Russia’s Storied Tchaikovsky Competition Is Diminished by War in Ukraine

The International Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the most prestigious music competitions in the world, is a lively Olympic-style competition that usually gathers talented young pianists, violinists, cellists, and singers from all over the world every four years in Russia. is.

But Russia is struggling to live up to its reputation as the high-profile rivalry unfolds for the first time this month since Russia invaded Ukraine and became a pariah of the West.

The competition is sponsored and funded by the Russian government, but was expelled from the Federation of International Music Competitions because of the war. There are very few contestants or judges from the US or Europe. A streaming deal that attracted millions of viewers from abroad has been terminated. And aside from journalists from Russia-friendly countries, including China, the representation of foreign press corps is not very strong amid the crackdown on free speech.

“They have to try and pretend nothing’s changed, which is clearly an illusion,” said Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall and a three-time judge at the competition. . “It’s a shame because it was a very prestigious competition.”

The Tchaikovsky Competition has helped launch the careers of stars such as pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniil Trifonov and violinist Gidon Kremer, but it was not until 1958 that American pianist Van Cliburn won the gold medal. Since the first competition, we have been searching for a role in cultural diplomacy. This feat at the height of the Cold War was seen as a sign that art could transcend politics.

But Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine raises questions about the benefits of cultural exchange. Many art leaders in the United States and Europe see this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition as a propaganda tool. Even officials at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas, which welcomed Russian pianists last year despite criticism, said they could not support Russia’s national competition during wartime.

Cliburn President and CEO Jack Marquis said he “cannot support an organization that is being used for propaganda by the Russian government” and does not blame the young artists who have decided to participate. added.

Politics takes center stage at this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition. President Vladimir V. Putin, who has repeatedly portrayed Russia as a victim of the eradication movement, recently called the Tchaikovsky Competition “a major “It’s one of the most important events,” he said. It is both a ‘world of music’ and a showcase for ‘the rich history and unique traditions of Russian culture’.

and Opening ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova took to the stage to denounce “unfriendly political elites” and accused them of trying to “annihilate Russian culture all over the world.” Performers included four Russian musicians and Mongolian baritone Liu Shikun. 84-year-old Chinese pianist In 1958, he won a silver medal after Cliburn’s gold.

Due to the war, the number of applications fell from 954 in 2019 to 742 this year, a drop of more than 20%. Of the 236 contestants selected to perform this year, only four are Americans, down from 15 in 2019, and one down from Germany, down from eight in 2019. Four years ago there were three contestants from Ukraine. Nothing this year.

More than half of this year’s musicians (128) are from Russia. In 2019, they made up just over a third of the contestants. And the number of Chinese contestants more than quintupled from 9 in 2019 to 48.

Kim Gye-hee, a 29-year-old violin contestant, said when she arrived in Moscow this month she was surprised to find out she was the only violinist from South Korea.

“It feels very strange,” she said. “I’m really shocked.”

At first, Kim was hesitant to participate in the contest because of the war, but she persuaded her to apply. He said there was no discussion of the dispute other than the occasional conversation between foreigners at breakfast. “It feels like nothing is happening,” she said.

Sam Lucas, a 27-year-old cellist from Australia, decided to try the competition despite fears of a shortage of foreign judges and warnings from his colleagues that it would hurt his career. .

“I wanted to contribute my music to the contest to ensure its survival,” he said. “And it was as deep as my thoughts.”

Despite the war, the Russian contestants were just as enthusiastic.

“The spirit of the Tchaikovsky Competition remains the same,” said Nikolai Kuznetsov, 28, a pianist from Moscow.

Despite the approach of an armed rebellion in Moscow last weekend by the head of the Wagner Mercenary Corps, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Games proceeded as normal. Some contestants stayed in hotel rooms, while others rushed to find early tickets and headed home.

Problems with the Tchaikovsky Competition began immediately after the invasion. When Carnegie Hall canceled an appearance in February 2022 by Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, an associate of President Putin and co-chairman of the Tchaikovsky Competition Organizing Committee, Gergiev asked Gillinson of Carnegie Hall to join the competition. asked for support. will also be affected. Gillinson said it will.

Shortly after, classical music streaming service Medici.tv canceled a deal to offer the contest to millions of viewers in 190 countries. The World Federation of International Music Competitions in Switzerland, representing about 120 competitions, banished Tchaikovsky. to call It was a “contest funded by the Russian regime and used as a promotional tool.”

“It just makes people believe in the greatness of Russian culture and the Russian state and forget what’s going on next door,” said Florian Riem, the federation’s secretary general.

Officials for the Tchaikovsky Competition did not respond to requests for comment.and statement Russian cultural official Andrei Malyshev said last year that the competition would focus on “music and art.”

“They asked us to speak out on political issues,” he said of the federation.

Putin emphasized Tchaikovsky’s history of welcoming foreigners in an effort to elevate this year’s competition. During a recent meeting with Mr. Gergiev, Russian media reported that Mr. Gergiev discussed Mr. Clyburn’s victory. report. “We used to call him Vanya,” Mr Putin fondly recalled the Russian diminution of Mr Clyburn’s first name.

The contest received a lot of coverage in the domestic media and is popular with many Russians.

“Abolishing it would be acknowledging the disruption of daily life that the Putin regime, which supports the aggression, and the shrinking population unaffected by Ukraine are unwilling to admit,” said Soviet expert Simon. Morrison said. He majored in music at Princeton University.

One of the jurors is the Russian concert cellist Sergei P. Lordugin. Putin’s longtime friend and the godfather of the eldest daughter.

Several foreign jurors rejected suggestions that they were helping Moscow, saying they wanted to show that art can play a role in de-escalating tensions.

“I don’t endorse any government,” said Michigan State University professor Suren Baglatuni, one of the contest’s few American judges. “I support culture.”

German piano juror Justus Franz, who has spoken favorably of Mr Putin in the past, said Mr Putin had nothing to do with the Russian government, saying Mr Putin’s purpose was “to make great achievements”. It creates talent,” he said.

The winners of the current contest will be announced on Friday, but it’s unclear if this year’s accolades guarantee concert dates and recording deals, especially in the West.

“The power to attract talent has decreased significantly,” Gillinson said. “At some point, when Russia becomes part of the international community again, they will have to build it again.”

Milana Mazaeva contributed research from Washington, DC

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