A Fresh look at Piano Competitions

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Soap Box: Time for a fresh look at Piano competitions - Murray McLachlan (Originally published in 'Classical Music Magazine' in 2008


Traditionally the music profession has tended to be divided into pro and anti factions with regard to competitions, and of course this has led to lively discussion and debate in magazines such as ‘Classical Music’ and elsewhere. However one could say that there has tended to be a much more relaxed, philosophical attitude from those in favour of competitions in recent years. Perhaps this is because a significant number of very talented artists have made tremendous international impact without the help of victory in one of the ‘blockbuster’ competitions (think of Lang Lang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Evgeny Kissin, to mention but a few). But nonetheless, the ‘do or die’ competitive attitude is still encountered today, especially amongst piano students themselves, who can tend to be rather over-dramatic on this subject, to say the least. Recently, for example, I chatted to a couple of very gifted young pianists from one of the London Conservatoires about their careers, and was horrified when they both agreed that ‘unless you have won something major by the time you are twenty-five, you may as well forget a career’. I tried to make the point that perfecting the art of piano playing was a lifetime endeavour that could not be compared to tennis or gymnastics, but was told that ‘piano playing may not be competitive, but life most certainly was!’


My own development as a young artist was fortunate in that I had fantastic guidance from Peter Katin, a wonderful mentor and of course a tremendous performer with so much to offer. There simply was no time to enter ‘gladiatorial competitions’ , as practice time was spent preparing for concerts, and eventually for recordings on the Olympia Label. This ‘hard grind’ approach to career building has often been contrasted with the ‘instant stardom’ competition route, though of course there is no absolute ‘either or’ alternative. In my own case I remain very grateful for the experience gained from entering selected competitions such as the BBC Young Musician of the Year, the National Federation of Music Societies’ young artists’ competition, and so on. I found, as many others have found too, that the fact that I got heard and seen often led to future engagements and opportunities, even if I did not win the top prize at the time. Apart from anything else, in a vocation that can be so isolating and lonely, competitions have always brought musicians together. Personally I have made many lasting friendships and enjoyed inspiring musical encounters as a direct result of participating in competitions.


But there is no doubt that piano competitions have had a mixed press over the years. We need only recall the famous Clementi-Mozart ‘piano dual’ to remember that historically they have often been controversial, confrontational and even deeply divisive, leading to polemic sentiments from musicians in all fields of the profession. The Rubinstein competition of 1890 in Moscow is often cited as the first ‘modern’ competition in musical history, and it is worth remembering that even here there was deep controversy. This first example of what would eventually become the standardised international format for the latter half of the twentieth century was divided in two sections: one prize for composition and another for piano performance. When the young Ferruccio Busoni entered both fields he was considered, by common consent, to be easily and most obviously the strongest musician in both sections. But after the announcement that Busoni had indeed won the composition prize, Rubinstein himself intervened to prevent the Italian emerging as victor in the piano category as well. Apparently it was simply deemed ‘unfair’ for a foreign musician to take all the spoils in such an important flagship musical event for Russia!


In the 1940s, Artur Schnabel famously declared that there were too many piano competitions. Goodness knows what Schnabel would say about the number that exists today! In Italy alone there are literally dozens and dozens of them held annually. There are all kinds of horror stories about ‘professional competitors’. We hear of pianists who are not interested in giving concerts or recording, but prefer to spend their entire careers literally jetting from one international contest to the next. Often competitors seem to have greater similarities with sportsmen rather than professional musicians, as they can spend season after season touring the same, limited repertoire to play to the same jury members- albeit in different cities, countries and continents. Now is not the place to recall even a fraction of the encyclopaedia of anecdotes and rumours that have built-up through international conversational exchanges over the years about ‘competition angst’ and injustice. Whilst it is probably true to remember the old cliché that there isn’t any smoke without fire, it has also to be said that wherever and whenever there are subjective decisions that have to be made, there will almost inevitably be sour grapes from someone.


It also has to be said that competitions have been phenomenally successful over most of the second half of the twentieth century in highlighting phenomenal performers and bringing careers into the international spotlight instantaneously. Whether or not this has always been a good thing is another matter, but the fact that the competition system picked some remarkable performers cannot be in dispute. From the 1940s onwards the growth of the competition industry has been extraordinary, but of course in recent years many of the winners of even the biggest events have found that the ‘instant stardom’ they achieve by winning is often short lived.


It is much harder today for prize winners to capture the public’s imagination, and one wonders if it is simply a case of over-saturation in an already over-crowded and evidently shrinking market place. Of course there are market forces at work, and with current television scheduling dominated by reality television and such like, it is perhaps unsurprising if classical music competitions have suffered in terms of media coverage. But even with extensive support on the television for piano competitions, one is still left with the nagging suspicion that things are not what they used to be with regard to inspirational impact on a grand scale. Why is this the case? Half jokingly I have often drawn a parallel between the growth of the nuclear arms race since 1945 and the expanding interest in International Piano competitions from the same time. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 there also appears to have been a decline in the impact of competition winners on the International Concert Stage. Was the period 1945-1990 therefore the equivalent of a musical ‘cold war’, and do we therefore move on from competitions and encourage our young pianists to develop their professional careers via non competitive routes? Has the ‘anti competition’, ‘hard career grind’ approach proved to have been correct all along?


That would be a restrictive, rather negative response, in my opinion. It is all too easy to say that the best days are over for piano competitions when in fact they still remain a wonderful way for teachers, performers and outstanding young musicians to come together from all over the world. Though every competition is different, I would strongly argue the case for much more educational impact in the basic structure and format for every one. To be fair, this is already happening in many cases. The initial impetus from events like the Maryland competition (where the jury members have given master classes as well as recitals) has been followed in the UK by post-competition master classes from select members of the panel at the Scottish International. And at the Leeds last year, it was heartening to see the successful launch of a new ‘Outreach’ programme. Because I want to go even further than this, and because I passionately believe that competitions can provide enormous opportunities and inspiration for young pianists, a new ‘Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists’ will be launched this year for the first time from 14-17 August with the Manchester Camerata in Manchester Cathedral. By including numerous master class opportunities throughout the event (which is in two age categories- 22 and under and 16 and under) there is immediately more of an educational slant to the format. The jury is completely made up of internationally distinguished performers (Phillipe Cassard from France, Sergei Dukachev from Russia, Anton Kuerti from Canada, Radoslav Kvapil from Czech, Peter Donohoe, Bernard Roberts, Howard Shelley, Kathryn Stott and Martino Tirimo from the UK). A ‘festive’ rather than a ‘cut throat’ atmosphere will be cultivated via the scheduling of ‘non competitive’ recitals, strategically positioned over the course of the entire competition. Of course there will be more engagements and more financial awards given to the ‘winners’ and top prize winners of the event, than to the non finalists, but I feel strongly that even those who do not reach the semi final stages should not be too disappointed. Everyone who enters will receive positive written reports and free tickets to observe. We should all be able to celebrate the glory of music rather than just the success of the top prize winners, great though their achievements will be.

Murray McLachlan is Head of Keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester and a well known pianist with an extensive discography. www.pianoconcertocompetition.com



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