Monday, 23 November 2009


A scene that could have come from the 19th century,
Van Cliburn plays for an adoring audience
at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.


This was an article I was asked to write for the bilingual periodical ZBBZ. The publication is a lifestyle magazine for English-speaking Chinese yuppies, not the obvious audience for such a story. Needless to say, it was never published. Here it is, anyway.

There was a time when winning first prize in an international piano competition meant something – instant fame, concert engagements galore and a lucrative contract with a major recording label.

At the height of the Cold War in 1958, the American Van Cliburn defied the Soviets in Moscow to conquer the First Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. Posterity was immediately assured. A New York City ticker-tape parade fit for war heroes ensued, and his LP recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto sold over a million copies. Even losers had their day, with the enigmatic Serb Ivo Pogorelich winning sympathy and notoriety after being ejected at the semi-finals of the 1980 Chopin International Piano Competition. How times have changed.

Quick, who were the last six winners of the Leeds International Piano Competition? That question will draw a fit of head-scratching and a blank. The names of Sofya Gulyak (left), Sunwook Kim, Antti Siirala, Alessio Bax, Ilya Itin and Ricardo Castro (Leeds winners going back to 1993) mean little to most. Good pianists as they may be, not one is a household name.

Have piano competitions lost their Midas touch?

There are plausible reasons for this perception, and most are not musical. The Alink-Argerich Foundation (world authority on piano competitions) lists over 300 competitions on its website – from Sydney, Australia to Trömso in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. But are there enough concert stages to present these winners, or record labels to hawk their wares? With “big” competitions losing their lustre in the onslaught of dozens of “small” rivals, prestige has become so passé.

Competitions have also tended to encourage a gladiatorial approach to music-making. Most involve multiple rounds, where years of musical training are reduced to 40 to 50 minutes of make-or-break playing. The brilliant and spectacular are usually favoured over the sensitive and profound. Competitors who make least mistakes or sound most agreeable to a consensus-seeking jury often win. The most personal or individual of interpretations are often rejected. Is there any wonder why so many pianists, whether from China, Russia or USA, begin to sound the same?
The jury at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
sit in judgement on the careers of 35 young pianists.

Another contentious issue involves competition juries. This coterie formed by established pianists, conservatory professors and sometimes organisers of competitions is small and insular, often revolving in a merry-go-round of fixtures. Even more egregious is when students of jurors win prizes whenever they preside. Tacit arrangements arise where collusion ascertains certain outcomes, with similar favours reciprocated at the next competition. Transparency is often mooted but almost never realised.

An international piano competition is now only as great as its sphere of influence. A competition in USA only affects American concert life but rarely across the Atlantic, and vice versa. Many competitions further an organiser’s agenda and serve local commercial interests first, while competitors enjoy trickle-down effects, if any. Winners receive prize money, local fame, a run of concerts mostly in small venues, all lasting two to three years, or until the next competition beckons.

So is there a perfect formula for the perfect piano competition? Sadly no, however several competitions are attempting for uniqueness, setting them apart from all the others.

The Van Cliburn International in Fort Worth, Texas has comprehensive coverage, with every note broadcast “live” via the Internet and archived for a global audience. The London International expressly forbids jurors to enter their students, and the final is a collaboration with the London Philharmonic. The Hong Kong International has an A-list jury led by renowned Russian pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, who will conduct the concerto round in its next edition. The competition has its own recording label, a concert circuit around East Asia, and promotes its winner in perpetuity. This competition believes that nurturing a talent is a long-term commitment.

Some perspective may be had in the case of 23-year-old New Zealander John Chen (left), who at 18 won First Prize at the 2004 Sydney International. He has since participated in several competitions without replicating his earlier success, but is grateful for the exposure and opportunities - a 50-concert tour of Australasia, four CD recordings and recognition. He believes that competitions provide a good leg-up but post-competition success comes down to the artist himself, a right attitude and sheer hard work. While working on his doctorate in California, he is pleasantly surprised at the number of engagements that still come his way five years after Sydney.

The more commonly heard story is that of a pianist who reaches his pinnacle at the concours but comes crashing down when cold hard facts of a concert career rear its head – living out of a suitcase, unfamiliar venues, poor instruments and unfavourable reviews. The recent debacle involving Li Yundi, who performed execrably with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, proves that unless an artist keeps himself focused and in top from, he is only as good as his last concert.

In reality, winning a piano competition is merely a calling card, the rest is up to the artist himself.

1 comment:

Chang Tou Liang said...

As of this year, the Leeds and Hamamatsu International Piano Competitions have followed the good example of the Van Cliburn by archiving all the recitals on the Internet. Hopefully other international competitions will follow suit.