Balancing the Ups, Downs of Musical Competitions


The spring season may occasion many things, but musical competitions tend to sprout as densely as crab grass after a heavy spring rain. One of the area’s more venerable competitions, the La Jolla Civic-University Symphony’s Young Artists Competition, takes place this weekend at UC San Diego. Now in its 34th year, the annual competition for young musicians who live or study in San Diego County boasts a number of past winners whose careers have fulfilled the promise of these early accolades.

The list of past winners includes concert pianist Gregory Allen, San Diego Symphony assistant concertmaster Nicholas Grant, tenor Jose Medina, who sang with Joan Sutherland in Pacific Opera’s “Norma” last month, and pianist Kenneth Bookstein.

Allen, who won the La Jolla competition in 1966, went on to win second prize in Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1978 and grand prize in the 1980 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. Allen has balanced his subsequent performing career--concerts with the Israel Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, as well as recitals at the Kennedy Center and Ambassador Auditorium--with teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. Locally, he has performed with the San Diego Symphony. Last month, he gave a solo recital at Civic Theatre.


Reached by phone last week at his university music studio, he spoke about winning the La Jolla competition as an aspiring 17-year-old musician.

“It was my first competition, although I had won some Musical Merit Foundation scholarships that same year. The winners’ concert for the La Jolla competition was the first professional orchestra that I had ever played a concerto with.”

Allen recalled that he played Mendelssohn’s G Minor Piano Concerto, a work which has long since fallen out of his repertory. He continued to beat the competition trail until his final triumph in the Rubinstein Competition. As a teacher, Allen encourages his piano students to consider the competition route, though he does have reservations about the process.

“From my own experience, I felt that entering a competition was like being in horse race. There was a time when competitions had a negative influence on my playing.”

He described what he calls the competition player’s syndrome.

“It’s a kind of aggressiveness, an extra musical chip on the shoulder. In terms of playing, it is a gratuitous emphasis on fast and loud--something that is easy to fall into.”

Allen was quick to admit, however, that competitions did spur him on to greater musical accomplishments.

“By the time I won the Rubinstein, I had learned to treat the jury simply as part of the audience. I coach my own students that they can’t second-guess the jury. The judges will sense if a flashy interpretation is being superimposed on the performance for their benefit.”

Farewell to the Fisch Competition. Three years ago, Gregory Allen returned to San Diego to serve on the panel of judges for the first Joseph Fisch Piano Competition, held at San Diego State University. After three competitions, Fisch, a local arts patron and enthusiast, has decided to discontinue the competition. According to SDSU music faculty member Karen Follingstad, Fisch decided instead to underwrite a summer music camp for deserving high-school pianists.

A dozen young pianists will be chosen for the mid-July music institute, which will be held at SDSU. Follingstad said she and the other members of the piano faculty were unsuccessful in their attempts to persuade Fisch to continue supporting the competition. She admitted, however, that the summer institute would help the university in recruiting freshman students into the music department.

They met him in St. Louis. Tom Morgan, the San Diego Symphony’s acting assistant principal viola, returned to his hometown just outside St. Louis, Mo., as a soloist last month. With violinist Rebecca Boyer, Morgan soloed in Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante,” K. 364, with the University City Symphony, a community orchestra that performs at St. Louis’ Washington University.

The concert, which included Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and three of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, was a family affair. Morgan’s father, Robert, observed his son’s performance from the cello section of the orchestra. An engineer by profession, the senior Morgan took up the cello about 12 years ago and is a regular member of the University City Orchestra.

Lighting the Phantom. Gregory Hirsch, San Diego Opera’s director of productions, won a San Francisco Bay Area Critics’ Circle award for his lighting design in Ken Hill’s “Phantom of the Opera.” This satirical stage production--not to be confused with the Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza--opened last September at San Francisco’s Theater on the Square and is still running strong.

More Opera Leaks. When San Diego Opera general director Ian Campbell came home from his trip to the Soviet Union a few days before Easter, he brought with him some disappointing news. Noted mezzo-soprano Elana Obraztsova will not be singing in San Diego’s production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” Her replacement in the local company’s grand-opening salvo for the mayor’s Soviet Arts Festival is Irina Bogacheva, a regular of Leningrad’s Kirov Opera.