Competitions part 2: When we think of international music competitions today, live streams, enormous halls and extraordinary prizes immediately come to mind. Events like the Van Cliburn in Fort Worth, Tchaikovsky competitions in Moscow and the Chopin competition in Warsaw could hardly be more high profile, with vast international audiences following every stage of proceedings with avid interest and passion.
Unquestionably there are multifaceted ways of developing a career in music without entering competitions. But equally, there are multifaceted means of developing competitions, particularly if you are an organiser with a mission. Commonly it is neglected composers and under-played repertoire which act as springboards for the establishment of new events.
For prospective entrants, there is an extraordinary range of possibilities to consider. The variety on offer is especially touching, colourful and individual with the smallest international competitions, many of which have fortunately survived the toils of lockdown and are continuing to develop and extend their influences and support for talented young musicians.
Whether large or small, competitions exist to offer opportunity and support to emerging talented musicians. It was the lack of concerto playing opportunities with professional orchestras for young soloists that gave me the motivation to create a new event 15 years ago which was billed as the Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists.
Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists
Though it is easy for talented pianists to find orchestral reductions and able accompanists to work and perform with, and though a sizeable number of students do manage to find concerts with amateur orchestras, performances with world class ensembles are a different matter entirely.
Enter this new competition, which engaged the services of Manchester Camerata, and was held six times between 2007 and 2019. To have as host orchestra an ensemble which had toured with Martha Argerich was something of a coup. It meant that all finalists had ‘won’ with the opportunity to perform, and though there were follow-up recitals and monetary awards associated with the event, excitement and emphasis in the competition focused on the finalists and their performances with orchestra on stage.
We kept the concerto list as open and prolifically large as possible, and thanks to the deft adaptability of the resident conductor of all the finals, the wonderfully flexible and open Stephen Threlfall all finalists were able to perform their chosen concertos – thus fulfilling an ambition that sadly remains but a pipedream for most young artists.
Photo: Conductor Stephen Threlfall and pianist Alim Beisembayev
So many wonderful pianists took part in each competition, but it is especially touching to look back on the first event we held, in which the 12-year-old Jan Lisiecki exuded magic, poetry and riveting artistry in Chopin’s second concerto. After his astonishingly precautious performance in the competition, Jan was immediately invited to perform in Poland by Howard Shelley, who was on the jury.
Of course, he is now an astonishingly busy international artist who has recorded extensively for Deutsche Grammophon and performed at the BBC Proms. Along with that first year, I particularly remember 2017 as being special in that the winner, playing Tchaikovsky’s first concerto, was nineteen-year-old Alim Beisembayev.
His titanic virtuosity and transcendental authority beguiled the audience back then… and it was thrilling to watch his steady ascent and progress, which led to him winning first prize at the Leeds international competition last September.
Photo: Winner Alim Beisembayev with Murray McLachlan, conductor Stephen Threlfall and his teacher Tessa Nicholson
Smaller competitions such as our concerto event in Manchester may not be able to ‘shake the earth’ in the way larger events can. However, the impact on those who enter them can be life affirming. Cottage competitions do inspire, support, and encourage musicians along the long road which is musical and career development.
They provide special memories and experiences for all who take part in them. In Andalusia, Mazovia and Manchester we have three events which have encouraged a positive ethos and helped to a huge extent by offering invaluable performance opportunities, goals, flexibility, and abundant friendliness.
Photo: finalists of the competition
Concurso internacional de Piano de Campillos
Last December it was a huge pleasure to travel to Andalusia to be a jury member of the 15th Concurso internacional de Piano de Campillos. Campillos is a tiny, beautiful town with a population of only 8,517… but the locals are clearly proud of their annual event, which local born concert pianist Juan Lago created back in 2007, and continues to nurture year by year. So why did Juan choose his hometown to host a competition? How can such a small community cope with so many pianists arriving each year?
Photo: Photo: Juan Lago
‘Campillos is a small town where everyone knows each other. I would say it is probably easier to organise a competition in these circumstances. I find it very challenging in big cities where you deal with companies and people that you never saw before, and it is more difficult to establish a mutual trust.
Not only banks and big companies are engaged in this project, but also many little shops, restaurants and so on. They all want to be part of the competition! I feel very lucky that our local government administration has always been strongly supportive. Campillos Town Hall feels very proud of what is probably the major annual international event in our town. Diputacion de Malaga also supports the event by letting the Malaga Symphony Orchestra perform in the Final which is also an amazing contribution.’
With around fifty participants in each competition every year selected from around 100-120 applicants, the competition is able to host participants and jury alike in a quaint, characterful boarding house which has been owned by Juan’s family for a considerable time.
The event began with a joyous concert given by all of the jury members- myself, Juan, Antonio Ortiz Ramirez, Gulsin Onay and Pierre Réach, and continued with a sense of relaxed ease as participants were permitted a free choice of repertoire in each of the recital stages. Most intriguingly there was no age limit in the competition, meaning that at once stage we heard a very worthy Berg sonata from a performer in his mid-fifties. What was the reasoning behind scrapping the age limit in Campillos?
