MUSIC : Practice, Practice . . . Payoff ? : Ivo Pogorelich's contest at Ambassador lures pianists from around the world in the name of art, competition and--well, there is that $100,000 top prize

Greta Beigel is a Times staff writer.

Five years ago, just as his career was taking off, Mark Westcott broke his arm in a household accident and was paralyzed for almost a year. Now 45, he is attempting a comeback.

Russian-born Jura Margulis, 25, says at his age things change fast. Last year his schedule was empty, but then in October he gave eight recitals in Europe. With his father soon to become a professor of piano at UCLA, the younger Margulis is setting his sights on America.

Then there's Neil Rutman, 40, who teaches piano--and boxing--in Little Rock, Ark. He's fought for many prizes over the years, and says he's ready to engage in one final bout.

These pianists are among 42 aspirants--34 men and 8 women--set to compete in the First Ivo Pogorelich International Solo Piano Competition, which begins Thursday at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena and concludes with a prize-winning ceremony on Dec. 16.

Named for the Croatian pianist, the Pogorelich, with a first prize of $100,000, attracted 130 applicants from 20 countries.

There will be three rounds in the triennial competition, with required repertory only in the preliminaries. Twelve pianists will compete in the semifinals (Dec. 9-10); six in the finals, which begin on Dec. 13.

"It seems through our brochures we got the message across and have targeted the world so well," Pogorelich said while on a recent visit to Los Angeles to raise funds for the competition. Although he has no official role, Pogorelich is clearly overseeing the program.

Looking casual in jeans and a white, open-necked shirt--yet imperious with a red windbreaker draped over his broad shoulders--Pogorelich chose a shady bench on the grounds of Ambassador for a 90-minute conversation about the contest he conceived with his wife, Alice Kezeradze, who was also his teacher.

"I would like to see it as a musical fair rather than a cruel contest with people dropping out," said Pogorelich, who knows firsthand the agonies of musical warfare. In 1980, Pogorelich failed to make the finals of the Chopin competition in Warsaw. His early elimination sparked a furor--and a media blitz-that catapulted the then-22-year-old Yugoslav into the world spotlight.

As a result, Pogorelich said, "only very good wishes are invested" in his competition. Toward that end, the 13-member international jury--which in a very unusual move, is only being revealed at a reception Wednesday night--will be composed not only of performers, but also of those on the periphery of the creative process: educators, critics, radio producers and artists' managers.

As Pogorelich pointed out, this competition "is very unusual in nature."

Consider:

* There is no upper age limit.

* Applicants must have been finalists in a major international competition, or must submit three recommendations from prominent musicians.

* There is a $100,000 grand prize.

* Solo repertory--not concertos--are to be performed in the final rounds.

* The president of the jury--Pogorelich's wife--has the power of veto.

Pogorelich, who has performed at Ambassador 14 times, said he selected the 1,250-seat auditorium as the competition site because of the hall's excellent acoustics, audiovisual equipment and catering facilities, and its closeness to airports for arrivals of candidates and jury.

The pianists interviewed for this article professed--for the most part with a giggle or two--only a passing interest in the prize money. Rather, they talked of the joys of being able to program their own repertory, and as Westcott put it, "perform at a competition that is interested in artistry."

"Nobody in their right mind would expect or dare think about winning," said Westcott, who won the 1971 William Kapell competition at the University of Maryland and placed third at the 1969 Van Cliburn in Fort Worth.

"This is not like the Cliburn or Kapell or (Gina) Bachauer where you would always have the same group competing. We used to call these people 'threats.' You would always see the same of us at most big competitions in Moscow, Salt Lake (City), everywhere, and you could count on a member of the 'threat' to pick up the prize.

"But this is different. Clearly they have opened up the age limit in order to emphasize the artistic development and perseverance of the artist. All of the people in this competition are a threat in terms of winning a prize."

The first prize at most majors runs from $15,000 to $20,000, and often comes with concert engagements or artist management.

The quadrennial Van Cliburn, for instance, last June awarded gold medalist Simone Pedroni $15,000 in cash, two years of management, and concert appearances, including a date at Carnegie Hall, at an overall value of about $200,000.

Then there's the Gilmore Artist Award, presented every two years or more by the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Here, a jury of 13 listens to tapes--obtained in secret--of nominated artists before awarding an unsuspecting winner $115,000 to be used over a four-year period. The first recipient, David Owen Norris, spent some of his earnings on a recording and to hire a nanny for child care. (The next winner will be announced in February.)

*

The Pogorelich is budgeted at about $600,000. In the event of the emergence of "some extraordinary talent," two first prizes of $75,000 each may be awarded. Silver and bronze medals go to the runners-up. Pogorelich has raised another $60,000--that figure is still rising--from within the community to be bestowed by the jury upon players of promise. Winners must perform gratis a maximum of two concerts to benefit the 1996 Pogorelich at Ambassador.

It is this concept of a winner-take-all $100,000 prize that has made arts officials and competition administrators take notice.

"I am concerned over giving only one prize," said Paul Pollei, founder and artistic director of the Gina Bachauer competition. "When it comes to the finals there can be 3 or 5 or 12 pianists, and it's a case of splitting hairs. I prefer to give opportunities to more rather than to isolate."

Pogorelich believes the money will afford the winner "relative independence" to choose an agent or a recording company, purchase a new instrument or study abroad.

Or simply take the money and head for the Riviera?

"Listen, we had a few 'tourist' applications," Pogorelich responded. "We don't want to offer a chance to those who don't have serious intentions. These people are easily distinguishable."

On a loftier note, Pogorelich called upon serious musicians to take up cudgels for their art.

