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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Crystal ball visions for competition winners and the wide world of classical music

L to R: Scott Yoo, Anya Grokhovski (Musical Bridges), Michael Fine, Tanja Dorn, and Harry Lynch.
Nathan Cone
L to R: Scott Yoo, Anya Grokhovski (Musical Bridges), Michael Fine, Tanja Dorn, and Harry Lynch.

Now that the 2024 Gurwitz International Piano Competition has wrapped up, where do the winners go from here? Yungyung Guo won the Gold Medal after an outstanding performance in Round 4 of the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor. What’s next for her, as well as silver medalist Tatiana Dorokhova and bronze medalist Young Sun Choi?

There may be some good advice to be found in a discussion recorded at TPR’s studios on Friday, Feb. 2, as Jury Chair, Scott Yoo, welcomes fellow jurors Tanja Dorn and Michael Fine, and television producer Harry Lynch, for a conversation that looks at the future of young performers, and classical music in general.

Dorn works in artist management, Fine is a Grammy-winning classical producer, and Lynch is the producer of the PBS classical music program “Now Hear This,” hosted by Scott Yoo.

An edited transcript of their discussion follows below; for the full program, listen to audio using the player at the top of this page.

Scott Yoo It's very nice to see all three of you. Michael, other than judging this competition, what have you been doing this week?

Michael Fine I've been so inspired by the music that I've heard that I began working on a new piano piece, and the contestants are so good that I realized I could write much more difficult music than I have in the past, because they could play it! So it's been inspiring on a lot of levels. I've really enjoyed being in San Antonio. I went on the Riverwalk, I went to the Alamo, and one of the most exciting nights of my concert going life was when we went to hear Dionne Warwick a few nights ago, someone that just has more charisma than almost anyone I have ever met. So it's been a lovely week. Time to listen to music, reconnect with new friends, old friends, and really be totally focused on the music. And we can do that because—this is a plug for Musical Bridges—they're taking care of us so very well, we never have to think about anything! Everything is done, and we can really focus on our job of giving our full attention to these lovely, lovely musicians.

Scott Yoo When I grew up, we all had heard of Van Cliburn, who had gone to the Tchaikovsky Competition and won it, got on Time magazine. Everybody knew, or at least every Korean knew Kyung-Wha Chung, because she went to the Leventritt Competition and she shared first prize with Pinchas Zukerman, and both of them were supposedly unbeatable. And they both had legendary careers. Back then there was the Tchaikovsky Competition, Queen Elizabeth, and Leventritt and maybe a couple others, but now, of course, there are many other competitions. And so, I'm wondering, Harry, if you can speak to sort of the role that the music competition plays in today's society. What is the role of music contests in general, and especially in the classical space?

Harry Lynch Well, events are extremely important. I mean, it's why if you look at other kinds of music performers, they still are intent on touring and on performing live. And it's the way that they connect to audiences and frankly, it's the way that they make their money. And I think it's just really vitally important to try to communicate and connect to people in person, and to try to bring audiences together where they can have a real-life experience, especially as people are more and more kind of affixed to their screens of all kinds. It's always interesting how competitions bring cities together. They bring people from far away locations. They bring contestants from all over the world. It's also really nice [as an audience] to see a bunch of young people from all over the world. An audience goes to see that, and they see all these young faces and they see all these international faces, and they're just struck by the idea that, wow, this is an art form that's totally alive. And I think that's a very valuable thing.

Scott Yoo Michael, you've been on many juries. How has the medium of the competition changed over the decades?

Does every concert sell out? No. Does it matter? No. It's not a popularity business.
Michael Fine

Michael Fine It's a very good question. At one point, it really was like the Olympics. Faster, louder and stronger, to paraphrase the Olympic motto. But back then, when Van Cliburn made his big breakthrough and Kyung-Wha, and Pinchas, there were only a few competitions that really mattered in the world. Now there are thousands of competitions. I was judging a competition in Switzerland, and each candidate had won something in at least 15 competitions I had never heard of, and some of them were going from one competition to another. And I wondered what was the actual value of that? I don't see music and art in general as a competitive field. I never liked the idea of people judging ballet as though it was the Olympic Games holding up scorecards. Music is deeper, more subjective, more important. If we keep the top competitions as a way for the world to identify people that we should be looking at, that's a good thing. And as you said Harry, so eloquently, it does bring communities together. And the fact that someone like Tanja is here means that one of these artists, or 2 or 3, are being heard by one of the most important management agencies in the world, and certainly in my capacity as a recording producer, I'm going to communicate about these artists to the various record labels I work for.

