Coping with COVID

Competitions part 4: in today’s blog, Murray is looking for the answers to whether coping with COVID offered a cure for a crisis. 

Part 5: Alim Beisembayev Interview >
Part 4: Current blog
Part 3: Coping with COVID >
Part 2: Smaller Music competitions >
Part 1: If piano competitions didn’t exist…

After lockdown, competitions have had to re-organise and re-think. But even before the pandemic, the ever-changing musical climate and demands of the 21st century necessitated key changes of emphasis in many of the top events. This can be seen in the drastically fewer numbers of participants who are allowed into the public performance stages of competitions such as the Leeds, Santander, Van Cliburn, and Tchaikovsky. Though the Chopin competition still holds live rounds with around one hundred performers, this is increasingly the exception. As mentioned, video selection has become the key means for recognition as young artists strive for success.

Leeds International competition

Adam Gatehouse, artistic director of the Leeds International competition, is optimistic about the possibilities which the highest quality of recording can provide for the future: 

‘As to how we are trying to make the Competition more aligned with the 21st Century, our strongest priority over the next 3-5 years is to develop a unique and innovative digital strategy and programme that will have the piano at it absolute centre.

Using some of our partnerships and also seeking new partnerships, we are seeking to develop a platform that will encompass our Learning and Engagement in an innovative digital way, to reach out to people of all ages who are simply interested in the piano in all its facets.

During the 2021 Competition, our global streaming achieved some 4.7m hits globally, and we are seeking to capitalise on and expand that global audience’.

The 2021 Leeds competition first round may have been held over seventeen different international venues with the sixty-three selected pianists, but care was taken to make the opportunities for everyone that played as fair as possible: 

‘The International First Round took place within a very tight timeframe of 3 days – 6 – 8 April 2021 – and performances were held without audience or jury present. Instead, each of these pianists’ 25-minute recitals was filmed by individual film crews in each city, each to identical camera specifications and camera angles, and each with identical microphone specifications and positions, as set out by our filming coordinator Simon Weir in London.

Each pianist played on a very good Steinway D. This was to allow as level a playing field as possible. Each pianist had 30 mins warmup on another piano, followed by 15 mins warmup on the recital piano, followed by 25-minute filmed recital. 

Each film was edited live and sent directly to our filming coordinator in London who put up the captions and then put the finished films on Vimeo for our jury to view. Each film was thus available to view by the jury within 24 hours of the recital taking place, which meant that the jury was able to view and judge all sixty-three pianists over a 9-day period.

The jury then voted on an online platform according to strict voting guidelines, and the results of the vote were announced in a jury Zoom on the 10th day. There was provision for revotes, but our voting system was such that this turned out not to be necessary. 

The result was such that the quality of filming and sound recording was of universal excellence and allowed the jury to judge in a fair and realistic way. The jury was unanimously enthusiastic about the filmed results. 

We have decided that, for environmental, economic, and practical reasons we will adopt this blueprint for all our future International First Rounds.’ 

Piers Lane

My aim with the competition is always to make the requirements as near to professional life as possible. We all vowed never to do another streamed competition – the next one has to be live!

As times change, so will competitions continue to develop and re-invent themselves. For Sydney next year, Piers Lane looks forward to significant innovations in the format.

Unquestionably at least some of these innovations have come about directly as a positive response to the two-year lockdown we have all endured. Certainly, the positivity and relevance of future events such as Sydney will be all the more convincing and relevant when they are directly related to the music profession as it currently stands:

‘My aim with the competition is always to make the requirements as near to professional life as possible. We all vowed never to do another streamed competition – the next one has to be live! We had decided to make the competition triennial from 2020 and so the next live one is scheduled for July 2023.

As a result of the requirements I set for the online competition, various things will change next year: there will be spoken introductions by the competitors in the second Preliminary round and also for the Semi-final recital, which will need to be themed. Encores will be required.

The internet audience loved the interviews, so those too will be incorporated. Repertoire choices for solo rounds are completely own choice, though always involve one Australian piece. We ran a composition competition in 2021/22 called Composing the Future which inspired ninety-four new Australian piano works.

Partly as a result of that, partly to support Australian composers generally, I am asking 2023 competitors to play a twenty-first century Australian composition of at least 7 minutes, instead of allowing Grainger or Carl Vine Bagatelles (1997), both of which I adore – but we have to keep things up to date!’. 

In addition to colossal talent and excellent preparation, it is clear that resilience, strength, discipline, determination, positivity of mind and excellent organisational skills are vital for any young musician who chooses to enter international competitions. Of course, this always been the case, and it was fascinating and insightful to speak to another exceptionally gifted young prize-winning artist, the pianist, Albert Cano-Smit, about his development over numerous years through competitions.  

Albert Cano-Smit

Though still barely in his mid-twenties, Albert has had colossal successes, including being selected for NYA (the New York Young Artists scheme) and winning first prize in the highly influential Naumburg competition (which counts Jorge Bolet, Stephen Hough, and Steven Hough amongst its list of winners): 

‘Probably the most important thing I’ve learnt out of competitions is that under the extra pressure and strain they exert, one can only survive and even thrive by being completely honest to one’s convictions as a musician, and by being prepared. Besides the obvious reasons for which pianists enter them (the exposure and benefits of winning a prize), they can be a catalyst for growth.

Whilst they are not social events, I have made valuable friendships and met lifelong colleagues in them, involving host families, fellow pianists, and even jury members who despite what many think, have a very difficult job and are only trying to do their best. In a way, competitions are giving more to the music, so this should make any artist want to give back more as well. The music business (sorry for using that word) is competitive, and competitions are necessary for that, but it’s still possible to enter with a healthy attitude.

I find it important to remember that there is nothing competitive about the music we play, and it should always remain that way. Many of the greatest artists in history never won a competition, and it’s possible that if they entered, they still wouldn’t. And that doesn’t make them lesser artists at all, and some had massive careers. I feel quite strongly that the main competitive aspect in piano competitions is against oneself. Winning a couple has changed my life, but not winning plenty others has made me grow.’ 

With an ever-burgeoning diary of engagements away from competitions, I wondered how Albert prioritised and scheduled his commitments. Was it hard to decide whether or not to decide which competitions to enter when they clashed, and how did he decide whether or not to commit himself to the potential risk of entering a competition when the alternative was to give a concerto or recital performance? How did he manage and organise his schedule? 

‘When competitions clash, my experience tells me that it’s better to choose the competition in which you think you may do best in or that has the repertoire choice that’s strongest or most interesting for you, because that way no matter the outcome you will have gained something or will have had a positive experience.

It’s obvious too that when the outcome is good, the experience is automatically much more pleasant, and the memory of it even better. If it clashes with a concert, I apply a rule of three in which not two, but three elements need to be fulfilled. The concert must be artistically great, a fantastic opportunity for your career, and paid well. In normal circumstances, it would only take two of these criteria to accept an engagement, but if you’ve put a lot of work into a competition, of course it’s unfortunate to let that go.’

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