Out of Russia: Tchaikovsky strikes discordant note

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - This summer there is an alternative to watching the World Cup - following the 10th International Tchaikovsky Competition. The middle-aged ladies who stampeded to enter the Tchaikovsky Hall on Monday for the first round of the vocal section were as avid as any football fan. The press had promised a 'feast for music lovers' and they were hungry for it.

It has to be, hasn't it, when so many talented pianists, singers, violinists and cellists are gathered together in one place ? And yet, after attending four sessions of the competition, I am starting to lose my taste for such a banquet. I had my doubts about the usefulness of the event when Robert Markham from Britain was overcome with nerves as he began to play a prelude and fugue by Bach and walked off in the first round of the piano section. After five minutes in the wings, he managed to master himself and returned to give a triumphant performance which earned him promotion to the next round.

But Srdan Dordevic, a bass from the former Yugoslavia, was not as fortunate. He was so terrified when he came on to perform an aria from Glinka's opera, A Life for the Tsar, that he lost all control of his breathing and began to sing out of tune. The jury chairman waved desperately for him to stop but the poor man failed to understand and continued caterwauling until the normally generous Russian audience rounded on him with boos. Only then did his accompanist lead him away.

'Disgusting,' said the outraged man sitting next to me. 'This is supposed to be an international competition.' Nobody in the hall seemed to sympathise with the singer, to have any sense of the immeasurable suffering facing him. I felt as if I was witnessing blood sports like bull fighting or bear baiting and went home early.

It is a cliche that the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition launches the best artists on top- flight international careers. But for Mr Dordevic, who is only 24, the trip to Moscow probably means death to his hopes. And this is a tragedy - I use the word advisedly - because his voice has a pleasant timbre and he can probably sing beautifully. After all, he is a graduate of the Belgrade Academy of Music and a laureate at national level.

The problem is such competitions - the Tchaikovsky has been held every four years since 1958 - put such pressure on artists that many can neither do themselves justice nor serve the true spirit of music. Imagine practising for a whole year so you can perform for 15 minutes which could decide the course of the rest of your life. Advocates of competitions say the truly talented thrive on the adrenaline. The world of professional music is a cruel one and it is better that the weak be weeded out. But I wonder whether even geniuses benefit from competitions.

I have been attending the Tchaikovsky Competition in the company of a Russian concert pianist, Irina Glushenkova. On my own, I would never have enough knowledge to be able to discriminate between dozens of competitors all playing at such a high level but Irina helped me.

'This French boy,' she said, referring to pianist Olivier Cazal, 'is a real master at Beethoven. But he is weak when it comes to romantic music like Liszt. He knows this. Look at the programme. He has avoided the romantics wherever he could . . . he doesn't need the romantics. His destiny is to be a great interpreter of classical composers. But the competition demands that he be an all-rounder. Musicians are not like that.' And music is not like the World Cup. There should be no agony, only celebration. Otherwise performers and audience would be better going home and putting on their favourite CDs.