Guest Post: An Open Letter to the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Photo courtesy of Bein & Fushi.

Guest Post:
An Open Letter to “The Indianapolis”
From The Mendtchaik Madman

I am informed via my Internet connection that the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (heretofore also known as “IVCI”) now wishes to be known as “The Indianapolis.” OK!

One of my mentors in the business of business once told me that the only thing worse than forgetting to listen to the customer was choosing an image makeover instead of improving the product.

Whether the process by which violin competitions turn out their product really needs improving is, without doubt, a matter of dispute. Not too long ago, Norman Lebrecht postulated that unlike piano competitions, violin competitions do not “make stars.

At the time Mr. Lebrecht’s post went up, I disagreed.

However, now that I have paid close attention to The Indianapolis 2018, I must admit my mistake. The violin-competition system is broken, and it must be taken apart and put back together in a different shape.

What is the problem with the product?

The problem is, violin competitions give prizes to violinists who play like violin-competition winners. At least in musical terms, that is not always a good thing. Most of the people I associate with, pretty much know what “playing like a violin-competition winner” means. If any of you general readers are in doubt, let me take a stab at a definition:

Playing like violin-competition winner means playing with amazing facility and (usually) fluidity, but too often in a reductionistic way that reduces great music to a series of technical challenges, empty gestures, or opportunities for showing off.


How about: Hyper-fast playing, to the point of an unnatural lack of musicality; a hard-edged, relentlessly brilliant sound (think of your flat screen TV’s “Enhanced Edge Definition”); exaggerated articulation (ditto); playing loudly and with a lack of dynamic nuance; a lack of emotional engagement and range (which is not made up for by the usual constant and exaggerated facial expressions); in some cases, a tendency to play slightly sharp (in order to “stand out”); in some cases, a generalized lack of musical good taste; and a dead-serious earnestness, to the point of missing musical jokes, parodies, and satire.

The bottom line: Your usual Competition Winner can be relied upon to have weapons-grade bowing and a stupefyingly agile left-hand technique in the service of music-making that is often uninvolving and ultimately forgettable. That is why Norman Lebrecht was right about violin competitions’, at least in the past decade or so, not serving as the jumping-off point for sustainable major careers.

Here’s a hint, from The Indianapolis 2018: If a disinterested professional observer is tempted to use some form of the word “industrious” while describing a Mozart performance, perhaps that player should not have advanced to the Finals, period. That critic wrote that, not me. (But of course I thought that that critic nailed it. Other descriptors that came to me at various times as I tuned into the live streaming or archived videos were “relentless” and “joyless.”)

What to do?

Well, here is my updated and abridged version of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses:

1. Get rid of all those violinists!

Violin competitions are too important to be left to professional violinists and teachers. Professional violinists and teachers, it seems, cannot see the forest for the trees. They get lost in the technical details, and don’t listen for the presence or absence of the beguiling musicality that is the only thing that can sustain a solo career over the long haul.

Get rid of them all. They are part of the problem, so they cannot be part of the solution. Send layoff notices to everyone on the 2018 Jury.

Replace the broken specialist jury system with a generalist jury consisting of:

  • Three notable orchestral conductors (employed or retired; wisdom is more important than job title), with the proviso that none of them started out as violinists.
  • Three notable concert pianists, with the proviso that none of them are in a duo with a violinist.
  • Three notable classical (opera, art song, or both) singers (employed or retired; wisdom is more important than job title).
  • The chairperson of the jury should be a notable living composer. (I nominate Morten Lauridsen. But David Del Tredici would be a fantastic choice, too.)

The generalist jury should have the benefit of written evaluations from a non-voting Advisor on Violin Technique.

2. Function the way a real jury does.

The current silo’ed, numerical system, admirable as it is, seems to do a better job of insulating The Indianapolis from the appearance of ethical conflicts of interest, than it does in choosing winners who play like mature artists.