But more importantly, when you talked about audience… I think it was 50 years ago, there was an article in a now-defunct publication called The Saturday Review, and the headline was The Death of Classical Music. And this article came out about a month after an article headlined The Death of God. And when I reflect back on those, I'm thinking that neither is true. Classical music is still very much with us. It's changed in some ways. The audience has changed. But I have a wild theory that every day there are literally millions of people born all over the world that will discover when they're ten, when they're 12, when they're 50, that they really love this music. And so I never worry. I just saw an article about the waning audience. Well, here we are in San Antonio for unknown artists, and the halls are full. Does every concert sell out? No. Does it matter? No. It's also not a popularity business. So I think we have something enduring and sustainable. And I'll make one last comment. And as Scott knows, I've been working in South Korea since 1994, and a lot of work in Japan, in China as well. I think that Asia in some ways may save Western classical music. If you look at some of the top conservatories in the world, they're largely Asian artists. So, I'll never forget when Lee Myung-bak was elected president of Korea, the orchestra that I worked for, we played the Beethoven Ninth Symphony at the end of the concert. Maestro Chung handed his baton to the president. And the gesture said, it's your responsibility to protect culture as president of the Republic of Korea. So I'm very happy about that. But even a place like Mexico, Scott [where you conduct], I think there's a growing audience, a younger audience, an interesting audience, enthusiastic. They're not jaded. So I'm extremely optimistic and hopeful. And with so many great young artists in every field of artistic endeavor, every instrument, conductors, we've got a long way to go. We're not dead.

Scott Yoo Tanja, you of course make your living as an artist manager, but it's also a calling for you. And my question for you is, what responsibility do you feel to the art form? Your twin sons are both involved in music. Your son is probably more of a mathematician and computer scientist, but he's a violinist. And your other twin son is a is a very fine cellist. What do you want to give back to the field of classical music in your home, Germany, and in the world?

Tanja Dorn and Harry Lynch.
Nathan Cone
Tanja Dorn and Harry Lynch.

Tanja Dorn When we look at artist new signings, and of course, we get many emails and many recommendations and there's only so many we can work for, because it's really not only a profession on this side, it's also really a life. And you need a huge amount of, dedication, because it doesn't end. I mean, I'm working on all the time zones in the world since we don't have defined territory. We represent our artists globally, which I very strongly believe in. I know exactly the trends in Asia. I know the trends in the U.S., and I know what is Europe doing, and I have the oversight of all of it. But to answer your question, I am looking, for that artist who I know has the potential—and maybe he or she doesn't know that yet—to inspire audiences, to go on a stage, with a very, strategic program. Michael and I talked at length about the right repertoire choice, you know, and I think this whole week has been so interesting, to hear several candidates perform twice in different repertoire because I think it's that strategy in the beginning, which really makes the difference. You have to be just very sure. And sometimes, you know, the, the artist has, they have a very specific idea of their first recording, what it should be. Their first, run when they are engaged, to make a recital debut. So debuts with orchestras and they are just certain choices which can be completely wrong, you know? And for other artists, it can be exactly right. So as a manager, not only spotting talent but also, spotting personalities where I think, okay, they have with our guidance and other guidance and, people close to them as well, of course, have the power to really transform an audience. And this is my motivation.

Michael Fine One of the things that I really appreciate about Tanja Dorn's management is that she says "no." Because if you're a young, successful artist and the whole world opens up, you're in a candy shop. Everybody's calling. Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg, Edinburgh. And many artists can burn out. Some managers push them to take the job even though they haven't had time to properly study the music. And they have a burnout and a failure, and good management takes care of artists. They're not disposable. So in the pop field where I also work, the feeling is well, you know, there's Mariah Carey this year, there'll be somebody else if she burns out, you can always find somebody to replace them. And there are some of the most famous artist agencies in the world that worked on the same scheme with classical music. But a good, caring manager is able to say no. And to tell the artist this is not right for you at this point. And I'm looking at these wonderful contestants we have here at The Gurwitz, and I think our grand prize winner is going to be getting a lot of offers, whoever she is. And she'll also need someone to say, you know, maybe that's not the right thing at this time. And that's why you need a good manager. This is the real guidance. It's not just about collecting commissions, charging fees, getting as much work as possible for them. It's getting the right work at the right time, and then they have a chance to grow, to be nurtured.

