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“Unfortunately, there are many great pianists who don’t have careers.” — Lawrence Tucker, Columbia Artists

The lack of demand for classical music is just one of the pitfalls young musicians face, even exceptionally talented ones. The Winners is a documentary that looks at four winners of a world renowned Belgian music competition. Each has worked hard to forge his career in music, and yet world fame and worldly fortune have eluded them all.

The most cheerful of the four is Berl Senofsky, an American who teaches music in Baltimore. He entered the competition just to see where he stood in relation to his colleagues. In this documentary he looks back on a life well-lived. He has no regrets and seems to truly enjoy what he does.

Yevgen Moguilevsky is a timid Russian pianist whose career was damaged for twenty years because the USSR wouldn’t let him leave the country (he was labeled “politically unreliable”). During the filming of the documentary, he was getting photographed for the cover of a new recording, but Lawrence Tucker, his new manager, confides to the camera that the novelty of a Russian pianist is wearing off now that the cold war is over, and that Moguilevsky may not have the “swagger” necessary to make it big.

Mikhail Bezverkhny comes across as a perfectionist, and as such, the classical music business has taken a toll on him. One of the most telling scenes involving Bezverkhny shows him berating his accompanist (also his wife) over a detail most people can’t hear. At the start of his career, he couldn’t practice in his first apartment because his neighbors wouldn’t tolerate the classical music. He had to buy an old van in which to practice. He complains that the globalization of classical music has caused musicians and audiences to sink to a low, common, “gray” level of performance which is unsatisfying for him.

The musician who’s had the roughest breaks is perhaps Philipp Hirschhorn. His early career was the most promising of the four. His contemporaries had him pegged for worldwide fame and importance, and the archival footage supports their claim. Yet at the time of the interview (he died shortly thereafter) he had been forced to give up his career in music because of cancer. His tone and mannerisms make it clear he had not yet come to terms with his loss — he builds an emotional wall that denies the importance of music in his life.

Some might see “The Winners” as an ironic title. After all, its subjects are not household names, even in the most musical of houses.

But I don’t think filmmakers Paul Cohen and David van Tijn intended it that strongly. Their subjects have all pursued careers in music — recording, performing, and teaching. All still work in music, and two still perform for a living. Bezverkhny is shown playing for the King and Queen of Belgium and Moguilevsky is beginning a new American contract. All four are a far cry from being losers, and they all make interesting subjects for a documentary.

Nevertheless, the bitter point is made that bad luck, ill health, or the wrong personality can easily keep one from achieving the world renown that is the unspoken dream of so many musicians.