06/03/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

A Day at the Races

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In a few days, I will be conducting the finals of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. Participating as a performer rather than a juror is, to me, much more satisfying. In fact, I really do not like the concept of a contest in music.

It has been observed that the only parallel between sports and music is that they are both played. But the competitive nature of the human condition has always made the latter seem like the former. It goes back a long ways, certainly from the days of Mozart, through the legendary Lizst/Thalberg piano duels and of course the somewhat more recent, Battle of the Bands.

In schools throughout the land, young musicians have to compete for their chairs in the high school band or orchestra. In many ways, the audition process to get into a symphony is a competition. So preparing for the Cliburn, or any other like event, seems natural.
It is not.

Certainly a performance must be judged on its own merit and will usually be a matter of taste on the part of the listener. But how can one truly be objective in a field that is all about subjectivity? Who really knows what makes one pianist better than another? And how do you decide if one pianist's Rachmaninov is better than another's Beethoven?

There is also the matter of the contestants themselves. Over the course of three weeks, they will have prepared and performed solo music, a chamber piece, a composition written expressly for the Cliburn, and two contrasting concerti. Not only is this physically demanding, it is emotionally draining. It is an experience that no musician every goes through except in competition. Concert life is simply not like this at all.

For some of the pianists, months of preparation have taken place, not only to learn the repertoire but also to psychologically and physically get ready. The stamina required for those who reach the finals is extraordinary. It is possible to see the strain on virtually every performer's face and body.

The eventual winner is lauded and honored. A cash prize as well as some dates for concerts is the reward. For a few, it will be the start of a potentially major career. Other gold medalists cannot keep up with the demands of concert life and fade away. Those who do not come in first usually are forgotten, although once in a while, one of them gets the attention of some musicians, who then can guide them on a pathway to success.

My job is to be as supportive as possible for the final six. Each will perform two concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony and me. I will not know which pieces we will do together until the day before the first rehearsal. What should be most interesting might occur if several of the entrants each play the same concerto. I will have to remember who does what and where in the piece. So although pianist X makes a ritard in the opening phrase of the Rachmaninov 3rd, for example, it is possible that pianist Y will not. Tempos and dynamics will be different as well.

Fortunately I do not have to make a public judgment. Perhaps one pianist will catch my ear in a particular way and that person may not be the winner. Nonetheless, I might consider engaging this talented keyboard wizard.

I wish all of the competitors good luck, as well as offering one piece of advice: Go out and try to satisfy the most critical person in the hall -- yourself.