Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Press conference with Richard Rodzinski and John Giordano

In the photo, John Giordano is on the left and Richard Rodzinski on the right.

Richard Rodzinski, president of the Van Cliburn Foundation and John Giordano, chairman of the jury, subjected themselves to numerous questions by the press. Here’s a compilation of some of the questions and answers (some of which wandered away from the questions). This conversation took place before the final round. I just haven't had enough time to post it until now.

Is there any way to assess the career potential of someone who only gets to the preliminaries or the semifinals versus someone who gets to the finals?

Rodzinski : Those who have studied these competitions find that the cream does rise to the top. You can have winners at the top who are very close together so that their final rankings are extremely close. The outcome depends on the subjective judgment of jury.

Giordano : That’s why we seek to have a diverse jury, and subsequently their judgments may lead to a top three winners who are equally deserving.

Rodzinski: In order to avoid a split jury, it is critical to have jurors approach music pretty much the same way, so that there is a cohesiveness, and no one has to compromise on a candidate. We have something built into our system so that if three or more jurors feel that a candidate is a potential medalist and does not pass on to the next round then we open it to discussion. That helps us to prevent ending up with a compromise candidate. I think that no major talent has slipped through because of this.

There are more contestants from Asia or are Asian-American, but the jury doesn’t reflect that so much.

Rodzinski: The Asian wave among the contestants is very obvious. In Japan, for a long time now, playing the piano is a very prestigious pursuit. More recently this pursuit is being picked up in China. And China has had a one-child policy; so parents are investing everything they can in that one child. Music is considered a big part of education, and there’s strength in numbers. We’ve heard from reputable sources that there may be up to 50 million pianists in China.

For the last several years we have wanted to hold some screening auditions in China, but we were told by the conservatories there to wait. They told us that the quality of pianists you are looking for are in the US and in Europe but not here yet. More recently they’ve told us that they are getting closer. The first wave of Chinese pianists who have been trained in the West are coming back to China and teaching. So, we did hold a screening audition in China for the competition but didn’t really hear all that many pianists. So, as far as the jury is concerned, there aren’t that many pianists who have the wealth of wisdom that we are looking for in a potential member of the jury.

Have you changed tactics in how you are marketing the competition? And what kinds of audiences are viewing the on the internet?

Rodzinski: Yes, just putting an ad in the paper doesn’t do it anymore. We are wide-open to suggestions. Our internet efforts are going quite well. We had over 50,000 unique viewers at the end of the semi-finals. The actual page visits were over 500,000. So we’re hoping to reach people who have never been to a concert before. The video feed is being seen by people in over 170 countries. We are asking people to tell us who they favor in the competition and responses are pouring in. We are streaming the rehearsal sessions with Conlon and the orchestra as well. The jury is forbidden to see them.

What happens if a pianist has or had a teacher who is on the jury.

Rodzinski: In that case, the jury member must abstain from voting on that contestant.

Giordano: The jury also doesn’t discuss the contestant afterwards. Discussion just makes them dig in with their opinion. And their vote is their opinion. If three members of the jury feel that we missed a medalist, then we do address it with discussion. And every one of the jurors – I can’t think of an exception – can write out every one of the notes of the pieces that are played.

If someone is using a piece of music as a platform to get a visceral response or being sensationalistic, like playing ridiculously fast or ridiculously loud, quite often the public will respond with enthusiasm to that, but the jury will not, because that is incorrect – even though there is great latitude to interpretation you cannot completely destroy the composers intent. The jury considers the inner harmonics – the inner voices of the piece – does the contestant really understand that piece. And this is as knowledgeable of a jury as we have ever assembled. They really know that piece. They know when there’s a memory slip or a wrong chord. And they know that every contestant might experience a memory slip. The jury knows that this is not a final conservatory exam.

What is the impact of having an overhead screen for the recitals?

Rodzinski: Very positive. People’s attention spans are shorter these days. So, we’ve added the overhead screen to make the recitals more visually exciting. I hated it at first, but then we found that the concentration level in the audience has improved greatly. There’s less coughing than before. The screen gives them a visual cue to what to listen for, and that has made a tremendous difference. Maybe we can do more to make the programs more exciting. We are open to ideas and suggestions that you have with will improve the audience’s experience.

Is the scoring of the jury cumulative?

Giordano: Our scores are not cumulative from round to round. I’ve served at other competitions that allow cumulative scoring and what happens is that your opinion can be greatly changed from the preliminaries to the second round. And, let’s say, if you scored someone high in the first round, and then decided in the second round that you were wrong about that person, you end up trying to artificially adjust your score because it’s accumulative, and you have your eye on the end result.

When we first did this competition there were more rounds, and it was more like the final examination in a conservatory: let’s hear the exposition and now let’s hear the fugue and so on. And back then I would choose the repertoire. As the competition evolved, I thought that this is not what were supposed to do. We should be seeking artists who have already gone through that. Plus you don’t get a feel of the architecture or how to put a program together. So the competition has evolved. Some pianist are better at classical repertoire and some at romantic.

The jury has access to the competitor complete repertoire. Some of these kids have every Mozart concerto in their repertoire. The general public is not privy to that. We have a lot more information to consider.

Rodzinski: Contestants who have a tiny repertoire may not even get a screening audition. But the competition is part of their apprenticeship. Pianists in their 20s are not masters.

So for each round the judges start afresh with each remaining contestant?

Rodzinski: Not entirely. They keep their judgments in their heads. They don’t have the scoring on paper. That is, the first round is not worth 20 points. We ask the judges whenever they vote for the semifinals and the finals to bear in mind everything they have heard up to that point. Let your head be the computer to assess the full picture.

Giordano: One of our goals is that the judging process is very transparent. If there is anything at all going on in the way of gaming, that person will be dismissed.

Are your donations and corporate sponsors holding steady?

Rodzinski: No. Some corporate sponsorship is in jeopardy. And donations are down. Our endowment has been impacted. We’ve cut back on all expenses, including salaries in preparation for next year, because it’s going to be a tough year.

What is your operating budget?

Rodzinski: In non-competition years, it’s 2 million, and in the competition year, it’s a over 4 million. We’ve got a lot of in-kind donations, for example, from American Airlines, and we have a huge number of volunteers, including the families that host the pianists. We couldn’t do the competition without them.

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