Playing the numbers: Sydney International Piano Competition

Will the Sydney International Piano Competition ever conquer its inability to back a superstar pianist?

Say the word “competition” to a pianist, and you’ll probably spend the next two hours debating anything from the merits of a particular school of pedagogy to the alleged corruption of mafioso-like jury members. Indeed, many of the world’s more famous international music competitions are so plagued by controversy and accusations of insider dealing they make the FIFA World Cup look like a church raffle.

The Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia (SIPCA), whose tenth iteration gets underway this month, has not escaped the controversy that seems to haunt such contests. Still, opinions differ widely on SIPCA. Glenn Riddle, lecturer in keyboard at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, calls it “the most scrupulously-run competition in Australia”. By contrast, a prominent Sydney-based conductor, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims: “Competition winners are always selected before the event. Those who go out in the first round are definitely the best. They go out so as to not endanger those already selected to win.”

With statements as contradictory as these, it is hard to distinguish rumour from reality when it comes to Australia’s most lucrative music competition.

Founded by its current president Claire Dan in 1976, SIPCA is a five-stage competition that belongs to the World Federation of International Music Competitions, a global network of more than 120 contests. Premier of New South Wales and Vice Patron of SIPCA Barry O’Farrell calls it “one of the most important international piano competitions in the world, along with the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in the United States”.

However, unlike the Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn competitions, whose winners include Vladimir Ashkenazy and Radu Lupu, SIPCA has a bête noire – it has failed to produce a big-name star. Why have many of its past champions and competitors failed to appear on the international performance circuit after the Competition? Where have they gone? Many just seem to have vanished from public life. Of 324 competitors from nine competitions, who among them has truly gone on to obtain a high-profile concert career?

SIPCA chairman Warren Thomson identifies two reasons for the apparent failure of SIPCA to propel its laureates to stardom. The first is the issue of supply and demand. “There are too many pianists out there, and the music industry simply cannot sustain them all.” The second is that “not all of our competitors want to become a concert pianist”.

A case in point is New Zealand pianist John Chen, winner of the 2004 Competition, who thrilled audiences with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in the finals, but finds greater enjoyment in chamber music. “After winning SIPCA, most of my concerts were solo or concerto performances. But I’ve naturally gravitated towards chamber music again.”

Another factor is the boom in competitions over the past 25 years (there are now more than 200 piano competitions in Italy alone). While one big victory was sufficient for the likes of Martha Argerich and András Schiff in the 1960s and ’70s, winning a single competition is just not enough nowadays. According to Gerard Willems, associate professor of keyboard at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, “Competitions are an essential part of a person’s way onto the concert platform, but unless you have two or three significant wins behind you, it is difficult to get your career started. Recent winners John Chen and Konstantin Shamray have certainly done well, but are they known on the international stage? I’m just not convinced.”

One former SIPCA competitor who has obtained major international success is Russian pianist Alexei Volodin, although he was only awarded fourth place when he competed in 2000. Since the Competition, Volodin has performed regularly throughout Russia and Europe, working with prominent conductors such as Valery Gergiev on standard virtuoso repertoire including Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Volodin’s career success, however, has left many observers questioning the jury’s decision to award him only a minor ranking.

For his part, Thomson suspects that several of the Russian members of SIPCA’s jury in 2000 were fearful of Volodin’s musical aptitude. “Although it’s just a theory,” Thomson says, “I believe that some of the Russian jury members feared that Volodin was a greater pianist than themselves, and opted not to vote for him.” There is, of course, a simpler explanation for Volodin’s ranking. He may simply have not performed as well on the day as the three pianists who ranked more highly.

If winning a prestigious piano competition only counts as a minor achievement, what does it take to launch an international career? According to Riddle, “Performers must try to impress the artistic management they are working with,if they want to have any chance  of being asked to give future performances.” Willems offers similar advice. “Performers must be salesmen. They need to actively communicate with people, especially the audience.” Winning a piano competition like SIPCA is little test of such abilities. 

Read the full article in the July issue of Limelight, on sale now.

Copyright © Limelight Magazine. All rights reserved

This article appeared in the July, 2012 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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Playing the numbers: Sydney International Piano Competition
Alexei Volodin placed fourth at SIPCA, but has gone on to forge a major career.
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