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Competitions: Pinnacles and Pitfalls - An interview with Daniel Pollack

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A prizewinner in the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition (1958), Daniel Pollack was invited, following the competition, for a two-month concert tour throughout the Soviet Union, becoming the first American to record on the Soviet Melodya label. Over the next several decades many recordings followed, all of which sold in the millions across the Soviet Union. Several were subsequently re-issued on other labels and distributed worldwide. The Legendary Moscow Recordings, a collection of his first Melodya recordings, was recently reissued, worldwide. Invited for fifteen subsequent concert tours in Russia, he returned again in 2008 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Competition, performing Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto in Moscow Conservatory's famed concert hall, the Bolshoi Zal, to a sold-out crowd.

Performing throughout the world across five continents, Pollack's appearances in major music centers have included London's Royal Festival Hall, Vienna's Musikverein, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Buenos Aires' Teatro Colon, Seoul's Arts Center, Moscow's Bolshoi Zal, New York's Carnegie Hall, Chicago's Orchestra Hall, and the Los Angeles Music Center. Additional highlights of Pollack's career include guest appearances at Tchaikovsky's home in Kline, Russia, where he performed on the composer's piano, and a performance at a joint session of the United States Congress honoring the late President Harry Truman. 

Daniel Pollack arrivesfor a performance in Kiev, Ukraine, 1989.
Daniel Pollack and Conductor Valery GergievJollowing a performance during the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2008. Right: Daniel Pollack, 1978.

He was invited to be on the international piano jury of the Tchaikovsky Competition three times, serving once as Vice-Chairman. Pollack has served on juries of more than 100 international piano competitions, including the Montreal in Canada, Queen Elisabeth in Belgium, Leeds in England, Hamamatsu and Sonoda in Japan, Han Romanson in Seoul, Anton Rubinstein in Dresden, Maria Callas in Athens, UNISA in South Africa, Ciurlionis in Lithuania, Prokofiev in St. Petersburg, Rachmaninoff in Moscow, Horowitz in Kiev, Jose Iturbi in Los Angeles, and Gina Bachauer in Salt Lake City.

Pollack has held several visiting artist faculty positions at prestigious institutions including The Juilliard School, Columbia University, and Yale's School of Music. He is currently Professor of Piano at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. 

Tell me about your participation in the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958.

My personal story about the competition is historic and legendary, although not well known. After graduating from The Juilliard School, I went to the Hochschule fur Musik in Vienna as a Fulbright Scholar. On a late December day, I innocently read a competition notice on the school bulletin board. The application deadline was two days away, and the competition would be held behind the "Iron Curtain" in Moscow two and a half months later. As a young pianist, the challenge of taking on the prowess of the talented Russian pianists was too strong to resist. I suppose it was the fearlessness of youth. The only available brochure at the Hochschule was in German, so I asked a professor to translate and read the repertoire requirements to me, which he read as needing five works by Soviet and Russian composers. For the next two months I studied 9-10 hours per day, learning works of composers like Medtner, Myaskovsky, Shostakovitch, Kabalevsky, and more. 

It was not until my first night in Moscow, while talking with other contestants over dinner, that I found out that the brochure had stated, "choose one from the following list." An ensuing night of anguish and despair led me to the decision that I was not qualified to compete. I remember going in the morning to tell Dmitri Shostakovich, the chairman of the competition, that I wished to withdraw. He would hear none of it, saying that my withdrawal would provoke an international incident. 

How could you play in a competition with the wrong repertoire?

 The real problem was not how I could play, but rather what the jury thought of an American playing so much Soviet and Russian music and for what purpose. Since American-Soviet relations were suspicious at best during the height of the Cold War (this was only a few months after the launch of Sputnik) it came to my attention that the jury had questioned whether I had planned this for political reasons. Well, this had to be cleared up first.

How I managed to survive is a miracle to me even to this day. In particular, I had never learned the Tchaikovsky concerto. Being young one feels invincible, and I figured if I could get out of the second round I would worry about it later. This is exactly what happened. By the second round Van Cliburn and I were neck and neck, with Sviatislav Richter saying that what was really happening was a competition between two Americans. Of course, I knew that Van had played the Tchaikovsky concerto numerous times, while I still needed to learn it from scratch, in five days, and perform it from memory in front of the jury and a sold-out crowd comprised of critical musicians.

