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Gergiev looks to Asia for string talent

Valery Gergiev was optimistic about the rise of Asian musicians but sounded a note of caution about the pressure on young competition winners, as he launched the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition

Valery Gergiev described the rise of Asian classical musicians during today’s press conference for the International Tchaikovsky Competition, saying, ‘There is a clear tendency that Asian representation is increasing every competition.’ His analysis went beyond the usual racial stereotyping to explain this evolution, describing how students from the Far East come to the US or Europe to study and often stay on: ‘It will be interesting to see what the combination of being born in Korea and studying in the US or London or St Petersburg has. Four years ago it came as a surprise to many that South Korea was really strong, and deserved attention.’ Of the 48 violinists selected contestants, 9 are from South Korea, 6 from Japan, although 18 are from Russia. There are no Brits, and three Americans. The cello round seems to be more mixed, internationally. (It should be noted that the Queen Elisabeth Competition runs until the end of May, with the Tchaikovksy starting on 15 June.)

Gergiev, co-chair of the Organising Committee but not on the jury himself, described what the judges will look for in each round: ‘The first round they find out who is capable of playing their instrument well, and has expression, temperament and fire in their sound, but also some sort of discipline that makes them competent for the future profession. The second round the jury looks at the details of how they play each of the composers. By the final round we need to know how contestants play big concertos with a big orchestra. This is a must. You can’t be a winner if you don’t know how to lead an orchestra. It’s not only how you sound, it’s your will. I’ve heard many promising players that when you see them with orchestra there’s something missing – it’s not enough.’ He admitted his own concern for the competition: ‘My own little fear is of losing someone special in the first round. Musicians judge people harshly – even after five seconds of Mozart they decide whether someone is playing a little fast or loud or this is no good because it’s not the way they play it themselves. But I’ve conducted hundreds of violinists and they all play Mozart differently. You can only hope that someone comes who has their own interpretation.’

The violin jury includes the likes of Salvatore Accardo, Yuri Bashmet, Maxim Vengerov, Leonidas Kavakos, Vadim Repin, James Ehnes and Nikolaj Znaider; the cello one David Geringas, Mischa Maisky, Lynn Harrell, Jan Vogler and Jian Wang. Gergiev dismissed the culture whereby the same professors turn up to adjudicate competitions around the world, saying ‘it becomes a bit of a club’. He admitted that such virtuosos might be harder on their young colleagues than professors, but explained why it would be fairer: ‘A brilliant musician who has achieved so much cannot be on anyone's side and cannot work against anyone, even their own teacher’s students.’

Gergiev admitted that tensions will be high at the competition and that the emotional demands are severe: ‘Some of them will be broken, in tears. Some will have come for the gold medal and nothing else. It will be emotional, tense.’ But he also stressed the support that the competition will offer players both during and after the competition, and the caution with which they promote youngsters: success isn’t just about how well they play, but ‘how easily they get to the next level without damage’. He learnt from one example: ‘I remember Vengerov crying at the age of 11, in Japan. We were all helpless. It was on the edge of being too much for him.’

In previous years, before Gergiev took on an organising role in 2011, the competition suffered from a lack of transparency and accusations of corruption, but this year’s rounds will all be streamed live by, and the website will include interviews with judges and competitors. The opening gala is on 15 June and the violin, cello, piano and vocal rounds run until the closing gala on 3 July. Winners will have an extensive list of concerts lined up for them, including with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. For more information see

Further articles on competitions

Leading players, organisers and judges offer their perspectives on competitions

Opinion: are competitions really so bad?

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