Sydney International Piano Competition: a pianist speaks out

Did Bartok have it right when he famously declared that “competitions are for horses, not artists”?

I write this to the backdrop of the warm tones of Marion Arnold and this year’s broadcast of the Sydney International Piano Competition. They do a magnificent job, the ABC Classic FM team, and during the intermissions several of the presenters have been touching on some of the issues I often think about. Falling within the age bracket for international piano competition participation, listening to bits and pieces of SIPCA and currently preparing for a competition myself, my deep-seated discomfort about the insularity of the piano competition bubble is resurfacing and I’ve been giving the topic some thought.

The world is teeming with brilliant, impeccably-equipped pianists hungry for concert careers, many of whom make it something of a full-time profession to jet from one international competition to the next in search of that “big win” which will kick-start their international careers. But it is becoming a well-known fact that even the most prestigious win today does not have the same outcome that was ensured even just a couple of decades ago.

It would be fair to say that the world is overstocked when it comes to pianists; there is a stark imbalance between supply and demand, which means that even the winners of the International Tchaikovsky, Van Cliburn or Chopin Competitions can be guaranteed a burst of concert activity immediately following their win, but no such assurance one or two seasons later. We have arrived at a point at which we must take stock and reassess our roles in the music world. This applies not only to young aspiring pianists (and I limit myself to speaking about pianists here although the issue is widespread), but to concert promoters, record companies, music conservatories, music consumers and yes, competition organisers.

We could argue that piano competitions have no place in today’s musical world and should be abolished. The very pairing of the notion of competition with any form of art is, in any case, an inherently problematic one. I am always reminded of Glenn Gould’s description of live concerts as being a kind of “blood-sport arena”, and I tend to think of piano competitions in this way.

Bartók had it right when he famously declared that “competitions are for horses, not artists”. But as human beings, we thrive on competition in so many aspects of our lives, and there is no doubt (as the passion of SIPCA enthusiasts proves!) that people simply love their piano competitions. We revel in the drama, the risk, the thrill of the possibility of disaster; these elements seem to appeal to something very primal in our nature. There are of course many other levels on which one can appreciate piano competitions, the highest being a genuine love of the music itself.

Given that people love piano competitions and it looks like they are here to stay, let us first look briefly at some of their merits. Firstly, there are benefits to the community. Piano competitions get people excited about listening to and talking about music. This is undoubtedly a good thing. It also presents wonderful opportunities for musical cultural exchange, as pianists from all different parts of the world converge and might bring repertoire that is unknown to the local audience. Discovering unfamiliar music, both old and new, is always a good thing, and competitions can be a melting pot for discovery – at least, they should be!

Then, there are the benefits to the participants. These benefits occur before, during and after the competition. First of all, the preparation involved for a high-level competition is enormous. Preparing to give live performances of any kind is a long and arduous process which in itself (if done thoughtfully, searchingly and truthfully) makes one a better musician.

Then, the competition itself is an instructive experience for any participant, no matter what happens on stage. Dealing with the extra pressures that the competition scenario imposes is like having an intensive workout in the gymnasium of the psyche. Regardless of the success of the performance or the formal outcome of the competition, one learns an awful lot about oneself through the experience of a competition, and, like leaving the gym after a taxing workout, one emerges drained but with an extra degree of endurance.

Lastly, we come to exposure, the benefits of which are felt after the competition is over, if one is lucky. The winner of SIPCA will of course receive a degree of media attention and concert engagements for a period of time. But I think the notion of discovery should come into play here, and this is where competitions fall short.

Competitions that follow the “well-rounded” repertoire requirement format place severe limits on the kinds of pianists that can participate, and the kinds of artistry they can demonstrate throughout the course of the competition. I would argue that artistic discovery in this format is close to impossible, because it ignores and indeed stifles any type of artist who does not fit the narrow and outdated mould imposed by the competition.

In SIPCA, every pianist must play in the first two rounds a virtuosic etude by Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt or Scriabin, a Debussy Prelude, and works by four different composers to make up 20-minute recitals. The quarter final requires a sonata by Haydn or Mozart, a commissioned Australian work, and a free-choice program. Then in the semi-final: a Beethoven or Schubert sonata, a free-choice program and a piano trio from a selected list.

The finals involve a Mozart Piano Concerto and a 19th- or 20th-century concerto from a shortlist. This format and its variants, utilised in many international competitions, supposedly ensures that whoever emerges victorious at the end is a “well-rounded” pianist. I think this is very problematic.

This is an interpretation of “well-rounded” which carries a strong bias towards those pianists who excel in short bursts of technical fireworks. In the first stages there is the obligatory virtuosic etude and prelude, and then around 15 minutes to fill with music of two different composers. This makes it impossible to play all but the very shortest Haydn or Mozart sonatas, for instance, and eliminates the possibility of playing any large-scale Baroque work, most Schubert, Beethoven, and large chunks of repertoire right across the spectrum which might require greater emotional depth, musical intellect and the ability to build a work over a longer span on time.