But going back to your question as to how I managed to play, this is something that comes from within. I shut out all outside influences and stayed focused on the music and the emotions it invoked in me. Also, one needs to consider the times, which were both terrifying and inspiring. After all, I was in the Soviet Union, playing for an international jury composed of Emil Gilels, Sviatislav Richter, Alexander Goldenweiser, and Dmitri Kabalevsky. Just consider that privilege! 

Of course it is well known that Van won the competition. Still, even under the circumstances, I became a prizewinner and was invited to stay for three weeks of concerts and recordings. That was the beginning of a fifty-year-plus love affair with the Russian public. I later learned that the Russians had not only handpicked the competitors from their country, they had also preselected the first prizewinner, and it was not going to be an American.The Jury had to get permission from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to not only award the first prize to an American, but also have a second American (me) as a prizewinner.

This opened unbelievable avenues to me. To be able to return fifteen times, performing in front of Russians who know every note that you are playing and live and breathe with each performance is really amazing. I am probably the only winner of a Tchaikovsky Competition to have played there that often and to have judged the competition three times. 

Photo by David Pavol

Do you attribute your success there to your study with Rosina Lhevinne, even though you were studying in Vienna at the time?

Without a doubt. Since Mme. Lhévinne herself was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory and the recipient of its coveted Gold Medal in Piano in 1898, the Russians saw in me a kinship to the Grand Romantic school of pianism. The five years that I studied with her was a major period of influence in my musical life, and it remains so to this day. 

What do you consider to be the "Tier-One" piano competitions today?

That's subjective of course, and it depends upon the standards by which they are judged. Using longevity and the highest musical standards as criteria, I would list the Tchaikovsky in Moscow; Chopin in Warsaw; Queen Elisabeth in Brussels; Arthur Rubinstein in Israel; Leeds in England; Sydney in Australia; Hamamatsu in Japan; and in the U.S. the Cliburn in Texas, the Kapell in Maryland, and now the Jose Iturbi in Los Angeles. If competitions are judged on concert and recording opportunities for their winners, then the list gets considerably shorter. 

Top-tier competitions offer sizable cash prizes. Some offer a grand piano, while a few offer concerts and management. But what happens after that? Three or four years later, after the next competition, a new prizewinner occupies the throne, leaving the previous ones cut off. In the case of those competitions that offer 20-40 concerts, in all probability concert opportunities in subsequent years have fallen to ten, then two, and soon there are no more. It is a very complex issue. Some of the second- or third-tier competitions do not foster a career at all, giving prize money and nothing more. 

Yet the avenue of a competition is still the most accessible route to a career. How else can a young talent get heard? If you don't win in competitions, the road ahead becomes more difficult. You must creatively search out contacts and create relationships that will set up auditions for managers, introduce you to conductors and corporate sponsors, and help you find recording opportunities.

I feel very strongly that corporations should become the twenty-first century sponsors of talent. They already sponsor festivals, philharmonics, etc., but that leaves the individual performer alone and adrift-this could be the answer as an alternative to competitions. 

Can you give a brief description of how international piano competitions work?

The age limits for most international competitions are between 18 and 32, with a few in recent years having no upper age limit. Since competitions today may have two or three hundred applicants, a preliminary jury often selects those who will be allowed to play in the competition, selecting pianists via recordings or in-person auditions. This solves, and also creates, problems. CDs and DVDs can easily be edited. To ensure fairness, some competitions have in-person auditions in centers around the world. If a person lives in a remote area, however, they can't always afford to get there; this can limit the participation of strong talents.

Preliminaries were once a more open part of competitions. Today most competitions have a preselection process. The members of the preliminary jury are often not posted, so we don't even know whose decision it was to eliminate talents, or for what reasons. When I first served on the Tchaikovsky, everyone who applied performed. The jury sat for two weeks hearing the first round, which in effect was what we now would call a preliminary round. The entire jury of seventeen people listened to 120 pianists. The Queen Elisabeth in Brussels had a live preliminary as well, where the contestants traveled from their home country, at their expense, to play for 10-15 minutes, taking a chance that they would advance. 

