Horowitz (Understanding Toscanini) sees today's classical-music competitions--with their big audiences, ""overcirculated sonatas and concertos,"" and rampant hype--as ""an exemplary lesson in what transforms and perplexes Western high culture in the late twentieth century: popularization."" So, hoping to illuminate this phenomenon, he offers a close-up of the glitziest competition around--the Van Cliburn in Fort Worth, Tex. The result, however, is more a journalistic hodgepodge, sporadically intriguing, than a provocative or engrossing study. The book begins with a brief chapter on pianist-celebrity Clibum himself, whose 1958 victory at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition showed that fame ""could come heady and fast""--and who seems, 30 years later, ""knowingly, helplessly, to fetishize the past."" Then comes a short history of the Cliburn contest since 1962, emphasizing its folksy lavishness (in contrast to the elitist, doomed Leventritt Competition), its media awareness, its blend of ""optimism, gusto, and heedless naivetÃ‰""--as well as its artistic iffiness. (Why do so few winners go on to major careers?) Next there are interview-sketches of three gold-medalists and three also-rans: the late Steven De Groote, an introvert unsuited to all the hoopla; JosÃ‰ Feghali, smooth and ""camera-ready""; awkward, ambitious AndrÃ‰-Michel Schub, unable to shed the image of ""a competition athlete, an interchangeable winner""; volatile silver-medalist Alexander Toradze; plus two nonwinners who may have benefited from losing (""The career expectations attached to Cliburn winners are crippling."") And finally Horowitz, as observer and interviewer, chronicles the 1989 Cliburn contest--sizing up the jury, the competitors, the performances, the social whirl, even the PBS coverage (""business-as-usual pabulum""). His unsurprising conclusions? Populism is wonderful, but the ""cult of the performer"" erodes artistic values. Horowitz suggests that six equal winners be chosen--""who would emerge more nearly life-size, rather than bloated with an importance they had not possessed while merely playing."" Too scattershot (and short on personality) for dramatic involvement, too thin and predictable for challenging cultural history: a sensibly balanced, modestly informative assemblage that classical-piano connoisseurs--and a few others--will want to browse through.