‘Music has no age. Music is music and does not depend on how old a person is. One might think, an older pianist should be more mature musically speaking, while a younger one probably is more into virtuosity. The truth is that it’s not always like that. You often see a young pianist with great maturity and depth and an older one playing with great energy and speed.
On the other hand, why not giving chances to participate in a competition to those pianists who did not have the opportunity probably because they started too late, or their teachers did not allow them… A competition should be open to everyone regardless age, genre, nationality, or whatsoever, in my opinion.’
This beautiful idealism was evident throughout the long weekend event, with participants and jury members alike warming to the incredibly friendly atmosphere, the wonderful food in local restaurants, and a spirit of supportive camaraderie.
The competition also produced a wonderful winner of truly international stature in the young Russian Roman Kosyakov, who gave a memorable performance of Mozart’s D minor Concerto in the finals after stunning everyone with his transcendental, authoritative playing in the recital stages. Campillos may be small, but the list of its past finalists and winners is impressive, showing that it has had a significant impact in helping to support highly talented performers in their developing careers.
International Chopin Festival in Zelazowa Wola
Totally different from Campillos but equally memorable and remarkable is the annual International Chopin Festival held in Mazovia a few kilometers from Chopin’s birthplace in Zelazowa Wola.
Like Campillos, Sochaczew is an annual event with no age limit for participants. However, the repertoire is prescribed from the works of Bach and Chopin, with four different categories ranging from elementary Anna Magdalena Notebook pieces and miniatures written by Chopin in his childhood years through intermediate level works up to full recitals with Bach Preludes and Fugues, Chopin études and substantial works including the Scherzos and Ballades.
There are no monetary prizes, though charming gifts are offered along with recordings of performances and certificates. There are no rankings and marks. The jury- of which I have been privileged to be a part of most years since 2006- simply chooses approximately 25-33 % of the participating performers to play again in a closing concert at the end of the competition in the music school at Sochaczew. These performers are then offered concerts at Chopin’s birthplace in Zelazowa Wola and also in Warsaw.
But whether or not participants are chosen to perform in closing concerts or not, the experience for everyone who takes part is overwhelmingly memorable and positive. Sochaczew may be a small town with only about 38,000 of a population, but it is of historic importance to musicians.
We are in the land of the Mazurka. Chopin performed here as a mature artist. The music school is charmingly beautiful. In the festival pianists come from all over Poland and beyond to perform, and it is fascinating to hear just how many different approaches the music of Bach and Chopin can take.
Visiting Chopin’s house, travelling and preparing to perform in the friendly, quaint yet focused and concentrated atmosphere of the festival is very special. Everyone who plays can receive extensive verbal feedback from each member of the jury if they so desire.
Founder and chair of this unique and remarkable annual event is the indefatigably energised nonagenarian pianist and polymath Professor Jan Kadlubiski, who openly describes the event as ‘an anticompetition’!
Like Juan, in Campillos, Jan’s optimistic idealism is immediately obvious and inspiring- especially when he talks about the motivation behind the festival:
‘I concentrate on the undisputed positive aspect of organising a competition which can be a help in starting a career as a virtuoso. Almost from the beginning of our Festival we have chosen such a formula, under which an International Jury, in each subsequent edition shall designate at least twenty of the best prepared, and, in this time, the best-disposed young artists to perform at a ceremonial Concert of Winners.
The guiding idea of our International Chopin Festival of Mazovia is not an elimination to promote “the best”, but only the promotion of the capable and talented individuals. The guiding idea of our International Chopin Festival of Mazovia is not an elimination to promote “the best”, but only the promotion of the capable and talented individuals’.
That is all very well for pianists and string players in particular, but what are competitions like for instruments with less of a public profile? Before looking at some extraordinary smaller international events let’s consider one of the smaller instruments. It was fascinating to hear about opportunities for recorder players from the outstanding player and teacher Chris Orton. I began by asking him what competition opportunities there were for recorderists:
Moeck/SRP International Solo Recorder Competition
‘There is only one current competition that is unbroken and biannual since the 1980s for solo players though, and that is the Moeck/SRP International Solo Recorder Competition, held in London. The competition is a career focus for many young players, and certainly helps young professionals kick start their career’.
Photo: Chris Orton
That was certainly true for Chris, who won first prize in this event in 2007 (the only British entrant to do so since the competition became international in 1995). But even though there were- and still are- performance opportunities associated with winning the Moeck/SRP competition (for many years this was a Wigmore recital) Chris feels that the brave new internet/social media world has changed things in terms of career building for younger artists today. Competitions are not necessarily the only way forward. But he looks back fondly on his experiences of entering competitions:
‘Most times, I experienced new musical ideas and cultures, heard some phenomenal performers and performances (The Israel Contemporary String Quartet performing George Crumb ‘Black Angels’ from memory in the Final of the Penderecki Competition in Krakow Philharmonic Hall in 2004 is etched deep in my mind),
I met other musicians who shared similar interests and became musical partners, and I learnt very much about preparation, stage presentation and managing expectations. Having said that, the advent of social media today has to an extent circumvented the competition and audition circuit, and young players can build careers and an international following and exposure without taking part in the traditional competition process’.