a perennial debate is flaring up. Competitions are evil, say their detractors: they turn music into a horse-race, and break more players than they make. The young British pianist Terence Judd, who jumped off Beachy Head, is still brandished 20 years on as an extreme example of the psychological havoc which winning can wreak.

Yet the passion for competitions, which took root in the Thirties, is thriving as never before, with over a hundred for pianists alone. In rich countries these are an integral part of the musical scene, in poor countries they are a status-symbol. In 1987 the Premier Prix du Nigeria was held in Lagos, and in 1991 Togo hosted the Concours Pan-Africain de Musique, which then moved on to Cameroun and Senegal. Georgia's economy is in ruins, but money is found for the Tbilisi piano contest. In Morocco's only a handful of players take part, but the cultural point is still satisfyingly made.

It's worth remembering how deeply embedded in music the idea of competition is. Mozart and Clementi were invited to duel for top honours by the Emperor Joseph II, and took it in turns to out-play each other until a draw was called and they joined for a two-piano splash. Beethoven derived sadistic pleasure from driving a would-be rival howling from the room. The image-conscious young Liszt could not relax until he had both rubbished his main opponent in print, and trounced him in keyboard combat.

Bryn Terfel would have made it even if he hadn't been named Cardiff Singer of the World, as would Krystian Zimerman without his triumph in the Warsaw Chopin Competition. But Ivo Pogorelich made his name by not winning that same competition a few years later - and by having Martha Argerich resign from the jury in protest. And in Soviet Russia competitions were always the obligatory gateway to a virtuoso career. It was only when five of the six top places in the 1937 Ysae violin competition in Brussels were taken by Russians that the West awoke to the incredible string playing lurking behind the Iron Curtain.

On our home patch, it's a fair bet that next month's BBC Young Musician of the Year competition will throw up some first-rate school-age stars: this was how Freddy Kempf - the brightest thing in Britain's pianistic firmament - first surfaced at the tender age of 14. Since the future of this contest is in doubt, here is a message for Greg Dyke: it's enormously useful, both for raising public consciousness and for finding and nurturing outstanding players, so dig into your pocket.

But the most resonant win in the history of the game remains that of Van Cliburn in 1958, when this lanky Baptist boy from Texas ushered in an East-West cultural thaw by winning the inaugural Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Attending the most recent of the Fort Worth competitions which bear his name, I sawthe exhilarating emergence of blazing new talents offset by the Canadian prodigy who left the stage weeping, and by the Uzbek favourite who dished his chances by pouring boiling water over his left hand while making tea. Menahem Pressler, veteran chamber musician and Cliburn jury anchor, says: "We're looking for the important artist, who can look into a score and find things we have not heard before. Have we got the one? That is always our question."

The time before that was calamitous: the young Russian winner stayed on in Fort Worth to become a drunken fixture at civic ceremonies, claiming that he was God.

Britain's more than adequate answer to the Cliburn is the Leeds competition, which now has a rival in the World Piano Competition set up in London by Sulamita Aronovsky. This Lithuanian pianist won her spurs the hard way, spending the 1939-45 war in constant flight from invasion, selling her food rations in Moscow to earn money to rent a piano on which to practice.It was at the suggestion of her fellow-student Vladimir Ashkenazy that she founded the London competition, which carries not only prizes but also grants for younger contestants to go on studying.

Of the 24 who will take the stage at the South Bank on 19 April, one is a 13-year-old Chinese, and another is a 15-year-old from Tbilisi. Aronovsky and her jury have so far picked their winners well, Several have gone on to glittering careers.

"You can't have your career made for you," says violin guru Yfrah Neaman. "But it can help if someone opens the door." As a man who has spent his whole life opening doors for young violinists from China and the poorest parts of Central Europe, he should know - but he too came up the hard way.

The son of a Palestinian biblical scholar, he escaped the Holocaust by a fluke, and then - as a refugee - found himself systematically victimised by powerful anti-Semites in Whitehall. His own break as a virtuoso came not through a competition but by triumphantly standing in for an incapacitated soloist, and over the last 50 years he has become one of the world's leading violin teachers, as well as an indefatigable juror, with a contest named after him for young players in Germany.

The London International String Quartet Competition, which Neaman and his friend Yehudi Menuhin launched 20 years ago, is as close as such events get to the virtuous ideal. There's an audience prizeand a bracing requirement that each group perform a newly-composed work for which they have a mere day to prepare. "What we want to see is whether they are a cohesive ensemble, whether they can speak to each other intuitively," says Neaman.

Like Aronovsky, Neaman and co have chosen well over the years. Their first winners were the then-unknown Takacs Quartet, and in successive years they singled out the Endellion, Hagen, and Ysae quartets, all of whom have since made good. "There's no doubting there are too many competitions now, and the goods are being devalued," says Neaman. Not his, however, which remains a beacon to show how such things should be done.