"We have rock stars who cannot read music who present themselves as musicians, when in reality it's something else--it's packaging, it's business," he explained. "We must not allow classical music to be dwarfed by popular music. It should receive equal attention.

"Piano playing is an incredibly expensive activity. You must have proper teachers, a proper instrument, a proper environment. This competition serves the purpose of not only singling out gifted pianists, but also of making society aware of the need to invest. We hope others will copy this."

*

At least one congressman, a music lover whose grandson is a concert pianist, has long advocated--in vain, it turns out--the creation of a music contest with large payoffs along the lines of golf and other sporting events.

Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), who since 1975 has chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, the committee that oversees and recommends funds for the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a phone interview that he had first broached the possibility to several concert pianists about a decade ago.

"I wanted to provide a national competition for them with $50,000 prize money but none of the pianists were interested," Yates said. "I doubt if many of the experts would compete for that kind of money. They don't want to take a loss. If somebody wins that's fine, but those who come in second, third or fourth think it reflects on them.

"They've got to think of new concepts. The NEA, which I have attempted to protect over the years, is facing cuts at this critical time. They are going to have to find ways of developing prize money from other sources.

"The question now is: Can you open up classical music? And how far do you take the concept? Do you take it like sports people do by having contests in various cities? Sure you have concerts for them, but would you have a competition for them with prize money as well?"

Jura Margulis plans to participate in just such an event. Attempting to expand his American base, the pianist will compete with 14 others next April in Florida at the Palm Beach Invitational International Piano Competition. Here, performers are guaranteed $2,000 for a one-hour recital, and are eligible to play for $5,000 to $15,000 in prizes.

"There are so many competitions with routine," said Margulis, a student of his father, Russian pianist Vitaly Margulis, at the Musikhochschule Freiburg, Germany. (Margulis Sr. joins the UCLA music staff in January.)

"The Busoni was started 50 years ago, and looking ahead to 1995, there is Tel Aviv, Brussels and Warsaw. I try to go to all of them, but these are very famous, old competitions. I like these new and special things, and this is one reason for me to visit the Pogorelich."

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The age requirement at competitions generally runs from 18 to 32. Pogorelich, not wishing to "jeopardize" anyone's scholastic studies, set the minimum age at 21. And wanting to "open doors and offer a second chance" to artists forced to abandon the concert stage, Pogorelich decided to forgo any upper age restrictions.

But the event is not open to anyone merely seeking to rekindle a long-lost career. The qualifications are stringent: applicants must submit tapes, copies of recent programs and reviews, diplomas and recommendations from well-known musicians.

Karen Knowlton, executive director of the Casadesus International Piano Competition in Cleveland, while questioning age 32 as the "magical cut-off" point, nevertheless has reservations about pianists competing in their mid-40s.

"I know of some at 32 who need another win to get attention, but if a person has not emerged as a strong performer by 45 it probably won't happen."

But pianist Russell Sherman, professor of piano at the New England Conservatory of Music, who has trained many competition winners, including Christopher Taylor and Christopher O'Riley, believes "great pianists only emerge after 40."

"It doesn't matter how you play at 25. So many winners have disappeared at 27," Russell said. "But I have seen when young people come to that age (32) and have not won the gold. I have seen this with my own students, a curtain comes down, and there is a very strong feeling that this is the end.

"Competitions are such a game. It's close to violating the laws against cruelty to animals and is cruel and unusual punishment. You have people playing their hearts out and you have judges who engage in this pompous exercise of thumbs up or thumbs down. If you're out, you're devastated."

Jury members are to cast their votes following discussion. And in order to "ensure democratic voting" and eliminate the formation of "groups or clans," Pogorelich said Kezeradze, a voting member, will serve as President with the power of veto. She also will consult with competitors if need be.

But this power to overrule any decision has made Neil Rutman, an artist-in-residence at the University of Central Arkansas--who's also a light heavyweight boxer--"scared about entering."

"Secret balloting can keep a jury in line," reasoned Rutman, winner of the 1991 Johann Sebastian Bach international competition.

"Playing behind a screen is my preferred way but I suppose that will be boring for the audience. Maybe she (Kezeradze) won't have to use her power. We hope not. But she has influence over the destiny of 40 pianists."

*

In the preliminaries, the required repertory includes four etudes (two by Chopin) and one piano suite by J.S. Bach (French, English or a Partita). The semifinals will feature a 60-to-70-minute recital, with no intermission.

And because the costs of hiring an orchestra would be prohibitive, the final round will not feature concertos, but rather a 90-to-100-minute recital.

"We would have had to hire the L.A. Philharmonic and that is incredibly expensive," Pogorelich said. "But it has been my experience that no matter how well you play a Mozart concerto, a Rachmaninoff Second or Third or the Tchaikovsky are going to outshine you. Recitals have much more scope."

Edith Chen, who at 23 is the youngest entrant, deems it easier and "psychologically more exciting" to play the two concertos customary to most finals.

Chen, a Juilliard student who reached the finals at the 1990 Tchaikovsky competition--to her mortification she was awarded a fur coat for the best female pianist--said she thought she was "done with contests" until she heard about the Pogorelich.

"I could not resist the opportunity to meet him," Chen said. "I knew if it was his competition he would be there. I can play for him. I am sure he will be there listening."

Pogorelich, however, will only attend the finals.

Nor will Pogorelich have any voting rights, because he said he doesn't feel experienced enough for the job. And besides, he pointed out with a laugh, "I am 35. A good deal of the competitors are older than me."

And will the pianist remain a committed competition administrator?

"You can't just have a competition called after you and not take any responsibility can you?" he said softly, looking into the distance and lighting another cigarette.

"I think my responsibilities are very clear."

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