Pianist Predicts Decline in Mad Whirl of Music Competitions

“Competitions are like the devil tempting you,” says French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. “They are completely unhealthy, with a lot of artistic nonsense. With as many as 60 piano competitions each year, the point is already reached where the competition system will die very soon. When you see where the first-prize winner of last year’s competition is entering another competition, you know they are not doing what they are supposed to do. They don’t bring any long-lasting benefits for a musician’s career.”

Whether these observations are sour grapes or insightful analyses, Bavouzet has had more than a taste of the current competition routine. One of the dozen semifinalists of the recent Van Cliburn Competition, the 26-year-old Frenchman left Ft. Worth, Tex., with the Chamber Music Prize for his performance with the Tokyo String Quartet. While Bavouzet was also a semifinalist in the 1987 Leeds Competition, he has not always been an also-ran. The previous year he won first place in West Germany’s Tomassoni-Beethoven Piano Competition.

With competitions behind him for a while--he has neither ruled them out nor is he preparing for a future contest--Bavouzet is back on the concert route, the actual goal of his musical career. Wednesday night he played the first of four consecutive concerts with the San Diego Symphony at Hospitality Point. For the summer pops’ all-French program, Bavouzet is playing Maurice Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto.

The choice of a Paris-trained French pianist to play the Ravel (especially during the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution), would appear to be based on irrefutable logic. But the articulate French musician was not about to wrap up the authenticity of his Ravel interpretation in the French flag. The issue, as he sees it, is much more complex than that.


“On the one hand, I hate the idea that music is some kind of universal language,” he stated. “It’s not by mere chance that the best players of Bartok are Hungarian--it has something to do with the language, the landscape and the musical psychology of a country. But then you can always prove the opposite case.”

Bavouzet mentioned that he had been reading the biography of the eminent Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau. Arrau, he pointed out, made his career as an interpreter of Mozart and Beethoven, not as a champion of his fellow South American composers. And national characteristics are not the sum of a composer’s style.

“While you cannot imagine Ravel as a Norwegian composer, Ravel and Debussy are less ‘French’ in their musical manner when you compare them to Emmanuel Chabrier or Vincent D’Indy. You cannot play Chabrier well if you do not know anything about France.”

Bavouzet’s marriage is an example of cultural exchange. His wife is a Hungarian pianist whom he met while they were participating in a Spanish piano competition in 1982. They are expecting their first child in two months.


“Sometimes we play piano four hands at home. Our approaches are complementary, and we help each other a lot. She studied the Viennese classical school, first in Budapest and then in Vienna, while all of my training was in Paris.”

Bavouzet, who grew up in Metz, near the Franco-German border, acknowledged that being raised in a musical family put him on the path to a musical career quite early.

“I didn’t decide on a musical career--it was always there. My mother was a musician, so I always lived with music. I can’t even remember my first musical experience.”

An oboe player who has also cultivated electronic music composition at the Center of Music Research, Bavouzet did not decide to concentrate on piano performance until the age of 18.


His American career was launched in 1986 after auditioning for Young Concert Artists International in New York. He was one of nine young artists chosen out of about 600 applicants. Successful recital debuts under Young Concert Artists followed at New York’s 92nd Street Y and Washington’s Kennedy Center. Under the young artists’ aegis he plays about 20 programs a year, mainly solo recitals. Although he has played with the Tallahassee Symphony and the Western Piedmont Orchestra, this week’s four concerts with the San Diego Symphony under guest conductor Bruce Ferden will mark his debut with a major American orchestra.