Competitions are mad, bad and dangerous for musicians, right? Not always, explains the AD of SIPCA.

When I told a pianist friend last year that I was applying for the artistic directorship of the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia, he thought I was mad! Most musicians deprecate the gladiatorial aspect of competitions, have sharp reminders of early failures nailed to their minds and hearts for life, and wouldn’t in a pink fit return voluntarily once safely past the age limit! My friend snorted derisively when I said I hoped to change a few things. 

Competitions suit some players better than others. Certain musicians respond positively to the pressure, enjoy the adrenaline rush of putting themselves on the line and of training like athletes to play with acute accuracy and irreproachable style at any specified moment. Others, who may on occasion move or excite a concert audience, don’t have the necessary killer instinct or inner resources to sustain their nerve throughout a major competition.Their talent shines through, but so too do their little vulnerabilities, when compared with the armour-plated offerings of others. Technical mastery is so high these days that any player who isn’t totally in control will undoubtedly, if regretfully, be passed over. 

Juries have to locate winners who will represent the Competition with certitude. They only rarely take risks on players who are inconsistent, even if those players reveal aesthetic ideals valued by the judges themselves. The competition world is a tough one! You have to have a certain self-confidence and thick-skinned determination to survive. And if you don’t survive, you have to have a certain self-confidence and thick-skinned determination to carry on with your career.

I spent many a January night up till 4am, headphones clamped to my ears, notepad covered in scrawly notes

It was fascinating to listen to the 283 videos submitted by this year’s applicants. I appointed four other judges, two of them vastly experienced Aussie pianists living in London (Geoffrey Saba and Gwenneth Pryor), none of them teachers of entrants, to examine the submitted YouTube or Vimeo links with me. It took us weeks and weeks of thorough listening. I spent many a January night up till 4am, headphones clamped to my ears, notepad covered in scrawly notes. There were few immediately dismissible recordings. On the contrary, the high level of entry was obvious from the start. 

It is always difficult to be part of a jury. Inevitably, members are not entirely in agreement and everyone has to realise that not all of his preferred candidates will make the final cut. I am not the sort of Chairman to appoint a jury and then ride roughshod over its decisions, so, along with the others, I had to accept that some of my own choices hadn’t received majority votes. By the time the five of us met up in person, the other four judges had sent me their decisions and 31 of the entrants had received at least three out of five votes. That 32nd place took a lot of animated discussion to settle, as did the subsequent list of reserves. 

I feel confident we have some truly remarkable contestants for the 2016 Competition. We have 14 nationalities represented and various styles of playing. China, Korea, Russia and the States provide the largest national groups. There were many surprises. Only six of the final contestants are women, something that still worries me. I am proud of the fact that the jury in Sydney is comprised of five women and four men: rather a contrast to last year’s Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition where no member of the jury was female! 

There was quite a large number of Australian entries this year. In the past, the Competition has tended to favour its own, with a sixth of the contestants home-grown. I like that idea, but with only 32 competitors, as opposed to 36 last time, and a searingly high standard of entry, it would have seemed undemocratic to positively discriminate against other nationalities. 

The most disappointing thing about the applications was the somewhat slipshod presentation of many of the Australians. One understands the expense involved in making a professional looking and sounding video, but it’s an investment worth making. If the sound quality on an application tape precludes appreciation of dynamics and nuances, there is little likelihood an applicant will compare favourably with another who reveals pianistic subtleties. 

Likewise, when technical mastery is generally phenomenal these days, there is no point submitting a recording spattered with wrong notes (the odd one doesn’t matter!), and certainly not worth submitting a recording with obvious memory slips, which happened surprisingly often. To my mortification, several young Australian pianists whose playing I know and respect hugely, didn’t receive enough votes, simply because their submitted tapes were not of a finesse comparable with many others. 

Despite the fact that only five Australians made it, I am happy that many more will be featured throughout. I am instituting a novel idea: each session will commence with a short performance by an Australian not actually competing in the Competition. The players will be heard by the live audience, the jury and the radio listeners, while ‘warming up’ the hall for the first competitor of each session. An equestrian journalist friend pointed out to me that dressage competitions always have an experienced jockey ride the course before the competition itself begins!

It concerns me that the winners of the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia over the years have not had the stellar careers of certain winners of other big competitions. Where are our Van Cliburns, Ashkenazys, Martha Argeriches, Murray Perahias, Radu Lupus, Krystian Zimermans, Garrick Ohlssons? I well remember the winner of the first SIPCA – Irina Plotnikova. She had true star quality and hypnotised the audience with her presence and playing. She could have had a major world career, but ended up a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire. Nothing wrong with that, and I was delighted recently when one of her young students took third prize in a competition I was adjudicating in Bremen! But why didn’t her success in Sydney translate into universal success? 

Is it possible that our prize engagements haven’t afforded enough global exposure to our winners? I am trying hard to address that this time around and am thrilled that we have one of the world’s most charismatic and indefatigable conductors as our Artistic Patron. Valery Gergiev has promised the top three prizewinners concerto dates in several countries – something he offers the winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition, which he himself artistically directs. If he enjoys performing with our winners, they will have real opportunities for major career development. 

I am also thrilled that Tim Walker has agreed to give the winner a debut with the London Philharmonic and that Hyperion Records, one of the most respected piano labels in the world, will promote the winner. The Sydney Symphony is likewise offering concerto exposure to one of the finalists. All of these are major opportunities for some fortunate (not to mention hugely talented and masterly) young pianist to forge a global career and to bring Australia and the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia to the attention of the musical world. As I write this, our management team is having problems securing government or private sponsorship for live streaming of the event. These days, live streaming is taken for granted at major competitions. Many young players have become famous as a result, even if they haven’t reached the finals. Performances afterwards remain on You Tube and attract tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of visits. It is vital we promote ourselves in this way. 

I happened to be performing in Warsaw a few weeks after last year’s Chopin International Piano Competition when I was both amazed and touched to have detailed conversations about the results with taxi drivers! They had listened to the broadcasts, one had driven Martha Argerich and Nelson Goerner around regularly, and they all had their favourite players and happily passed on jury gossip. The Chopin Competition is truly a national event in Poland – everybody knows and cares about it. I would so love that to be the case in Australia in July! The ABC will again do its huge bit to broadcast all stages of the competition. 

The Sydney International has at various times been hailed as one of the great piano competitions of the world. That reputation has suffered slightly in recent years. It is of major importance that 2016 again establishes it firmly in the top echelon, with competitions like the Tchaikovsky, the Van Cliburn, the Queen Elisabeth, the Leeds. President Putin himself delivered a long speech at the prize-giving ceremony for the 2015 Tchaikovsky, saying,  “A winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition holds one of the most respected titles possible.” I want our winner to have similar kudos! Big piano competitions are important national events. Beyond that, they are international showcases and markers of their country’s cultural standing in the world. Let’s put on a good show!

Tickets for the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia (July 6-23) are now on sale