The Pacific Symphony had long planned to make this a summer of Van Cliburn competition winners. The quadrennial Fort Worth, Texas, event, one of the most important contests in the classical music world, would name its winners in June and the three medalists--gold, silver and bronze--would be introduced to Southern California first via the orchestra's summer season at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
And so they will be--sort of.
For the first time since its inception in 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year named co-recipients of the gold medal--Olga Kern, 26, of Russia and Stanislav Ioudenitch, 29, of Uzbekistan.
As if that wasn't surprising enough, the competition also had two winners for the silver medal--Antonio Pompa-Baldi, 26, of Italy and Maxim Philippov, 29, of Russia. (No bronze medal was awarded.)
The co-awards arose from a new scoring system that allows splitting honors when score totals are statistically close. John McBain, an Indianapolis computer programmer and engineering manager, spent thousands of hours designing it.
When the results were announced, however, the Pacific Symphony was unable to adjust its summer schedule to fit in more than three players.
"What we worked out, date-wise and in terms of repertoire, accommodated two gold medalists and a silver," Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte said. "Our hope is to bring the other silver medalist in the future."
The summer Cliburn lineup begins Saturday with Ioudenitch, who will play Mozart's Concerto No. 21. "By many people's acclaim," Forsyte said, "his was the finest classical performance."
Next comes Pompa-Baldi, on Aug. 11, with Grieg's Concerto in A minor, a good fit for what Forsyte calls the "great lyric gifts" he displayed in Texas.
Finally, Kern, who "made a tremendous impression" playing Rachmaninoff during the competition, will play that composer's Concerto No. 2 on Aug. 25.
The three of them spoke to The Times about their new status as Cliburn winners and what it means for the future.
Kern had unfinished business with the Van Cliburn competition when she showed up to start the competition May 25. In 1997 in Fort Worth, she had failed to get past the preliminaries.
"Last time, everything was different," she said by phone from the Cliburn Foundation offices in Fort Worth. And not the least of it is her name. She was Olga Pushechnikova then; now she uses her mother's simpler maiden name--Kern.
But that's not all. "I was younger," Kern said. "Now I am more professional. I'm studying in Italy, and I've met a lot of really great pianists, and I'm a mother, and things are different."
Born to a family of musicians in Moscow (her father is a pianist for the Bolshoi Theater, her mother is a piano teacher, and her brother is a trumpeter in the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra), Kern always wanted to be a pianist.
"I was crazy from 3 years old, crazy about the piano," she said.
She would go on to win awards at several international competitions and to play with the Moscow State Symphony, the Moscow Philharmonic, among others.
She met her ex-husband, Dimitri Teterin, at the 1997 Cliburn competition, where he also competed. They divorced in August and have a 21/2-year-old son, Vladislav, who stayed in Moscow with Kern's mother while she competed in Fort Worth.
"For more concentration, I needed to be alone," she said.
This time around, Kern was called "ferocious and relentless at the keyboard" (Tim Madigan in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) and praised for her "voluptuous charisma" (Paul Horsey in the Kansas City Star). Many in the audience were swept up in what quickly was dubbed "Olgamania." She received standing ovations after every performance.
"The first time I played on the stage, the audience stands up immediately," she said. "After each piece, they stand. It was a really great success, and I feel this. They give me good energy. It's very important for musicians to feel the public likes them."
Not everyone was entranced, however. Scott Cantrell, music critic for the Dallas Morning News, wrote that Kern "didn't worry too much about observing composers' directions for speed and volume, consistently opting for maximum applause potential."
But even Cantrell was not entirely immune. "There was no denying [her performance of Rachmaninoff's Third was] of almost superhuman power and endurance. And that final reminiscence of the soulful motto theme was enough to rend the hardest heart in two."
As a result of her showing, Kern, along with the other winners, will get $20,000, two years of concert management by the Cliburn Foundation, a recording deal and a number of guaranteed concert dates--including the ones with the Pacific Symphony.
Beyond that, her plans are indefinite.
"I will travel a lot. I already travel a lot. Maybe I will stay [in the U.S.]. I don't know yet. I'm thinking about it."Ioudenitch, like Kern, has a history at the Cliburn competition. In 1997, he had to drop out of the competition at the semifinal level after he burned his hand making tea. (He won a Jury Discretionary Award, however.)
"I didn't feel that it was going to be the end of my career," the pianist said from his home since January 1999 in Kansas City, Mo., where he is studying with Robert Weirich at the University of Missouri.
"After 15 days, I already could play again," Ioudenitch said, and he knew he would try again in 2001. It would be "my last chance because of my age," the 29-year-old said. The Cliburn is open only to pianists 18 through 30.