Some competitions include a chamber music round, and others, like the Queen Elisabeth, offer master classes after the third round for those contestants who did not advance to the final round. This same competition has another unique requirement. Contestants are literally cloistered in a chateau for one week to learn a newly com posed work for piano and orchestra. Contestants are cut off from external contacts, such as newspapers, radio, phone, recordings, and the Internet. The result is most revealing. At the end of the one-week seclusion, it is evident how each individual interprets a new score. 

Daniel Pollack works with Rosina Lhévinne in Aspen, CO, 1959.
Daniel Pollack performs with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Bolshoi Zal of the Philharmonic Hall, 2005.
Daniel Pollack with Mstislav Rostropovich, following his master class at the Hartt College of Music, Connecticut, 1970. Photo by John Vignoli.

Is the jury chairman important? Can a chairman influence the voting?

Chairmen are important in setting the tone of the competition, but they are not supposed to influence the vote. Does it happen? Maybe. I have been a chairman many times and the responsibilities can include working with the organizing committee to select repertoire, select the jury, formulate jury responsibilities, and even explore variances in the grading systems. In very large juries, the chairman may have a supporting team, which can include a jury secretary and vice-chairs.

Competitions should have an odd number of jurors. The Tchaikovsky used to have twenty-one; it is smaller now because of jury expenses. The largest jury I served on was a twenty-five member panel in Dresden, Germany. In addition to pianists, there were newspaper critics, conductors, personnel from performance organizations, managers of concert halls, etc. 

What are jury members listening for?

It is very subjective. The correct notes and rhythms are, for me, a given. Some jurors put on their mental metronomes and later might say a performance should have been at 86, not at 120. Those jurors were not really listening to the art of the performance, but rather to its exactness. Along those lines, I also do not want to see a juror follow a score, unless it is a new work that was commissioned for that competition and thus unknown to the listener. When jurors are reading the score, the eye has replaced the ear. How can we listen and be looking at the music? 

There is another problem: long hours of listening can be difficult and tedious, particularly if the talent doesn't warrant the time allotted. What often happens in such cases is that some jury members doze off and, even worse, are caught napping on national or international television. It happens too often and is unconscionable, showing a lack of respect to the performer and the competition itself.

Another issue is that there obviously cannot be a universal standard for any single work. Jury members should be listening objectively, rather than subjectively. They should not come with a preconceived interpretation of a work and then reject a contestant whose performance is highly individual and does not match that preconceived interpretation. If there were a standard for what a performance of a work is supposed to sound like, we would no longer have a plethora of pianists, but rather just about five world figures-pianists known for interpreting one specific style period. 

As a juror, I am listening for the "thrill" of a performance. An "edge" is needed to really play–the nerves or adrenaline that push the playing to another level. When you hear Horowitz, Heifetz or Callas, there is a "thrill," and I think a competition winner should be able to excite an audience. An interpretation that is valid for me projects architecture and emotional content. Is it the way I would play this work? Maybe not, but I would always respect a performance that has those ingredients and makes it convincing. It would certainly get my vote. 

How is the voting scored?

Traditionally, there is numerical scoring between 1-10, 1-25, or even 1-100. In the Tchaikovsky the top is 25, and the magic number for advancement to the next round is 18. They throw out the highest three votes and the lowest three votes to eliminate prejudicial judging. With this system, jurors can only guess as to what scores other jurors are giving. Jurors often give a middle-of-the-road grade, even to what they feel is a top performance, so that their vote will not get tossed out. What can happen, and is often admitted by many jurors, is that the middle-of-the- road pianists advance while the biggest talents are eliminated.

As Chair of the recent Jose Iturbi International Competition, I proposed using a different system with the votes on contestants advancing to the next round to be only yes, no, or maybe (this last one with discussion). Many competitions are starting to adopt this system. I personally think this is a fairer solution. 

Daniel Pollack (second to the left ofthe podium) invited to perform before a joint session ofthe United States Congress celebrating the centennial of President Harry S Truman (1984).

