For many outside observers, there is a sense of mystery associated with the inner workings of guitar competitions. Recent conversations with people who have served on juries for various international contests lifted a corner of the shroud a bit and revealed practices employed to assure that the best candidate wins, the integrity of the competition is upheld, and new careers might be launched.
For some contests, the judging panel is made up entirely of guitarists; other juries may include non-guitarists. A case in point was the 2015 Parkening International Guitar Competition, where celebrated cellist Lynn Harrell served as the jury foreman, and Angel Romero was the sole guitarist among the four judges. At the 2018 Guitar Foundation of America International Concert Artist Competition, pianist Awadagin Pratt joined guitarists Joaquin Clerch, Dale Kavanagh, Rovshan Mamedkuliev, and others on the jury. Sometimes the jurists are instructed to form decisions after a discussion, but in other contests each judge is asked only to make a numerical ranking, followed by a mathematical tally and no discussion. There are advocates for both approaches, and some juries combine methods.
Before the competition begins, there is an initial vetting of applicants to select the pool of competitors. Those players then move on to the first of three rounds. In many cases, these performers go to the competition to play for the judges. But sometimes the first round is done by a separate set of adjudicators, and sometimes those people make recommendations based on videos of the performers. By the second or semifinal round, a narrowed field of players performs before the adjudicators who will ultimately pick the winners (and sometimes an outside audience). In most competitions—but not all—there are set pieces that every contestant must play, plus free-choice selections. For the final round, the roster is usually pared down to three (or four in the case of the GFA). The finals are often held before a general audience, and at that point, the level of playing is usually very high.
David Tanenbaum, head of the guitar program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, competed in three contests in his early years and after winning his first, the Carmel Classical Guitar Festival in 1977, he was invited back the next year to judge at the age of 22. He has since judged for the GFA, ARD International Music Competition (Munich), the International Guitar Competition Maurizio Biasini (Paris), and many more. He shares that judges are looking for a convincing performance more than simply mistake-free playing: “You want to hear a good sound, a reasonable musical interpretation, and something effective that tells a story in a coherent way. I’m looking for informed and stylistic playing, something interesting, and maybe surprising. I look for ideas that are not my ideas but are logical and different, and make sense. A fundamental question for me is whether I’d want to hear this playing again. In one competition, the judges were instructed to ask themselves that question.”
Longtime Florida State University guitar professor Bruce Holzman has judged for the Boston GuitarFest, Domaine Forget (Quebec), Michele Pittaluga (Alessandria, Italy), Iserlohn (Schwerte, Germany), and numerous other competitions large and small. He has seen a variety of judging systems, including pure numerical ranking, discussion, and a combination of numerical ranking and discussion. Sometimes there is a different system for each round, and sometimes the final round is decided purely by a mathematical tally after the judges rank the candidates for first, second, and third place. “I like things to be pretty clean,” Holzman says. “I don’t like to have judges trying to influence the others. When I am the chair of the jury, I’ll have people vote first and then talk about it. If someone wants to change their vote after the discussion, they can. But I don’t let people push the others around. Some people have an agenda and you have to balance that out.”
Holzman says he’s never been part of a jury that couldn’t come to a consensus, but adjudicated one competition in 1993 where no first prize was awarded; instead, two contestants shared second prize. “In that one, there was a lot of discussion in another language,” Holzman recalls. “I was surprised, given the level of the playing, that no one got first prize. But the judges were a great bunch of people, and some of them are really well-known today.” (The same thing happened at this year’s Biasini Competition in Paris.)
“Sometimes you judge a semifinal and then come to the final with a certain set of expectations,” Tanenbaum adds. “You’ve seen the performers for a round or sometimes two. I have it in mind that someone I saw may win, but I am totally open to what happens. Some players rise to the occasion, but others find the moment becomes too big for them. Sometimes the voting is unanimous, but more often it is divided and close. Judges sign a confidentiality agreement. A judge would never say to a competitor, ‘I really liked your playing, and if it was up to me you would have won.’ You have to operate as a team; that’s really important.”
Some competitions, including the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition and the Biasini and Parkening competitions, have contestants play a concerto in the final round. The husband and wife guitar duo of Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio have judged various competitions and served as co-directors of the Falletta competition in Buffalo, NY (held every two years), since in 2004.
“After judging many competitions,” Andriaccio says, “it’s amazing to see players who have won lots of first prizes in solo competitions who don’t do well in the concerto competition. They require two different skill sets. We are looking for a guitarist who can go off with major management and be as comfortable with an orchestra and conductor as they are in a solo recital.”
“We want to see a give and take with the orchestra,” Castellani adds. “Can they accompany the orchestra as happens in the second movement of the Aranjuez and then come out and take charge as a soloist? Sometimes a stellar solo guitarist might be up there playing in their own world and not communicating with the orchestra.”
An ancillary objective of the Falletta Competition is to shine a light on other works in the concerto repertoire. “We are trying to encourage the competitors to explore the wealth of concerti material in addition to the standards that we always hear,” says Castellani. In the history of the Falletta completion,only two competitors have won playing Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez. The Falletta Competition even offers an incentive for players to choose a lesser-known concerto.
Competitors and judges I spoke with observed that some players gearing up for multiple competitions feel the need to have a sandwich-top guitar for more volume to avoid being perceived by the judges as producing weaker sound than contestants playing alternatively braced instruments.
“Volume is a factor, but to me, quality of sound is bigger than volume,” Tanenbaum, says. “It is a mistake for the players to try to anticipate what the judges are going to say—even if it’s based on past results. It may not work out to play that game. Each competition is generally going to have a different group of people judging.”
Holzman offers advice for contestants choosing their free-choice selections. “Make sure you play something that really allows you to show who you are,” he says. “Don’t think you are going to back into a contest these days; you have to come in the front door. Choose something that shows off your musicality, technique, and sense of programming.” Rovshan Mamedkuliev, who has won numerous competitions,
surprised judges with one of his free-choice selections. “The year he won the GFA, he started with Capricho árabe, which brought an audible gasp because it’s such a simple piece,” Tanenbaum shares. “But he played it so beautifully that it may just have won him the contest. He is a very lyrical player and did something that was deeper and more beautiful than what we had heard. You are smart to go with your strengths.”
All the judges interviewed revealed a determination to see that competitions are judged fairly and offer young performers a springboard to a career. “It’s very difficult for someone to play a competition,” says Holzman. “I really admire these people and consider it a tremendous privilege to be part of competitions. These are some of the greatest young players in the world. It’s an honor to do this.”