Elmar Oliveira knows a thing or two about music competitions.
As an American violinist competing in Moscow in the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition — where he won the Gold Medal, the first and still only American violinist to do so — Oliveira was thrust into a “cutthroat” environment in which the only goal was the top prize.
“It was like an ocean with 100 sharks in it,” Oliveira said. “All anybody cared about was winning.”
While that experience launched his career, and gave him valuable toughness for doing things like playing the Glazunov violin concerto in Oslo hours after stepping off a 48-hour flight from Australia, Oliveira has long thought there needed to be a different kind of competition for today’s musicians.
This month, the first Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition launches at Lynn University with 20 musicians from eight different parts of the globe taking part in semifinal and final tests before a jury of eminent violinists. The first round of semifinals run from Jan. 24-26, and the second round from Jan. 29-31. Finals are Feb. 1-5, with two concerts Feb. 4 and 5 featuring performances by the finalists with the Lynn Philharmonia under Guillermo Figueroa, himself an estimable violinist.
Top prize is $30,000, second prize is $15,000 and third prize is $10,000. Oliveira said the first-prize winner also will get management help and concert opportunities.
“A person can be a fantastic violinist and maybe have no idea about how to create a career for themselves. We will help with that,” Oliveira said. “This competition also provides concerts. We are associated with different orchestras, different venues, recital series, different festivals. So the winner is not going to walk away with just a cash prize. They’re going to walk away with performances.”
That helps make the Oliveira Competition different, he said.
“Unfortunately, there are too many competitions — and I’ve been a part of some of them — where you get your check, you go home,” he said. “And that’s very far from the case here. When the competition is over, it doesn’t mean that the contestants are over, too.”
Oliveira, 66, who had been a New York-based Florida snowbird in Jensen Beach (his wife, Sandy Robbins, is principal viola of the Fort Pierce-based Atlantic Classical Orchestra), has now relocated to Florida permanently. He said the competition, which will take place every three years, has received substantial international media attention but is still somewhat under the radar at home in the Sunshine State.
“I don’t know whether the state of Florida, or South Florida, even realizes the magnitude of this competition,” he said, pointing out that it is only the second such large-scale competition in the United States. The first is the 35-year-old Indianapolis Competition (its most recent silver medalist, Tessa Lark, plays Jan. 22 with the South Florida Symphony in Boca Raton).
“The first thing is what it does for the state, what it does for us, what it does for the community. I don’t think there’s anything that even compares to the magnitude of this competition right now … It’s garnered tremendous attention all over the world, with The Violin Channel, violinist.com, ‘Strings Magazine,’ ‘The Strad’ — all the great trade magazines and papers around the world.
“So that’s the first thing it does: Attract attention right here in Florida, which I think we need.”
Musical competitions at the scale of the new Oliveira contest have been an Olympics-style feature of the classical music world for decades. Certain of them have become more prestigious than others; Russia’s Tchaikovsky Competition, founded in 1958 and famously won that year in the depths of the Cold War by a young Texas pianist named Van Cliburn, itself spawned a contest in the States named for Cliburn.
Such competitions are big-stakes affairs that can turn people like Cliburn into household names. But they also have engendered a deep and bitter literature of complaints about unfair or cloth-eared judging, and favoritism, particularly when members of the jury have their own students in the contest.
Oliveira, a frequent judge himself, says the rules for his competition should keep that from happening.
“The other thing is that the judging system is going to be very different than a lot of other competitions: Teachers cannot vote for their own pupils, and that’s not always the case in a lot of international competitions,” he said.
“We’re trying to create an atmosphere which is totally fair … and I believe the system that we have set up is geared toward that goal,” he said. Although in this case only one or two contestants have been taught by any of the seven judges, the Oliveira Competition will forbid any judges from being in the hall when their students are playing.
“The other thing is we’re not aggregating the points in each round, we’re averaging them,” he said, avoiding the trouble of a judge giving very high scores to someone he or she is familiar with or has taught, and the points also will be expressed in decimals, Olympics-style, making any sort of duplication of points — and then a dreaded split decision or sharing of top prizes — almost impossible.
About 80 violinists entered the competition’s preliminary round, which was conducted online and included repertoire by Bach, Mozart and Paganini. By Dec. 1, the semifinalists had been chosen. In their first rounds of competition, the young musicians — they range in age 19 to 31 — will play pieces by Bach (a choice of movements from Sonatas 1-3 and Partitas 1-3), Beethoven (the Op. 96 sonata), Brahms (any of the three sonatas) and Ravel (Tzigane) plus a new work especially composed for the competition by Lynn professor Thomas McKinley.
Survivors move to concerto literature for the second round, with movements from the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos, as well as the first movement of the Mozart Concerto No. 5 (K. 219). The complete Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concerti will be the works featured in the finals.
Chamber music is not part of the competition, as it is in many other such contests, but Oliveira said it may be added in future iterations of the competition.
Five of the 20 violinists are from China, another five from South Korea, and still another five from the United States, with one each from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Norway. Two of the South Korean violinists also are longtime U.S. residents.
The seven judges are well-known, firmly established performers and teachers, including chairman Daniel Heifetz, Andrés Cárdenes, Gundy Gudmundsdottir, Ilya Kaler, Vera Tsu Wei-ling, Alexander Gilman and Charles Castleman. Oliveira said he has played no part in choosing the contestants, preferring only to set the repertoire and help select the judges.
The whole contest, which will take place at Lynn’s Wold Center for the Performing Arts, is open to the public. Semifinal performances are free admission, but the final concerts will require ticket sales. The competition will also be streamed live, Oliveira said.
Oliveira, who teaches at Lynn, said the idea for a contest “has been on my mind almost ever since I can remember.
“I’ve always loved teaching and nurturing young people. It’s something I’ve done since I was in my 20s … I’ve taught most of my life, and I just love the concept of recycling things, so that people can really learn and grasp what it is that they need to continue on with their careers,” he said. “A lot of these kids are phenomenal; they’re terrific violinists. The level of playing is exceptionally high these days.”
Oliveira, who is funding about 90 percent of the competition himself, said the time to launch the contest he’d dreamed about has finally arrived.
“This is the time to do it, and this is the place to do it,” he said. “Why not bring people here? There’s lots of stuff in New York, there’s lots of stuff in Chicago, there’s lots of stuff in Cleveland. But Florida — when you bring something like this here, you bring something really important to the community.”
How to hear the contestants live
The semifinal rounds of the Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition are open to the public free of charge at the Wold Performing Arts Center on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton.
The first round, featuring works by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel and Thomas McKinley, take place from 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, through Thursday, Jan. 26. After the end of the third day, winners advancing to the second round will be announced.
The second round of the semifinals takes place from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday, Jan. 30, and Tuesday, Jan. 31. Violinists advancing to the final round will be announced that day.
The final rounds of the competition are set for 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4, and Sunday, Feb. 5, at 4 p.m. Contestants will perform either the Tchaikovsky or Sibelius violin concertos with the Lynn Philharmonia. Tickets are $35-$50. Call 561-237-9000 or visit www.lynn.edu/events.