TV REVIEW : ‘Tchaikovsky’: Vivid Human Drama

Though taped last summer, “IX International Tchaikovsky Competition” remains a topical testimony to the ongoing Moscow jitters. Nervous and edgy, but with the excitement of the music ultimately dominating the more ominous political and social undercurrents, this 90-minute documentary (tonight at 8 on Channels 28 and 50, and at 9 on Channels 24 and 15) is consistently engrossing on many levels.

There are some extraordinary performances here, particularly in the later, more extended excerpts. As with most major competitions, the emphasis is on fingers of steel--and nerves to match--and displays of bravura and determination abound, from gold medalists pianist Boris Berezovsky and violinist Akaki Suwanai among others.

But this is not principally a music show, as much as it is a remarkably candid show about musicians and competitions, with a pertinent travelogue subtext. Written and directed by Bill Fertik for KCET and Dalrymple Productions, “Tchaikovsky Competition” is at its best among the contestants themselves, backstage and on the street as well as in performance.


Offstage, two U.S. fiddlers, Frank Almond and David Kim, carry much of the early commentary, until Almond is shattered by his first-round elimination. Many of the musicians express wonder over seemingly inexplicable judging, and disillusionment with competitions in general.

Then the focus shifts to Berezovsky and his blossoming friendship with Stephen Prutsman, who eventually ties for fourth place. We follow Prutsman into the Moscow streets, where agitprop theater and corner demagogues seem to flourish now. The unrest is clear, the brittle expectancy often veering from hope to fear within a single short interview.

The event itself is not free from pressures. We find the competition chairman worrying about lack of funding and wondering if this might not be the last Tchaikovsky Competition, and we also follow the story of a far-reaching, expensive effort to bribe jury members by an unnamed pianist’s relatives.

But at the end is some amazingly focused music-making. Despite an inept orchestra, intermittent supplies of food and hot water, and all the increasingly scrutinized inequities of the competition environment, hardy musicians survive, and incredibly so does Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, and Chopin. . . .