“You have to realize,” says a contestant at Moscow’s Ninth International
Tchaikovsky Competition, “that two weeks from now, one of us will be a world-
renowned pianist, and the rest of us will be right where we are, or maybe
running shops.” Honest, cynical and dismaying, the comment epitomizes Bill
Fertik’s 90-minute documentary on the competition, airing at 8 p.m. tonight on
KCET-TV (with simulcast on KUSC-FM). It may be the first clear-headed appraisal
ever put on film of the grueling psychological and physical horror of today’s
music competitions.
The irony, of course, is that Fertik has aimed his cameras at the latest
running of the very event that first put international virtuoso competitions in
the limelight. If Van Cliburn’s win at the first Tchaikovsky contest in the
summer of 1958 sent the Texas superboy into orbit, it did the same for the
whole institution of the competition.
Thirty-two years later Cliburn himself has all but disappeared from the scene;
his “comeback” concerts last year went nowhere. The competition in Fort Worth
that bears his name has become a ludicrous media circus. And the competition in
Moscow that launched him has, as Fertik’s probing cameras make devastatingly
clear, deteriorated into a parade of peevishness, bickering, unethical conduct
by both judges and contestants and over-all mismanagement. A dreadful paradox
obtains: a big competition win is still the best way to launch a career, and
yet there are so many competitions these days that the value of a big win has
sunk pathetically.
Fertik’s excellent documentary zeroes in on two contestants who become friends,
the American Stephen Prutsman and the Soviet Boris Berezovsky. Against a
background of Moscow in the throes of perestroika’s economic hardship —
terrible restaurant food, poor hotel service, pianos in disrepair and a paucity
of practice space — the two somehow hammer their way to the top. Berezovsky
takes the top prize but Prutsman, who comes in fourth, becomes a huge crowd
favorite. Tall, lanky and golden-haired, he is greeted as a Cliburn
Does it matter? The history of competition winners lists few who went on to
long-term careers. At least Fertik’s documentary captures this air of pathos
and frustration. Comparison with Peter Rosen’s goody-goody piece on the 1989
Cliburn Competition (aired last winter on PBS as “Here to Make Music”) is
inevitable. This one tells it as it is.

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