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If we must have competitions, here's one that works

A few columns back I discussed awards that preempted competitions, with the implicit statement that competitions are at best a necessary evil.

Later I was on the island of Madeira covering a Bach festival and a flute competition. Like everything else on this enchanting island, it was a civilized competition. So much so that other competitions should take a cue from Madeira.

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This Madeira Competition has all the earmarks of becoming one of the most prestigious instrumental competitions in the world. The environment is right, as are the prize money and the caliber of the judges. There is every reason to expect that winning the Madeira Competition will be a major steppingstone in an artist's career. Mr. Levy and the Portuguese government should be very proud.

The money involved was not insignificant - about $5,000 to the top winner, $2 ,500 to the second-place winner, $1,000 to the third-place winner, and $500 to each of the remaining three ''laureates'' who competed in the finals.

Zelda Manacher, who was given the task of organizing the competition, reported there were the organizational problems that seem invariably to crop up the first time around. But these details hardly tarnished the ideal behind the award - to create a competition wherein the competitors can be friends, not adversaries, and where the cutthroat and draining pressure of pure compe

tition is blunted by civilized, gentlemanly attitudes. Applicants were initially screened by taped audition, with nine judges eliminating all but 20. The tapes were numbered so the judges would not be able to associate a name with a sound - particularly as some of the judges' pupils were involved.

These 20 were then whittled down again by tape (although in the future it will be by live audition) to six finalists. These six became laureates and were flown to Madeira and given room and board for the duration of the festival (where the competition will be held on an every-two-years basis).

The six laureates this season included three Americans, Kristin Winter, Susan Rotholz, and Joanne Frediani; a Briton, Clare Southworth; a Japanese, Motoaki Kato; and a British citizen born in Lebanon, Wissam Boustany. The judges, themselves all flutists, were Jean-Pierre Rampal; Julius Baker (just retiring from the New York Philharmonic); Jeanne Baxtresser of the Toronto Symphony; Dr. Louis Pereira Leal, director of the music department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon; and Thomas Frost, a former CBS Records producer.

The concerts were held in the intimate and captivating 18th-century Municipal Theater (where, it is said, Portuguese Baroque opera will be offered next year as part of the Bach Festival). Each laureate had to play one of two Bach flute sonatas and a new piece by Anthony Newman designed to tax a flutist's technique virtually to the outer limits, with the rest of the program of about 45 minutes' duration up to the artist.

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Pieces selected by the flutists ranged from Poulenc's Sonata to Charles-Marie Widor's delightful, altogether ignored ''Suite.'' Obviously players were nervous - there was some pressure - but in talking with each of the laureates, it was also clear that they were having a wonderful time, and were helping each other out wherever possible.

Mr. Kato and Mr. Boustany were eventually chosen to perform with orchestra to determine first and second place. Kristin Winter won the bronze medal. The other three seemed a bit disconsolate at first, but Miss Frediani was able to sum things up later on by saying, ''I've had a ball!'' Miss Southworth noted that ''here it's friendly.'' Mr. Kato added that this was ''by far the most relaxed competition'' of the many he had participated in.

I asked each player when he or she started the flute. Most of them started around age 12, with merely a casual interest in the instrument.Miss Rotholz was a late bloomer at 14. She had been laboring at the keyboard - ''I was learning about three pieces a year'' - when she revolutionized her life by trying a friend's flute one day. Mr. Kato taught himself until he was 17, being formally a violinist until he realized he preferred the flute.

Miss Frediani did not make a commitment until college to the instrument she began studying in the fifth grade, which basically echoed Miss Southworth's experience. Mr. Boustany was given a flute on his 12th birthday, but it was another few years before he found that playing it was all he wanted to do or could think about. Miss Winter, however, said she had been serious about her instrument from the start.

What was up for the contestants after Madeira? Mr. Kato was off to Paris for his graduation recital from the Paris Conservatory. Mr. Boustany was heading back to Manchester, England, to graduate and move to London. His classmate Miss Southworth (both study with flutist Trevor Wye) planned to stay in Manchester to establish herself. Miss Winter has two more years at Juilliard, Miss Frediani was heading back to New York and her career, and Miss Rotholz was off to the Algarve Peninsula (in Portugal) to participate in a music festival there.

I broached the subject to several of those involved in the competition of the potential conflict of interest in having players judged by their teachers. Mrs. Manacher observed that there were not enough other international-caliber flutists around who could bring prestige to the jury (and, therefore, the competition) and be meaningful judges as well. Mr. Wye, on hand merely as a vacationing observer, also agreed that there was no real conflict and that in general teachers were more severe with their own pupils, which is both unfair and the reason he stopped judging competitions.

Mr. Rampal, in a question-and-answer session after the final session, noted that professors in the Paris Conservatory must disqualify themselves from the faculty jury when a pupil is performing his graduation recital. Miss Rotholz added that it is actually ''more difficult, because there is so much personal contact'' with contestants, and with judges. Several contestants had teachers on the jury, and there was no shyness about discussing things between competition sessions.

How, in fact, did things turn out? Mr. Kato won the gold medal and the $5,000 purse, and Mr. Boustany the silver. Mr. Rampal, on leaving the hall, said that in the past he had said he would judge no more and that now he planned to hold himself to that promise: ''It's so difficult; they are all so good!''

Both Mr. Levy and Mrs. Manacher pointed out that the decision was based on mastery of the instrument. Certainly, Mr. Kato played his instrument more smoothly than Mr. Boustany, but perhaps without the interpretive flair and imagination of the latter mentioned. Both Mr. Levy and Mrs. Manacher separately noted that the balloting was surprisingly even, with virtually no controversy within the jury.

But the actual outcome is of secondary importance to the fact that this is a civilized competition, where the contestants learn something about themselves and each other, where they can gain from each other's skills and mastery rather than pit each off the other. By 1984 it will have been decided if the competition is to remain strictly for the flute or whether other instruments will be highlighted (and make it a truly far-ranging competition).

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