At the Cliburn Competition this year, there’s been an ongoing discussion about jury members who are also former or current teachers of some of the Cliburn competitors. It isn’t the first time this issue has come up, and all other piano competitions have grappled with the problem as well.
“The question about the jury, I think it is a tempest in a teapot,” says Van Cliburn Foundation president and CEO Jacques Marquis with a shrug. “It’s a non-thing, from my point of view, because the question being asked is: will my teacher being on the jury help me to get into the competition, or to advance in the competition? That’s the implication. So let’s look at the implication by going to the end of it. When you have a fail-pass, yes-no scoring system like ours, if I have a student competing, I am not voting."
At that point, Marquis says, “I would have to convince other jurors to put him or her at the top. And at the same time, I’d have to convince these same other people to put down [lower] the best competitors, the ones close to the top. And I have to convince colleagues of mine, esteemed colleagues there because they have unique voices in the piano world, to change their positions. Imagine me, look at me, convincing Menahem Pressler to vote for John and not for Sara—to tell him what and for who to vote. Is that possible?”
Would it be possible to put together a world-class jury if the Cliburn excluded many of the world’s greatest teachers of piano?
“Actually, you could find people,” says Marquis. “But the Cliburn attracts the best pianists in the world. We have to have [on the jury] very fantastic people who know their job. I like to have experts, who are not boring, and who have an open mind. I choose them, and put my faith completely in their way of doing things.
“You create a jury like a chamber music ensemble,” he adds. “That doesn’t mean they like each other, but they have to have the same vision. For the Cliburn, that vision is about having someone who brings a voice to this piano world, who brings a new thing to the stage, who has presence and communication and piano skills that will last. And you say, OK, let’s have some teachers on the jury—they know everything, and will be very good jurors. And let’s say you assume, as you approach these teachers, that they will not be ethical. If you assume this, why would the Cliburn, which has this great reputation in the world, choose a jury which is not ethical?"
Without pausing, he continues the thread.
“If a juror behaves unethically, he or she is not invited onto juries [in future]. Everybody knows what happens; and the jurors and members of the competitions, we all know one another,” Marquis says. “They are there to evaluate the pianist. They might look at a competitor and say, ‘I would not play like this, but I can buy it.’ They know their stuff, and they are ethical.
“That’s again why I say this discussion of teachers on the jury is, how do you say, a tempest in a teapot—une tempete dans une verre d’eau,” he adds in (slightly exasperated) French. “Being the Cliburn is a little like being the New York Yankees; anything that is happening is noticed.”
If there’s a “cough” from the Yankees lineup, he says, everyone overanalyzes. In other words, the competition has always been under the microscope.
There has also been discussion about the Cliburn’s decision to, for the first time, not list competitors' teachers in the biographical materials for the official program. Is Marquis re-thinking that decision?
Not a bit, he says. “It’s another non-issue. We will be glad to send all this information to the journalists before the competition—everything, I don’t care,” he says with a grin.
Marquis says again that competitors win the Cliburn because they played well, not because they studied with someone.
“To put the name of the teachers in the program, my point of view is that when someone comes to the hall, and he looks at the young person on the stage and at the bio, he thinks ‘Ah, she or he has a teacher on the jury—that will help a lot!’ ” Marquis says. “He doesn’t know that the teacher is not voting. He will assume—and this assumption, that’s what I do not want.”
A View From Abroad
When we spoke earlier with Dr. Wojciech Marchwica, deputy director of the Fryderyck Chopin Institute in Warsaw, who’s here at the Cliburn for the first time, he brought up the buzz about jurors. His organization oversees the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.
“Every competition has this same problem,” he says firmly. “The only possibility is to say that if someone has a student or relative in the competition, they cannot be on the jury. But that would mean competition juries would never include the great professors of piano. We want, of course, to use those great teachers, but everything about the voting must be very transparent.”
In a move that he says was “strongly criticized” among music professionals, the Chopin competition in 2010 began a policy of releasing the jurors’ scores after the competition was over.
“After, we opened the scores, many professors said ‘well then I won’t participate, because this will make me too many enemies,’ ” Marchwica says. “But we believe doing this is important. We also have expanded our jury from 12 members to 15 for the 2015 international competition; in that way, any sort of influence by one juror is somewhat diminished.” The Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, he says, used to have a system that pulled all jurors to the same table, where they would “for hours and hours discuss every competitor and every prize, and if one juror was more influential, a better speaker, more forceful, they had too much influence. We had that sort of thing in Warsaw in the past, and we don’t want it to be that way again.”
Cliburn jurors aren’t allowed to vote when the jury is considering one of their own students, of course. But Marchwica says that doesn’t mean they aren’t talking and persuading other jurors; that's only natural.
In the end, like most of us, he believes in his own competition’s way of ensuring an “honest verdict,” which is working with a somewhat larger pool of jurors, choosing jurors you believe in -- “If you don’t have belief in a juror’s honesty, why would you have them?” he asks -- and opening the scores after the competition has been completed.
“Otherwise, what is the solution?” he asks. “You could get a prison, put each juror in a separate box where they cannot discuss or influence—but who would agree to that?”
It’s his opinion that there is a kind of fair-play mentality that may protect the voting process.
“If you spoil the career of my student [with your vote in a competition], it’s immediately a war within this small circle of professors.”
Perhaps it’s a sort of Mutual Assured Destruction thing: jurors know they need to be fair to other teacher’s students, lest their own protégés catch the “fallout” at a later event.
In probably the most dramatic incident related to Cliburn jury selection, juror Yoheved Kaplinsky received threats during the 2009 competition that led to a police investigation. (This begins to sound like those “beauty pageant” moms!)
“Professor Kaplinsky receiving threats last time is more of a media event,” Marchwica says. The real stories, and real drama, he says, go on “inside the small circle of great piano professors, and this circle is not big in any country—it may be only 10, 20 or 30 people.”
A few major piano teachers—Italy-based William Grant Naboré, who had several students at the Cliburn this year—have chosen not to serve on competition juries. But in general, it’s hard to see how a world-class verdict can be arrived at without the participation of the world’s greatest piano teachers and mentors.