If piano competitions did not exist…

Competitions part 1: Can young musicians be forgiven for assuming that they simply have to win one of these events in order to find a career in music?

Part 5: Alim Beisembayev Interview >
Part 4: Copying with COVID >
Part 3: Copying with COVID > conclusion
Part 2: Smaller Music competitions >
Part 1: Current blog

Though we may like to think that music transcends sport and objective worldly evaluations, there is nothing new about the concept of musicians performing in competitions. Back in 1781 Emperor Joseph 2nd of Austria invited Mozart and Muzio Clementi to court to perform in a musical duel, a trial which was judged a draw after both master musicians had improvised, played prepared works and sight read in alternation.

In 1837 perhaps the most famous piano head-to-head contest of all time took place in Paris, with Sigismond Thalberg thrillingly pitted against Franz Liszt in an event which generated enormous publicity, hysteria, and pianistic fireworks. One of the first international competitions for younger artists with a celebrity jury was the Anton Rubinstein Competition, first held in Russia in 1890, with categories for both composition and piano playing.

This had a format which was emulated by other competitions, and which is similar to modern competitions today. Right from the start the Rubinstein prize proved controversial, with Ferruccio Busoni winning the first composition award, but being withheld the piano prize too (he was awarded second prize) simply because Rubinstein himself intervened. It was deemed inappropriate for a foreign competitor to be allowed to win both categories, even though he may well have deserved to do so!

Since 1890, competitions, particularly piano competitions, have continued to capture the rapt attention of the public, media, and the classical music industry the world over. Of course, Busoni’s injustice set a certain trend in the mind of many as competitions need to generate opinions and results, and so are always open to contention. They have always been controversial, generating much heat and passion.

Though Artur Schnabel may have complained in the 1940s that there were far too many piano competitions, (and at that stage there must have only been about half a dozen at most of international significance) the decades since have seen an exponential growth. There is an enormous range of events in literally every country around the globe. In Italy alone there appears to be hundreds of events every year. Even a cursory glance at websites such as www.alink-argerich.org can be overwhelming: competitive enterprise seems to thrive universally.  

Magazines, social media, YouTube, live steaming… Internationally the biggest pageants offer astonishing financial awards: Leeds, Warsaw, Fort Worth, Moscow… the competitive momentum continues perpetuum mobile as one gladiatorial event, and not infrequently more than one dovetails, overlaps, and clashes with the next.

Young musicians would be forgiven from assuming that they simply have to win one of these events in order to find a career in music. Indeed, one famous international concert pianist once remarked in interview that ‘winning a piano competition is as important and essential as passing your A levels at school’.

But is this actually true? Just how vital today is it for solo artists seeking employment to have to win a competition? Does every concerto performer at the Proms have a competition win mentioned in their biography? Is it unthinkable to imagine a career without being an international Laureate?

Historically competition success has of course brought enormous benefits to many concert artists who are household names. In the UK we immediately think of Leeds, and the success that seemed to come literally overnight to Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia and Dmitri Alexeev after their wins in 1969, 1972 and 1975.

Even to gain a placing in the event seemed in the 1970s to guarantee a career, as evidenced by the fact that Mitsuko Uchida and András Schiff established themselves so successfully after winning second and third prizes respectively at Leeds in 1975.

But there have always been alternative means of career building. Stephen Kovacevich built an international reputation after performing to huge acclaim at Wigmore Hall in the 1960s. His mentor Dame Myra Hess was a huge support in developing his artistry, as was his partnership with the conductor Colin Davis.

Before the 1980s it was much more common to find newspaper critics attending concerts, and their influence could have a decisive positive effect on the direction of a young artist. Play well, gain admirers, get invited back and build up a healthy diary via consistency, determination, and hard grind. That was the message I learnt from my teacher Peter Katin, and it has proved successful for many performers who have sustained international careers, including leading British Pianists Philip Fowke and Martin Roscoe.

Philip Fowke writes:

‘Whilst competitions are, regrettably, here to stay, they are in danger of pandering to people’s innate desire to compete, encouraging teachers and parents alike to see this as the only way to succeed.

It is a treacherous road, and though it may work for some, little time is given to training performers to manage themselves, develop balanced and mature attitudes, to realize that to win is not in itself of any importance and that there is a world outside music. It is simply not enough to play well, to be, as it were, groomed for competitions. It is how we are in ourselves that matters, how we prepare, how to be objective in our achievements and not continually measuring ourselves against others.

I am very grateful for Philip’s perceptive comments.

Personally, I was given huge encouragement to avoid competitions from Peter Katin. He never needed to win anything in order to achieve success following his Wigmore debut in 1948. But it was after his second Wigmore recital that he received the truly glowing notices that would eventually lead to what would be regarded as a legendary performance of Rachmaninov’s third concerto at the Proms, a contract with Decca, and a glittering career.

I was very touched by Peter’s kindness and support to me when I studied with him in the 1980s. His lessons were generously offered to me on one condition only that I never enter international competitions! Instead, I was encouraged to get a good collection of publicity photos, write a biography, produce a brochure and contact as many promoters as I could.