Perhaps acting like a real jury does in a civil or criminal trial might be better. Real juries discuss the issues and arrive at a consensus. Real jury members do not secretly write a number on a piece of paper (“On a scale of 0 to 25, Tony Soprano gets a 23”) and that then is the end of the process. Real juries hash things out, live and face-to-face.

Once you rid the jury system of professional violinists and violin teachers, the possibilities for illicit back scratching or logrolling nearly vanish. Instead of fine gradations on a numerical scale, I would have the judges make up their lists of who should advance to the semi-finals. All the lists would then be compared for general agreements. When opinions differ and there are more favorites than remaining slots, the remaining slots are to be discussed and voted upon in the jury room. Disinterested professionals under the guidance of a mature moderator should be able to arrive at a list of 16 semi-finalists, yet still remain speaking with each other.

The same obtains for winnowing from the semi-finals to the Finals. Each juror would make a list of his or her six choices. When there is near-universal overlap on the lists, nothing else need be done. At the end of the process, a few jurors might feel that their long shot or dark-horse favorite was unfairly neglected; but at least such jurors had the opportunity to state their cases and try to persuade their peers.

3. Goodbye, Mendelssohn! Au revoir, Tchaikovsky.

No more Mendelssohn-Concerto playing, and no more Tchaikovsky, either. The reasons for this should be self-evident. Bruch g-minor and Prokofiev 1 can substitute nicely.

4. Carmen, you are dead to us!

The reasons for this also should be self-evident. The problem is not so much the empty-calories nature of Carmen pastiches and rehashes; it’s that so many contestants earnestly slog through them without a clue.

5. Instead of rewarding virtuosic sterile accuracy, reward musical insight, nuance, and emotional range.

The things I found most lacking at The Indianapolis 2018 were: Introspective playing; wistful playing; poignant playing; pensive playing; and relaxed playing. It was (mostly) just too amped up, too fast, and too assertive. Only two of the competitors made me think of Menuhin or Oistrakh. Most of them made me think of the worst excesses of Heifetz, or the worst excesses of Heifetz’ innumerable wannabes. Does anyone remember Eugene Fodor?

6. Instead of a Mendtchaik Demolition Derby, how about rewarding the selection of rarely-played works of real merit?

One contestant played the Poulenc sonata, a work I have been recommending to listeners and to players for about 40 years. I was shocked that he did not advance to the Finals. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. The ethos of violin competitions seems to be empty-calories virtuosity, not musical intelligence or sensitivity.

7. Audience prizes are not chopped liver.

Even generalist musicians who are not wrapped around the axle of inside-baseball minutiae that matter only to other violinists are capable of missing the boat. Perhaps an iPhone app to keep the voting honest will enable competitions to award audience prizes without fear that robo-voting has taken place.

Summing Up:

I have nothing against Mr. Lin, who won the gold medal. He was, by far, not the worst of the lot. But had I been the Platonic Philosopher King, Ms. Goicea and Mr. Rudin would have been the gold and silver laureates—most likely in that order, but it is hard to tell, because Mr. Rudin was not advanced to the Finals, so we did not hear his Mozart-Plus round or his Final round. At the very least, I think that Mr. Rudin should have advanced to the Finals and that Ms. Goicea should have received a medal—any medal. To my ears, the two most musical players, the two who played the least like violin-competition winners, got shortchanged.

The links above are to the Archived Video page where you can find Mr. Rudin’s wonderful semi-final performances (which include the aforementioned Poulenc sonata), and all of Ms. Goicea’s performances, including a Shostakovich concerto 1 that is musically and spiritually deep.

The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis is such a wonderful and praiseworthy enterprise. It is the result of devotion and dedication. That said, Norman Lebrecht is right. I think it’s time for a Reformation.

(The “Mendtchaik Madman” is a former music educator.)

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One Reply to “Guest Post: An Open Letter to the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis”

  1. David Pickett

    I am reminded that decades ago a violin competition was won by a player who subsequently made a career as an orchestral rank and file player. Ginette Neveu was thrown out after the first round of this comptetition.

    The real question is: why do we need ANY violin competitions?

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