Tanja Dorn I think also for me and my team it's really important that we are in it for the long run. We are not interested in you know the kind of one year, two years. Many young artists don't realize it's not difficult to make a debut somewhere… but it's really about making the connection to have the re-invitation. It's the artist’s decision, what they do. [But] I would give my best advice.

Harry Lynch I've heard from both of you, “inspire audiences” and “keep enthusiasm.” And one of the things that I think is really important in the classical music world, and I think it speaks to the audiences and whether audiences are declining and where they're not declining. And I think a lot of that has to do with enthusiasm in audiences. But it especially has to do with enthusiasm of performers, right? Performing at a very high level is a lot of work and sometimes kind of making that magic that is a great performance… You get tired by all the work, and you have to remember and remind yourself that it is sort of a miracle. When you see a performer that is truly enthusiastic about what they're doing, it just explodes off the stage. It's a transformative experience. Even if they're making mistakes, it doesn't matter, right? Whereas if you see someone who's technically perfect but not particularly engaged… Boring! It's boring. So I just one of the things that I think is really important for all of us in this space to remember is that the audiences want to be inspired.

Scott Yoo Harry, the first time I knew of your work was through the Mental Health channel. You made over 100 or 150 or 250 or whatever it was, episodes about mental health. Stories of the mind. And then you switched to an energy project called Switch, two feature films, and now, a syndicated television show. And now you're working on “Now Hear This,” and we're working on that together. And all of these projects have some kind of advocacy component to them. And, my question for you is how much of how much of “Now Hear This” is rooted in advocacy and how much of it is rooted in just… You love the music! Are you doing it because you really want to “save” classical music? Or are you doing it because you just love the music?

Harry Lynch Both, right? I mean, because I love the music, I would like to see more people love the music, right? So those two things are very, very much intertwined. And I think to do it well, you have to love the music. You couldn't have someone come in here and write stories and direct the episodes who didn't love the music. There would just be no passion. So those two things absolutely go hand-in-hand. I mean, people may not know this show came about because I saw Scott perform, and Scott was doing a storytelling performance in front of some Brahms trios. And I just thought, okay, we need to tell stories about classical music. We need to find great ways to tell stories about the music that brings people into it in a way that they're not currently enjoying it and exploring it. And so he and I started talking after that, and we just both felt like this is an important mission. The other thing I would say is it's good to work on advocacy projects because it gives you a mission that you can believe in.

Scott Yoo How has [The Gurwitz] competition been different from other competitions that you've served on, Michael?

Scott Yoo talks to Michael Fine.
Nathan Cone
Scott Yoo talks to Michael Fine.

Michael Fine It's the best-run competition that I've been involved with. But what I particularly like was whoever selected the jury found a very compatible, simpatico group of people that were not at odds with each other. We generally tend to be in agreement. But I think we all bring something unique to the table. Some of us are performers, some of us are professionals in the industry, and it's a very complementary group. I like that. I also like that the musicians themselves have ample time to practice and prepare for their program. I have to say, very honestly, it's very impressive what Musical Bridges is doing. I'm not just saying that as a plug for them, but it's my sincere opinion that this competition will become an important competition because one, the way it's run, it's going to attract great young talent and also good jurors, which are an important factor in what happens to these artists. So it's very simple. We all go home on Sunday, I think. Somebody is going to walk away with a very nice prize. What happens next to that person? How does it go on? Who's taking care of them after this? I'm very happy that they all know that they can come to any one of us for advice, connections, friendship, nurturing, mentoring.

Originality is hard to find these days, but integrity and honesty is even more important. And when I listen to these young musicians play, of course, they're prepared to play a competition. It's like getting ready to run a race. But I'm looking for an artist that is not only, of course, technically proficient, but that has integrity. And I think the way your pre-selection jury worked gave us candidates. So that's also a tribute that the pre-selection process, which is very difficult, much harder than what we're doing, actually, was done so well. So I have to say kudos to Musical Bridges and the Gurwitz Foundation because, this is really a good organization and a good competition, and I feel very honored to play a very small part in it.

Scott Yoo So, Tanja, I'm John Smith, and I've just won The Gurwitz, and I've just gotten a huge check. What do I do now?

