Special Reports

Confessions of a Seasoned Jurist

February 3, 2015 | By Stuart Isacoff

Stuart IsacoffI’ve served on many juries, and each of the issues raised here seems to come into play every time. Take the admonition not to talk: Perhaps it’s designed to keep things from getting too far out of hand, but it simply doesn’t work. Talking to a fellow juror is usually not a matter of debate or of seeking consensus. If a juror is expert enough, there is no need for any of that—we all know exactly what we are hearing and where we stand, and any talking is usually simply a social amenity and a signal of a shared experience.

Other issues are less easy to resolve. Should one vote for level of accomplishment or potential for greatness? The two are sometimes far apart, especially if one of the contestants is younger than the others. I found myself struggling with this question at a competition just last year.

Then there are issues of pitting stylistic rectitude versus imaginative brilliance; would you vote for Vladimir Horowitz’s Mozart or fine him for violating the rules of historical propriety? And while we’re on the subject, which is more important: technical accuracy or expressiveness? Most jurors don’t mind a wrong note or small memory slip. And how much expressiveness is too much? Some musicians go overboard, exaggerating pauses, outlining cadences, and the like, without realizing that they are detracting from the music rather than enhancing it.

Amateur competitions and competitions designed specifically for young people pose additional difficulties. How do you manage your expectations? Do you keep the high bar of professional players in mind, or simply survey the field to determine a reasonable level? I was on the jury of the very first Cliburn Amateur Competition, and the winner was a French dealer in rare coins (thus, an amateur), but he regularly traveled to Moscow for lessons, and obviously practiced like crazy. This was one serious dude, and his playing—well, it really doesn’t ever get much better. Pity the doctors, lawyers, housepainters and one newspaper critic who had the misfortune to come up against him.




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