By Israela Margalit
I walked down the long hallway to the jury room. Aspiring pianists tried to read their fate in my face. Did she smile? Did she frown?
We’d just heard the twenty-four quarter-finalists, and in a few minutes we’d weed out half of them and announce the dozen semi-finalists. The failure to make it to the semis can mean the loss of a scholarship, the erosion of family support, a devastating blow to self-confidence. The jury’s decision is final, its power absolute. There are no appeals.
I savor the opportunity to discover new talent, but I don’t relish playing God in other people’s lives. Most of all, I dread the chats with the losers. They say they want the truth no matter how painful—“Tell me why I was eliminated and how I can improve” —but what they really want is validation, something to assure them their talent has been recognized. I could say I enjoyed their performance and was surprised when we tallied the votes and I saw their names at the bottom. That would give them hope but wouldn’t help them grow. I could say they played beautifully but that the level was just too high. That would be cruel. We educate our children to work hard, we praise them for putting in effort, we assure them that if they apply themselves they’ll be rewarded. Then they go into the world and get crushed by rejection for not being as good as the next guy.
What can I say to sustain their self-esteem without hyping futile expectations? I remember well my younger years when harsh criticism could pierce my heart. Who are we, the judges? What gives us the right to destroy someone’s dream?
The first jury I served on, I was determined that only the best would win. I suggested to my fellow jurors that we select somebody who could shine at Carnegie Hall rather than play like a well-schooled student. Everybody agreed. We all ranked each pianist and tabulated the results not once, but twice. The pianist who got the most points won. Nevertheless the outcome was disheartening. I thought the silver medalist was outstanding. After the award winners’ gala, I remarked that the second prizewinner would probably become world famous while the recipient of the jury prize might be forgotten. I glanced at my fellow judges—all seasoned musicians—hoping to provoke strong reactions that would betray the culprits who’d propelled the winner to the top. Instead, everybody laughed, and some said, “We’ll see.” And, “Don’t be so sure.”
The voting system is carefully structured to prevent bias and undue influence. The highest and the lowest marks are thrown out. No deliberation is allowed until the votes have been cast. And yet, mediocrity often wins. Here is how it can happen: I’m a judge from the fictitious state of Transatlantica. My government has sent me to the competition and paid for my airfare. I give the Transatlantic contestant high marks, but not so high as to stick out and get discarded. Then I identify the pianist who poses the biggest threat to the Transatlantic contestant’s standing, and I give him consistently low marks. Multiply me by five, and his chances of winning are null, while my guy may just sneak up to the podium.
There are also unimpeachable motives that propel judges to vote for average performers. What’s pedestrian to my ear may be enthralling to another’s. One judge may disapprove of an interpretation he deems unfaithful to the composer’s intentions, while I may view it as original and fresh. I once served as an observer at a famous competition. Six of the jury members rejected flair, preferring a strict adherence to tradition, while the other six celebrated virtuosity, imagination, and personality. In the end the scores of each group offset those of the other, and the most lackluster pianist, who hadn’t offended either camp, was declared the winner.
Competitions came and went, and my preferred pianists sometimes won and sometimes lost. In one competition, the organizers campaigned for their favorite contestant, a rather ordinary performer who hadn’t distinguished himself either technically or artistically. Their actions were an affront to fair process, quashed only when some of us in the jury threatened to go to the press. Those of us who’d led the revolt were not invited back.
In another competition, a Russian judge told me on day one that he had been on a hundred fifty-nine international juries—only to add on the last day that a hundred fifty-nine of his students had won awards. One of them got the third prize in our competition. There was nothing remotely remarkable in his performance and I gave him very low marks. Somebody must have liked him a great deal to counterbalance my score.
My favorite first-prize winner was an American male pianist of boundless sensitivity, who could turn a musical phrase into magic and lose himself in the indefinable. I looked forward to his New York debut recital, a decisive first introduction to the music world’s opinion makers, and an indicator of things to come. Even I, who had championed him throughout the competition, could not be certain that he had the chops for a successful international career until I saw him handle the pressure of a make-or-break concert.
A few weeks after he won he called me in despair: after graduation, he no longer qualified for a scholarship. His family was unable to pay for his lessons, and his teacher wasn’t willing to work with him for free. I assured him he was ready to do it on his own. He had to be, if he planned to embark on an international career. I knew all too well what could happen to a performer who failed in New York. Two of my friends, both excellent pianists, had been relegated to regional careers because they choked on the stage of Lincoln Center. Why a totally in-command pianist, capable of playing to perfection with his eyes closed, would fail to deliver at a crucial moment is a subject of endless analysis.
Think of Andy Roddick. He would have been placed on a pedestal had he won the fifth set in his last Wimbledon final with Federer. I watched that match like a laser, willing him to take that one extra daring shot. Close-up, I could see his eyes spelling caution, and I knew he wouldn’t make it. The line separating the champions from the runners-up is the thinnest of all lines known to man.
However, the brilliant young pianist I so appreciated withstood the pressure. His prizewinner New York recital was nerve-free and inspiring, the hall was full, the applause enthusiastic. He was on his way to stardom but for the wrinkle of a mixed review in the Times. The reviewer—just like his teacher—failed to recognize his exceptionalism, or he was not in the mood to use big words like “phenomenal” or “one of a kind” that can propel a career into the stratosphere. Some people cry for a few days, then move on. Not the young pianist in question. He viewed the review as the ultimate verdict of his chances, became overcome with doubt, and took a teaching job somewhere far away. Soon after that I lost track of him.
Years later he befriended me on Facebook. His timeline was filled with links to his performances on iTunes. I listened to some of them. Magnificent. He never lost that unique ability to arrest your attention with phrasing that came straight from the depth of the soul. It made me think of Paula Fox, the writer no one talked about until, when she was already over sixty, Jonathan Franzen stumbled on one of her books while browsing at the Yaddo library. You’d think such poignant elegance as, “I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch,” would have caught attention, but no. Her prose was either ignored or unappreciated until the famous Franzen said the word.
One can resurrect the career of an older writer, but classical music performers must make it at an early age of boundless potential, before the muscles begin to atrophy, the body resists the stress of globetrotting, and promoters turn their attention to the new kids on the block. My beloved pianist has missed the moment, and there was nothing I could do to rejuvenate his career. We, the jury, can only hand a young talent an Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame, and the rest is history. That’s what my first agent said.
“What do you mean, history?” I asked.
He laughed. “You’re a huge success and we make history together, or you’re history.”
ISRAELA MARGALIT is a critically-acclaimed playwright, television writer, concert pianist, recording artist, and recently a published author of short fiction and creative nonfiction, with awards or honors in all categories, including the Gold Medal, New York Film & TV Festival, an Emmy Nomination, and Best CD the British Music Industry Awards. Visit her website at http://www.israelamargalit.com/