Tanja Dorn Well, I think that's the question for many, many artists. And it's interesting because sometimes I'm asked by academies to come and give a talk about management. [The students] have known for many weeks that I will be there. So I always start with my greetings, “It's great to be here,” and then I say, “Right now, give me your whatever you prepared.” You knew that I would be sitting here… and nobody has prepared anything! And then they are like “Oh my god,” and I tell them, you know, the next two hours we will spend on me teaching you how you will never get yourself in this kind of situation again. And this would be my first advice to anyone. I don't know why musicians think that they don't need to invest, in doing their research. So my first suggestion for artists is, okay, if you want to have management, have you researched who is out there and who are the artists you really are inspired by, and who is representing them?

I think most artists have this idea of, “Oh, I have not been discovered yet, and it will all happen.” It won't. It just will not. And the funny thing is also that as an artist who has representation, let's say you are the winner. I'm very intrigued if they say, “Hey, I see a great future. Let's work together.” This is exactly the artist who will thrive, most likely. If they think, “No, I'm just playing the piano. I don't do anything else.” [That’s] very wrong because they need to answer my email saying, could you play with the New York Philharmonic? You could play with this orchestra, what is your recital program? So either they have to tell me, "Tanja, you make all the decisions for me," or we have to work together as a team. They also have to inspire us. And most likely, you will not want to ask 20 times the same question. And I find with most young artists, once they get in that mindset, things will fall into place because this is how life works.

And I always tell [young artists], you know, if you also if you get an offer to be signed by a certain management, don't say yes. Be sure you know the person is taking care of you because it's like a marriage. It's, a friendship, a marriage, it's many, many things. Don't rush that decision. Just think about it and make your own decision of what is important to you. And then you find someone who is kind of making that journey with you. At least that's how I see it.

Scott Yoo Harry, what advice would you give to these young winners of this competition as somebody who's not exactly in the music business, but you're in the communication business and you work in this space 60% of your of your year. And you're thinking about music and classical music especially. What would you say to one of these folks?

Harry Lynch I don't know how relevant my advice is, but I would encourage them to play anything. I would encourage them to kind of embrace every opportunity. I would encourage them to try to really keep that that positive attitude and that idea that the impossible is possible. This is not my business, so I don't know. But I do know that that works for other businesses. And it certainly has worked for my business. [Scott], something you said in one of the episodes that we did when you were talking to a bunch of young students… I thought it was really smart advice, and that was young artists should remember that it's not only their career that they are forwarding, they really should be thinking about what can they do to serve the music. What can they do to try to kind of be an ambassador for the music wherever they go? It's kind of an even more noble calling than how many concerts can I play in a year. And I think remembering that and being part of a fabric of people who are trying to do that, I think is really important.

Scott Yoo, Michael Fine, and Tanja Dorn.
Nathan Cone
Scott Yoo, Michael Fine, and Tanja Dorn.

Michael Fine And arts organizations need to not be afraid to take risks.

Tanja Dorn Yes!

Michael Fine I've been on the other side of the table from Tanja, where I was the artistic planner for several orchestras over the past few years. And every day we were inundated with calls from agents. But there were a few agents that we trusted, that I trusted, and if they would come to me and say, you've never heard of this person—this was before YouTube where you can check everything—"I think you should take a chance." All right. Let me talk to the conductor of that program and see if he or she will be willing to take a chance. And I have to say that almost every time we've taken that chance, it's been a very wise decision. And the other thing in our business is when a young artist is loyal to an institution, even when they become so famous that they go beyond our institution, they'll always come back because we gave them a chance early on. So this is also good management that knows how to do this. It knows how to tell me or my colleagues behind desks, you need to hear this artist. It's really going to be worth your while. And the conviction that they give to us.

I mean, years ago, a wonderful young artist called me and said, "I just got a manager and a record contract. Now I can just practice!" And I said, "Congratulations, first of all. Your work is just beginning." I mean, I know that you just want to practice ten hours a day, but unfortunately, you are going to have to answer emails… and you are going to have to really think very seriously about what do you want from your manager? What do you want from your career? That very foolish question, where do you see yourself in five years? What orchestras do you think you should be playing with? And I'll tell you then what orchestras I think you're ready for. Maybe not the same list.

