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Piers Lane is the Artistic Director of the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia in 2016 – his first year at the creative helm. He has had a long association with the competition, winning Best Australian Pianist in the first competition and performing the competition’s Opening Recital as a juror in 2004. He is in demand worldwide as a soloist and chamber musician, has recorded over 50 CDs and has been the Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music since 2007. In 2012 he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished services to the arts as pianist, mentor and artistic director.
1. As a juror, what do you look for in a pianist taking part in a competition?
The same as I would look for in a concert performance: the communication of something original, convincing and absorbing, an artistic sensibility, pianistic sophistication, confidence and poise.
2. Did you ever compete yourself, and if so, what do you recall as being good and bad about the experience?
I entered several competitions and found them useful for setting goals, refining repertoire, for meeting colleagues from around the world (some of whom have remained lifelong contacts) and for obtaining exposure and engagements. Failure in a competition can mean dented confidence, but competitors everywhere are so aware of the possible negative outcomes that they, in the main, pick themselves up, dust themselves off after being overlooked and go straight off to the next contest!
3. What advice would you give to competitors?
Prepare and play as you would for any major concert, don’t try to impress in any false way, be yourself, love the music and communicate that. Recognise that competitions are not the ‘be all and end all’ of careers. They can be useful, but winning them is not an end in itself – merely a very useful tool if they work out positively. However, even winning several major competitions will not ensure a long-lasting career – that depends on many other factors, but particularly the ability to make others want to work with you and to hear your musical thoughts, to be self-sufficient both artistically and living-wise, to be able to work to deadlines, act responsibly and be strong psychologically.
4. Do you think competitions are always a good thing, and what advantages do you think they give to winners?
There are horses for courses, as with everything – so no, competitions are not a good idea for every artist. I did a few until the age of 23, but pulled out of several others after that, because I found I was preparing for them in a way that wasn’t really true to my artistic impulses. My path was a different one. But for people who enjoy them and can maintain a judicious sense of proportion, competitions can be used intelligently and at the right time, in the right place, can be the “tide in the affairs of men” that “leads on to fame and fortune”. They can provide massive exposure, concert possibilities and networking opportunities. More and more, competition organisers are aware of post-competition nurture for the winners. That is important: some winners are very young when they get this huge boost in the concert world – they may have too small a repertoire to sustain the engagements offered them, or suffer a crisis of nerves, or simply need more time with their teachers to really feel authoritative about their presentations. Organisers have to be sensible about what they expect from winners. But if all works ideally, competitions can kick-start big careers. From the other side, for competitions to really attain or maintain status in the world, they must offer attractive engagements and possibilities to top class applicants, who these days have a massive variety of possibilities open to them.
5. For you, who are the greatest examples of pianists who have benefited from competition success in the past? Conversely, are there examples of great pianists who achieved recognition ‘the hard way’?
There are numerous examples of competition winners who went on to outstanding careers, from Van Cliburn and Ashkenazy, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia, Sokolov and Martha Argerich to Krystian Zimerman or Garrick Ohlsson. However, there are many contemporary careers made through other means: think of Lang Lang or Kissin or Marc-André Hamelin, or Richard Goode – their careers grew in different ways and are quite as substantial! Some artists grow over a long period of time and may not be ready to win a competition in their 20s – others come to the boil very early, but sometimes cool down rapidly too. Every career is individual, really, and is achieved through far more than just the recognition of talent. Dozens of qualities are necessary for performers to maintain careers or even to evolve artistically. No competition is going to discover which players will last the course and which won’t. But competitions can be the springboard to success for certain people and when everything conspires to work out as dreamed of, the whole process is thrilling for everybody involved.
Tickets for the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition are now on sale.