A native of Uzbekistan, Ioudenitch also comes from a family of musicians. His talent, quickly recognized, was nurtured in the Soviet school system.
"I was one of the star students in a huge school," he said. "There were only about five of us. I didn't feel much pressure. I felt that everybody expected a lot, but that was a kind of pleasure." He met his wife, Tatiana, also a pianist, at the Tashkent Conservatory. They have a 51/2-year-old daughter, Maria.
Ioudenitch, who played works by Mozart, Bach and Schubert, among others, in the contest, was described as "the thinking person's pianist" in the competition. "Everything about his playing ... was thought-provoking and refreshing," wrote Cantrell in the Dallas Morning News. "Clearly Mr. Ioudenitch was the jury's protest against the 'louder and faster' juggernaut."
Although he's still a citizen of Uzbekistan, Ioudenitch says he is unlikely to return there.
"I love my motherland. I would like to be there. But there is no future there in classical music. It's very unfortunate."
In his view, the problem is not enough opportunity in a Muslim country that does not prize Western music.
"My father was the best violinist, a fantastic virtuoso, and he never could make a career there. He taught to survive. My mother is a fantastic pianist. Same thing."
As for the Cliburn's split decision, Ioudenitch said, "It's much better. It takes some of the pressure away, and it gives more possibilities to more people. In my case, [a competition] is very necessary. It helps to start my career. Before that, I didn't have any kind of manager. I was studying with some of the best teachers in the world, but nothing would happen.
"You win this competition--you get everything. It's dangerous, of course, because you don't know how it will go. But for the first time in my life, I have a concert, and I will be paid for that. It's unbelievable."
Silver medalist Pompa-Baldi has also settled, perhaps permanently, in the United States. He is an assistant professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.
"The Oberlin audition happened before the Cliburn," Pompa-Baldi said by phone from Breckenridge, Colo., where he was taking a short post-competition holiday.
"I auditioned for it in mid-February, with my Cliburn qualifying audition in Chicago immediately after. I didn't know if I would be accepted at the Cliburn or whether I would have a position at Oberlin. Then I learned I had both."
Unlike the others, Pompa-Baldi, who was born in Foggia, in the south of Italy, did not grow up in a family of musicians.
"When I was 21/2, my mother and father realized that every time I was watching TV and there was a pianist playing, I kind of went crazy and started playing on the table."
That led to lessons and later, when he was 14, a string of competition awards in Italy.
"They didn't change my life, but they gave me quite a lot of self-confidence about being a pianist."
He won the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 1999, and the engagements that ensued kept him so busy that he didn't feel he had time to prepare for the Cliburn. But his wife, Emanuela, now an artist in residence at Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College, urged him to enter anyway.
They met in 1996 at a master class in Mezzago, Italy, where Pompa-Baldi was an assistant to "master" pianist Aldo Ciccolini.
"Emanuela came as a student," he said. "The following day, we became engaged. It was really fast.
"It's really a wonderful thing to be married to a pianist. From the very first time we met, we realized we are able to help and encourage each other when that's needed and also when we're under pressure. It's very good to be together."
He hopes moving to the U.S. will mean more stability for them.
"Last year, I had to cross the ocean about 81 times," he said. "We were still living in Italy. But I traveled all the time. My wife and I decided to try to get positions in the United States to have a base and also to make sure we could make a living.
"The Cleveland is a wonderful competition, and it gave me a lot more than I expected. I was supposed to play about 243 engagements in two years; then, thanks to the great job they did, I [did] about 465, and was reinvited many times. But still it doesn't have the celebrity, the name of the Cliburn, which is known worldwide.
"Now, I'm not [so] concerned with making a living."
Pompa-Baldi, who also won another Cliburn medal and $5,000 for best performance of a new work, was praised for his graceful Mozart and also for a performance of Prokofiev's Third that critic Cantrell called "kinetically dramatic, almost savage in some of its more forceful passages but lovingly caressed in its more lyric moments."
Like Ioudenitch, Pompa-Baldi feels that the split awards are a good thing. "It's a good opportunity, a good idea to give opportunities to more than just two or three people," he said.
He goes further.
"Many people in Fort Worth asked me, 'How do you feel playing against other pianists? Or, have you ever played against Olga?' It was hard to explain. You never play against other pianists. What you can say is, you're entering a competition with other musicians or other pianists.
"The real competition is against yourself, to show all your capabilities and show your best. You can never make music against other people."
* Pacific Symphony, Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Saturday, Aug. 11 and Aug. 25, 8 p.m., $18-$67. (714) 755-5799 or (949) 855-8096.