Are you saying the judging is unfair?

No one ever said that competitions are a perfect science, to say the least. Judging is not only based on scholarly understanding of the repertoire, but also on the emotional reaction of the jury members, whose judgment can be impacted by an audience reaction, the contestant's potential theatrics on stage, or by the music the contestant chooses (works can potentially be unfamiliar to jurors, or very close to their hearts). In one competition I judged, contestants performed behind a curtain to eliminate bias and keep the music apart from the personality of the contestant. Believe it or not, the jury was watching shoes, trying to distinguish between male and female. But for me, this eliminated a very necessary component in competitions- the personality, charisma, and impact of the performer on the audience. 

Is there pressure for jurors to vote in certain ways?

Yes, things happen. Jurors have been known to have conversations with their colleagues that go like this: "You vote for my student, and I'll vote for yours," resulting in certain teams getting together to push a contestant over the top. Sometimes it is countrymen getting their votes together, and sometimes it is jurors who are pushing their own students. Jurors usually cannot vote for their own students (per the rules of the competition), but they will still try to get votes as favors from other jurors, who will often seek favors for themselves in return. I refuse to be pressured by such nonsense and when possible, as chair, I absolutely will not allow for prejudices.

Are there other problems that extend beyond juror bias?

Yes. Many startling things happen in competitions. Votes have been changed after they have been officially recorded. Votes are sometimes taken out of the room and counted away from the jurors. If you had turned in your ballot, would you like to see someone leave the room to count votes and not reappear until three hours later? Does it take three hours to count 12-15 votes? Are votes being altered? Clearly, these are rare cases, but even one is enough to mar the image of competitions in general. 

Do you only know your vote and not the others?

You know only if other judges tell you, and this happens sometimes, especially when a single juror is trying to get a block of votes together to give his/her preferred candidate a stronger edge. This practice is clearly unethical and can, and should be, stopped by all jurors.

I believe votes should be in writing and subsequently discussed in full view of the jury, with translation to all the languages spoken by jurors. If I am in a country whose language is not my own, I really think it is imperative to have translators in place to assist jury discussions. Unfortunately that does not always happen and sometimes it all turns into a "Tower of Babel," with everyone talking at the same time in different languages. 

Daniel Pollack (5th from left), Chair of the jury of the Ciurfionis Competition in Vilnius, Lithuania, with the first President of Lithuania, musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis, 1995.
Daniel Pollack rehearsing with Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky in preparation for their last concert together, 1972.

Do you see new trends or other ways competitions can be improved?

The format of running competitions has basically been .the same for more than 100 years. But there have been some innovative ones like the Gilmore and e-Competition, and we need more of these. The Gilmore Artist Award is given to an international pianist of any age and nationality who is deemed worthy of an international career. Pianists are not judged in a competition, but are evaluated in numerous performances for their musicianship and performance abilities. I am a nominator for the Gilmore, and I have often recommended pianists whom I have heard in various parts of the world. A committee receives the nominations, listens to recordings, travels to hear artists, and announces their choice. T here is also a new e-competition sponsored by Yamaha: contestants record their performance on a Disklavier and submit it electronically.

Competitions can do better for their contestants, increasing opportunities for exposure by engaging the power of online media such as social networks, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Some competitions are already there. It's a matter of moving forward with the times. 

Do you have advice for pianists entering competitions?

Often pianists do not give enough thought to what competitions they enter, running from one to another. My advice is to choose those in which a pianist has the best chance to become a prizewinner. It is important to match a competition with a contestant's profile as a pianist. Compare the required repertoire with your own preferred repertoire. Don't choose the Chopin competition if Chopin is not close to your heart; don't go to the Vienna if Beethoven is not your specialty.

I think that it is important for contestants to seek out jurors and ask for constructive criticism. I sometimes speak with contestants, pointing out that it is not the memory slip that they may have had, nor the missed notes, but the total picture of how they performed that matters. Still, many contestants who are disgruntled with the result will not keep an open ear to this and throw out the comments. The smart ones will take such comments to heart and evaluate what can or should be done, discuss it with their teachers, and then maybe move forward to the next competition better prepared for varying opinions.

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