Peter’s support was considerable and included inviting the managing director of a record company along to watch me perform the Schumann concerto with the RPO, after which a recording was forthcoming, followed by eighteen more. My career was started and sustained without even considering trying to be accepted for the Van Cliburn, let alone do well in it. I remain extremely grateful to Peter for his mentorship and support.

If Katin could record for Decca in the 1950s and support a student without competition success in the 1980s, is it possible for young artists to emulate the same approach in 2022? Possibly not! Reviews of concerts have been replaced by online blogs. Spotify and YouTube has rendered the prestige of CD release less glamorous for most. Royalties for record sales in significant figures are largely unheard of for most artists.

The old system of auditioning live at the Albert Hall for the BBC to perform as a concerto soloist at the Proms was abandoned decades back… But in 2022 there are many wonderful organisations and trusts that exist to support and encourage outstanding talent. On the level of financial support for expensive post graduate fees at conservatoire, many students benefit from individual sponsors, or from charitable funds to pay what can be extremely hefty tuition fees.

Currently Evi Wang, a Swedish student studying for her master’s with me at RNCM, benefits from very generous funding from Norway’s Ingar Dobloug Trust. On a larger management scale for career building and mentoring organisations such as the City Foundation in London and the Hatori Foundation can make significant differences. Traditionally the route forward for young musicians was to be supported by conductors or patrons.

Contacts and influences remain vital, and though these can of course be made via entering international competitions, 28-year-old Jordanian-Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer is adamant that his huge successes and achievements have been supported to a remarkable extent by the wonderful mentoring he received from trust funds – initially from the City Foundation and currently from YCAT, the Young Concert Artists’ Trust:

Photo: Kaupo Kikkas

Iyad Sughayer

‘YCAT have been absolutely marvellous. They do so much more than just find wonderful concerts for me, magnificent though that of course is. 

They advise on repertoire, scheduling, travel, workload, and finances. I really am truly grateful to YCAT and feel that they have done far more for me than winning a top prize in an international competition ever could’.

Though he is still very much in the age group eligible to enter competitions, Iyad has not needed to win one. His huge successes have perhaps grown primarily from performing Khachaturian and Mozart in particular.

His debut disc of Khachaturian’s solo piano music for BIS received glowing critical acclaim and led directly to a follow up album (soon to be released) featuring the same composer’s concerto with the BBC Welsh and Andrew Litton! As though that were not enough Iyad is about to embark on a cycle of the complete Mozart sonatas at a prestigious festival and has a vibrant diary including appearances at Wigmore Hall.

Along with trust funds true that unusual approaches, individuality, ‘gaps in the market’ as well as perseverance can have huge success. There are still many artists who have found international success in the 21st century without having won an international prize. Many of these individuals are highly enterprising, multi-talented and wide-ranging in their interests.

Simon Callaghan

Hyperion Artist, and artistic director at Conway Hall in London, most certainly belongs in this category of musician:

Photo by: Benjamin Ealovega

‘I’ve always enjoyed having a portfolio career, and I don’t think being a competition pianist would have allowed me that luxury. I love playing chamber music, I love playing rare music.

I enjoy organising concerts, producing, and editing recordings, typesetting scores from newly discovered manuscripts etc… I think competitions prepare a very particular kind of musician who can be very popular – and some of them are wonderful, let’s be honest… but it’s not a life that would suit everyone!’

Simon is the sort of performer who seems to have always been busy. His diary is healthy, vibrant, and filled with engagements any professional musician would be pleased with. Perhaps the fact that he has always been so busy has meant that there simply was no time for him to try his hand in the international competitive arena? Did he ever try to play in a competition?

‘One competition I entered – which will remain nameless – sums up my view of competitions. I played really well. I don’t say that often (I’m too self-critical), but I did. I gave spoken introductions to all the pieces, the audience loved it, I played technically and musically very well, and I left the stage on a high. I didn’t get any of the prizes. 

I met one of the jurors later and quite directly asked him why. His words were ‘the panel wanted flamboyance rather than musical integrity’. So, I never stood a chance! And that left a very bad impression in my mind about competitions!’

Certainly, the circus aspect of competitions, noted from the early days of the Mozart-Clementi and Thalberg-Liszt duels, adds to the box office appeal that can be so impressive with events such as the Chopin competition in Warsaw and the Can Cliburn in Fort Worth.

Though many competitions stress that their particular event has a specific theme of flavour, Simon feels that by their nature competitions discourage competitors from learning repertoire that is not part of the mainstream:

‘Who would ever be allowed (in a competition) to programme the wonderful first sonata by Cyril Scott in a competition?! And because you’re forever having to wheel out Chopin’s 1st ballade, you’re automatically judged against some of the greatest performers of all time…

what a horribly unnatural way of making music! I would much rather perform Scott, Bax, Parry, Myaskovsky, Nicodé etc, and make my own interpretation, be totally confident with it… make my own mark where others have not…’

In part two ‘cottage competitions’ we will look at ways in which some of the smaller, lesser-known international competitions have sometimes triumphed by going against the norm, creating special environments in which young musicians can thrive and develop without so much pressure. There are certainly some competitions that wholeheartedly welcome the byways as much as the highways of the repertoire from prospective entrants!

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