Yes, the opportunity to play classical sonatas appears later in the competition, but this means that there is a higher value placed upon virtuosity in the throat-grabbing sense than the ability to render a sublime Mozart. Is this a universally agreed-upon value judgement? It could be argued that this is the initial test of pianistic competence, or “chops”, i.e. if one doesn’t have the chops for Liszt etudes, they cannot have the chops to deliver the nuance of Mozart and are not worthy of being heard in a full-length recital. This way, pianists without the “necessary chops” are weeded out early, and only those pianists who possess chops are thrown into the arena again for Mozart and Haydn etc.

What if this were to be reversed? Imagine for a moment that in the first round of the competition every pianist had to play Mozart, so that all those without the clarity, poise, rhythmic vitality, intellect and the multitude of emotional shadings of Mozart were weeded out early, and only those who excelled at Mozart went on to the later rounds. What would happen? Would we end up with different pianists in the final? Probably… Would they be better? In theory, perhaps. There are problems either way you approach this format.

One argument for the existing format is that it is more objective to judge “chops” than to judge real artistry. When judging Mozart, all ten jurors could have drastically different ideas about which pianists are worthy of progressing. Ten differing opinions are less likely to occur when judging virtuosic etudes, and perhaps in an early stage of a competition when a large cull must ensue, the more objectivity the better.

But I strongly believe that this approach promotes a very slanted, very narrow and very flawed attitude that has nothing to do with music or artistry. The classical music world, and particularly the piano world, is sadly filled with such narrow-minded attitudes. If we accept the fact that competitions, whether we like them or not, form a significant part of most young pianists’ lives and are still the major gateway to concert opportunities and the beginnings of professional careers, why not shake up the format of these competitions so that they might, over time, use their immense influence on young pianists to promote open-mindedness and creativity?

To this end, let us remove all repertoire requirements from the competition and allow pianists to play whatever they want. Programming is a telling thing, and given free reign, what a pianist chooses to play is often as revealing as the way he/she plays it. Anyone afraid of missing out on their Mephisto Waltzes or Wilde Jagds needn’t worry; there will always be plenty of pianists who will choose to play these virtuosic tour de forces in competitions. But let us dispense with this traditional notion of the “well-rounded” pianist. Bearing in mind that this idea of “well-rounded” has come to mean someone who is adept in music from the 19th and early 20th centuries (with an acceptable classical sonata thrown into the mix), does this attribute have any correlation at all to artistic merit? I think not.

Having a world filled with pianists who can all play the range of repertoire considered “standard” in an inoffensive fashion does nothing to further the musical industry or the art form. Who is to say whether someone who feels an equal affinity for Bach, Liszt and Ligeti is any more or less of an artist than someone who specialises in the music of Bach and cannot play a convincing note of Liszt (Gould, anyone?) Surely what matters is the quality and sincerity of one’s artistic vision and the strength of its execution.

One might argue that this is all very well when pianists embark on their professional careers, but when they are in their teens and early twenties, and in most cases already competing in international piano competitions, they should be studying the full range of the piano literature. I think this is a fair point, and of course one must study and be familiar with a far wider range of music than one eventually chooses to keep in the artillery bag as it were (one famous example is Michelangeli who had an enormous repertoire that remained behind closed doors and performed only a small selection of works in public).

But this is a matter for the young pianists to decide. It is the competition’s job not to provide an AMEB-style exam format where all styles must be “covered”, but to provide an open platform so that pianists can give true representations of themselves as artists. Perhaps a lot of pianists would cling to the tried and tested winning method of proving “well-roundedness” with a focus on 19th-century virtuoso works. But maybe, once in a while, an individual might come along with something very different and quite unusual to offer. They might not win or even pass the first elimination – and therein lies the fodder for the inevitable heated discussion that follows every competition result announcement – but at least that unique artist will have been heard on his or her own terms, and the competition will have done its duty in providing this opportunity for true artistic discovery to take place.

There is one exception to my argument which I should mention here, and this is the commissioned Australian work. The commissioned work highlights the performer’s ability to engage with an unfamiliar and unrecorded score over a reasonable period of three months, and produce a professional performance – surely a necessary skill in today’s world. But far more importantly, it allows brand-new, Australian-made work to be heard by both a local and international audience. To my mind, anything that helps to bring composers, performers and audiences closer together is a good thing. In general, I would love to hear pianists choosing to perform a great deal more contemporary music in competitions, but short of making this a requirement I think the existence of a specially-commissioned work is a positive thing.

Of course, simply removing the repertoire requirements from competitions is one of a multitude of changes that could be made to increase the relevance of competitions in today’s music world and dispel some of the insular attitudes they often promote. I must clarify that I have been speaking here about generic, non-composer-specific competitions like the SIPCA.

Competitions whose purpose is to pay tribute to the music of certain great composers, like the Bach or Beethoven competitions, are in another category and in fact carry many merits. But for general “pianistic” competitions, celebrating open-mindedness and creating a free platform for expression is a most crucial first step in the right direction.

The Sydney International Piano Competition finals take place July 17–21.

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Sydney International Piano Competition: a pianist speaks out
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