Piano maestro's bid for glory ends on a sour note
ClassicTalk with George Hamilton
It's one of the most prestigious events on the musical calendar. It rolls around only every four years, and when it does, it draws the cream of the world's young talent to Russia.
It's the International Tchaikovsky Competition, inaugurated in Moscow in 1958 by the old Soviet Ministry of Culture in honour of the great composer. Originally held in Moscow, seeking to garland the top upcoming players of the violin and the piano, it's expanded, taking in St Petersburg as well, and almost every section of the orchestra, not to mention singers too.
Like all the top contests, in order to maintain standards, the judges reserve the right not to nominate a winner at all. Those who end up on the roll of honour have to be the best of the very best, and our own Barry Douglas is one of those.
He competed In 1982 at the age of 22. It didn't go well. He was eliminated in the first round. Four years later, Barry was back. The return visit was a triumph. The Belfast pianist's performance of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No.1 was spellbinding.He'd nailed it to become the first non-Russian since the American Val Cliburn in the inaugural competition thirty years before to take first prize outright.
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Among those hoping to follow his golden hands across the keyboard this summer was a 20-year-old from China, Tianxu An. He'd battled through to the final round and was all set for the ultimate test - a performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto followed by Rachmaninov's famous 'Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini'.
The stage was set. The orchestra was ready, their music on their stands. Tianxu An, a small bespectacled figure in a dinner jacket over an open-necked wing-collared shirt, made his entrance. He shook hands with the leader of the orchestra. He shook hands with the conductor. Then he took his pre-performance bow before settling himself at the piano.
As usual, the soloist would play from memory, without a score. A nod to the conductor and the baton was raised, ready to go. But instead of the mighty brass of the introduction to the Tchaikovsky concerto, what the pianist heard were strings, delivering the opening bars of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody.
There had been an administrative mix-up. The music had been put out in the wrong order. The piano's entry in the Rachmaninov piece is almost instant. Tianxu An's reflex kicked in, and he found the notes, though the bewilderment on his face betrayed what must have been horror in his heart.
Somehow he got his head around the dilemma and continued, performing the piece that was not the one he was expecting to play at that point in the programme. It spoke volumes for his musical ability that he was able to do it at all, but to judge him on a performance that had been inhibited in this way would not have been fair.
The Competition acknowledged a "gross error", blaming a stage hand, and invited the pianist to reprise his programme. He declined.
There was, though, some consolation. The Tchaikovsky Competition awarded him a special prize, acknowledging what it called his confidence and courage.
* George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ Lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.