But this process, you know, for the young artist that wins the competition tomorrow, this process begins for them at that moment. And I was just actually wondering, as we had this lovely conversation today, would it make sense for future competitions to actually schedule a session after the competition with the winners and a few of us old timers who have been around this business for a long time? We can't tell them what to do, but point them in a direction, say, maybe think about this, this and this. I mean, congratulations, of course, first. But we do want it to be meaningful. We want the fact that the person that we vote for tomorrow to be the grand prize winner of The Gurwitz does have that career that we believe—she in this case, they're all she—she deserves. I don't want to forget about these people. They were very meaningful to me this week. And I want to keep that in my heart and thoughts.

Scott Yoo So I have one final question. It's the same question for each one of you. If you're king for a day, queen for a day, what would you change about the art music field?

Michael Fine I'll go with that because I have a new position running a new concert hall in a city that doesn't have a big audience for classical music and an opera house as well. And we want low ticket prices, we want free events. We want to be open 24/7 for people to come into the hall to have an experience. What I'd like to do is be able to make the music available to everyone. They don't have to like it right now. I believe they will like it if they get to know it at some point. But, access! As a recording producer, I remember years ago I used to be the producer of Anne-Sophie Mutter and someone wrote and said, "Dear Anne-Sophie, we love your music… [but] we can't find these recordings.” It was someone living in a remote province of Canada, I remember. Now everyone can find it on the internet. So as king today, I declare that everybody has an opportunity to hear the most beautiful music imaginable, played by great artists. And, maybe I'd like to be king for about a, I don't know, 25 years to really get this program off the ground.

Scott Yoo Same question for you, Tanja. What would you change about our field, this field that makes this music that we all love happen? What would you change about it?

Tanja Dorn I would love to see more presenters who really take that chance on young people and to really follow their gut instinct and don't look left and right and see and think, "oh, did that festival do it already? Did this colleague do it already?" No! Be the first one and take a chance on someone. I also would wish that young artists are paid fairly. I would love for other [established] artists maybe to think about just chopping off two or $3000, $1,000 off their fee and give it to a fund for young artists who can [use that to help] go to auditions or to do all the really important things, to meet the makers and the shakers in our business. Because it's a very small thing, but you have to be in a position… if another conductor is willing to hear you, to take that flight to Paris and be there and not being thinking about, "oh, I really cannot afford it."

Scott Yoo Harry, what would you change about the classical music field if you could? As somebody who's involved, but also on the outside.

Harry Lynch Yeah, well, I think what I would change is actually the audience. So since I have power of kingship, I'll go ahead and change that. I think in Asia, as you mentioned, classical music is still quite popular, in Europe, it's still quite popular. In the United States, it's not so popular. And I think that's because new audiences are very distracted and I wish there were a way… I mean, that's what we're trying to do with the [PBS] show, right? It's what competitions like this are trying to do. It's trying to find ways to interest new audiences. And I just think that that is really important because once you discover classical music, there is always something new to discover, right? There's a huge archive, a huge library of music you may not have ever heard before. If you just dig, you can find those things. And even once you find music that you like, there's thousands of recordings that you can discover, and all those things are more accessible today than they have ever been on YouTube, on Spotify, or on streaming services. But it all starts with an audience getting interested. They need just to find a way in. So I would change the audience, or I would work on programs like the program that you and I are doing, Scott. And this piano competition, trying to build an audience, especially in the United States.

Michael Fine King Harry, would you also include mandatory music education in school?

Harry Lynch Absolutely.

Michael Fine Okay. That's good.

Harry Lynch You know, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is doing a music training program with a bunch of kids from South Dallas in generally kind of underserved schools. And they are tracking the grades and the attendance, the other things that these kids are seeing in their academics after they've had musical training and after they've been involved in the orchestra, and for almost all of them, they're seeing an improvement in their academics and their tenets and their attitudes. And now they're even doing cognitive tests to see is it affecting their kind of their executive function in other ways… and maybe they can prove this and maybe they can't. But what their hope is, is that it will encourage more school districts to realize the value of music education, not just in understanding music, not just in having a broader appreciation of the arts in general, but in what else it can do for your life. So absolutely, mandatory music education.

Scott Yoo The state of Pennsylvania requires children to play an instrument.

Michael Fine Yeah. They require a music teacher in Pennsylvania. Yeah. It's mandated.

Scott Yoo And that is really exciting. And if these Dallas Symphony folks can figure out... if the researchers involved with this Dallas Symphony program can actually conclusively prove that, yes, this this heightens cognitive function or. Yes, this reduces truancy or what have you, that will—at least in the U.S.—that will be a game changer because we are nothing if not all about test scores and how kids are doing.