As the Cliburn competition started to heat up last weekend, I drove down the gorgeous California coast to judge the Carmel Young Artist Competition, which I’d won back when I was in college. It was sweet to be invited back as a judge.The timing was fortuitous. It reminded me anew how difficult it is to pass judgment on artistic performances.
The best experience I ever had was judging with the composer, Gabriela Lena Frank and the pianist and musicologist Nicholas Mathew. I use their names because there wasn’t a contentious moment between us. It’s rare to find such like-mindedness, willingness to spend extra time discussing each competitor, and complete satisfaction with the outcome. We adored the two performers we tied for first place, ended the day happy and pleased with our work and outcome.
It isn’t always so great. Many years ago, I found myself judging with two men, both quite a bit older than I was. The rules of this particular competition required a unanimous decision.The men wanted to give the award to a rather overconfident but very talented boy who’d played last.
The boy was obviously talented, but not well prepared. He’d stumbled through his Scarlatti sonata, and mangled quite a bit of the rest of his audition. What he’d played was perfectly fine, but lacked polish. He wasn't well-prepared.
Earlier in the day, however, a brilliant young red-haired woman had delivered a stunning performance. I still remember how moved I was by her Danza de la moza donosa by Ginastera. Everything she played was of the highest quality.
Whether it was the time of day, the fact that she was girl, or what we’d had for lunch, the men wanted the boy to win.
I didn’t put up with it.
“We can sit here into the wee hours of the morning, but I’m not voting for anyone else but that wonderful girl. Period.”
We discussed. We each tried to be reasonable.
Desperate, I blurted out, “Who would you want to pay money to listen to today?”
Without thinking, one of the men said, “Oh, I’d much rather pay money to hear that girl.”
“Me, too!” the other one quickly agreed.
“So, even though you would rather pay money for the girl, you want to give the prize to the boy?”
Finally, I’d said something that made sense to them. The girl got the prize.
I once judged a concerto competition with two other women. We were conversing politely when one of them said, “I want to give it to that guy who played the Mendelssohn. He has SUCH a cute butt.”
I wish I were kidding. I’m not. She said those exact words. She also wasn’t bothered in the least by the extra beat he’d carelessly added to each measure of the concerto’s slow movement.
The Cliburn competition has an elaborate scoring system. We used the same scoring system when I judged the Amateur Competition.
The scoring system allowed us to use numbers in an interesting way. We scored each of the 15 contestants between 1 and 25, but could space those scores to reflect how much better we thought each one was.
A judging sheet might looks like this:
- Ben Johnson 25
- Annie Gonzalez 24
- Sue Leong 19
- Steven Moore 11
We weren’t allowed to tie anyone, but we could score competitors very closely. The system works as long as everyone is honest. I can imagine, however, a scenario where one judge ranks a popular player unreasonably low to bolster their personal favorite’s score.
I recently found my judging notebook from the time I judged the Cliburn Amateur Competition. One afternoon I'd written this:
“1:50 PM: Competitor #10 has reached the middle of the Chopin 4th Ballade. When the playing is cold, the whole experience is awful, painful, embarrassing. But when the playing is good, the magic suddenly wipes away the bizarre social construct. I am a listener who is moved, ecstatic and strangely powerful - I can vote. In this world of amateurs where no tickets will ever be sold, no recordings ever made, that vote in itself is magic. It is an affirmation. Music can move, can lead. Music itself is magic. Your work is soothing to my tired heart. I am grateful and anxious to say so with my simple vote.”
I wish I’d known that when I was a competitor. I wish I could have known how desperately every judge wants to be moved. How they long for the performer who fills their tired heart with magic.
I wish I could tell it to all those who compete in these dreadfully wonderful competitions. Fill up your listeners’ hearts with magic. That's all that matters.