From The New York Times:
August 14, 2006
Scandal in Brazil Over Villa-Lobos International Piano Competition[/b]
By LARRY ROHTER
SÃO PAULO, Brazil, Aug. 12 — The new Villa-Lobos International Piano Competition was meant to remind the world that Brazil isn’t just a pop music force and to encourage young pianists to add works by Brazil’s most renowned classical composer to their repertory. Instead, the week-long event begins here Monday with its luster tarnished by accusations that the process of selecting the contestants has been manipulated.
The charges come from the former director of the competition, an Israeli pianist named Ilan Rechtman, who was dismissed in April. He said that John Neschling, the conductor and artistic director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, the organizers of the competition, improperly interfered with the selection process to such an extent that 11 of the 20 pianists who will be playing here were not on an original list of chosen candidates.
“This is to be a political selection, with one from each country,” Mr. Rechtman quotes Mr. Neschling as telling him at a closed-door meeting in April just before he was fired. “Let’s select three Chinese, but we must make sure there are more Brazilians than Chinese. After all, this is a Brazilian competition.”
In an interview Thursday at the orchestra’s headquarters here, Mr. Neschling, a Brazilian perhaps best known as the composer of the soundtrack for the film “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” angrily denied that he had ever made such remarks or acted improperly. Mr. Rechtman was fired, he said, because his conduct was “morally unacceptable” and had he been allowed to remain, would have damaged the credibility of the competition, which is supported by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry and two of Brazil’s largest companies.
“Of course it’s political, but only cultural politics,” Mr. Neschling said about the selection process. “We want to make Villa-Lobos’s music more popular in the world. This is the only politics we have.” He said the accusations, widely reported in the Brazilian press, were an insult to what he described as “the best orchestra in Latin America.” Under his direction, the orchestra here has thrived, performing more than 130 concerts a year, touring, building a subscriber base of 10,000 and recording works by Brazilian composers.
“We work hard and produce enormously,” Mr. Neschling said. “So to suppose that an institution like this would mingle with some low-class scheme, some dirty game to cheat musicians, is ridiculous and can only come from a sick mind.”
At the same time that he fired Mr. Rechtman, Mr. Neschling also removed an American who was one of two judges screening the 100 or so entrants, saying that he was too close to Mr. Rechtman. The American, Jeffrey Moidel, was replaced by a Brazilian pianist and former record company executive, Rosana Martins, who has since been named the orchestra’s artistic administrator.
“I’ve never been through anything quite like this before, and I find it all very strange and peculiar,” Mr. Moidel, a pianist, voice coach and opera director who teaches at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, said by telephone from there. “I do not want to be too simplistic and say that Neschling put in who he wanted to put in, but the results do not correspond to the evaluations I made.”
In the refined but highly competitive world of classical piano, the turmoil here has become fodder for discussion, with piano students around the world debating the controversy on blogs and in e-mail exchanges. A Web site (alink-argerich.org/newsall.asp) devoted to classical piano competitions, run by a German critic and author named Gustav Alink, has covered the controversy extensively, referring to it as a “selection process blotted” by scandal.
But Mr. Neschling said he was compelled to act against Mr. Rechtman, who he said had encouraged and sponsored irregularities in the selection process. The most serious offense, he said, was Mr. Rechtman’s decision to change the rankings made by the second screening judge, a Brazilian music professor and piano teacher named Gilberto Tinetti.
Mr. Rechtman acknowledges that he altered some of those evaluations. But he said he did so in an effort to prevent the competition from becoming an international laughingstock, after Mr. Tinetti told him that he recognized the playing of some Brazilian contestants and had favored them. “As the director of the competition, I was operating in an environment where everything was political, where so little value was being given to things musical, that I did what I felt I had to do,” Mr. Rechtman said. “If everything had been meticulously categorized with Price Waterhouse certification, believe me, I wouldn’t have touched a thing. But everything around me was corrupt.”
Mr. Rechtman said he was particularly distressed that a young Chinese pianist whose submission he described as “beautiful, magnificent,” was ranked so low by Mr. Tinetti that he could not possibly qualify. The pianist, Wenyu Shen, finished second at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2003, at age 16, and is regarded as one of the most promising young pianists in the world.
Mr. Tinetti said that Mr. Shen’s exclusion was not part of a concerted effort to exclude a strong foreign competitor. Rather, he said, evaluating music is a highly subjective process, and his taste and Mr. Rechtman’s differ. “I have a reputation for seriousness and fairness, and so I am outraged he has accused me of favoring friends,” Mr. Tinetti said. “There are always going to be artistic disagreements. This particular Chinese contestant sent a mediocre disc, and I heard others that I thought were better.”
Questions have also been raised about the inclusion of the São Paulo orchestra’s own pianist, a Russian named Olga Kopylova, in the competition finals. Mr. Rechtman recalled that Mr. Neschling said, “Let’s put her in, it will look good for the orchestra.” Mr. Neschling denied saying that, but defended the choice, saying, “No law, no rule forbids a musician in our company from participating, as long as she goes through the same screening process.”
Mr. Rechtman and both of the screening judges also said they had detected edits in the qualifying CD’s that some of the pianists submitted, a violation of the competition’s rules that should have disqualified them. But two of the pianists accused of breaking the rules, a Cuban who lives in Brazil and a Russian, nonetheless made it to the final 20 who will be playing for the jury here. As a result of the dispute 7 of the 11 judges originally contracted have now pulled out. They include Robert Moir of the Pittsburgh Symphony; Loie Farris of the Toronto Symphony; David Lockington, a former music director of the Long Island Philharmonic; and James Keller, formerly the music editor of The New Yorker magazine.
“They are obviously doubting the integrity of the competition,” Mr. Moidel said, adding that some judges had been in contact with him. “After what happened to me, they have to wonder whether or not their grading will even matter, since mine didn’t matter at all.”
Of the judges who resigned and were contacted by telephone, none wished to comment on the record. “I wish I had never gotten involved,” said one, who did not want his name used because Mr. Neschling is threatening to sue Mr. Rechtman and Mr. Moidel. “The outcome was being tampered with, and I wanted nothing to do with it.”
One of the finalists has also withdrawn, citing similar reasons: Inna Faliks, 27, a Ukraine-born American who has won several other competitions. She pulled out this week, officially because of health problems, but in a telephone interview from New York City, where she lives, she acknowledged that other considerations also played a part. “They know what their reputation is, and I don’t think I would like to compromise my health, energy and musicianship by taking part in something that appears to have less integrity than seems appropriate,” she said.