The fifth in our series of interviews with the jurors for the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia.
Sydney International Piano Competition juror Orli Shaham has established an international reputation as one of today’s most gifted pianists, admired for her interpretations of both standard and modern repertoire. She has performed with nearly all of the major symphony orchestras in North America, as well as orchestras in Europe, Asia and Australia. Her 2015-2016 season includes solo recitals in New York City, Washington, DC and Omaha, which feature selections from her 2015 recording, Brahms Inspired. The two-CD set includes new works by Brett Dean, Avner Dorman, and Bruce Adolphe alongside works of Brahms and his compositional forefathers. Shaham is the Artistic Director for Pacific Symphony’s chamber music series in Costa Mesa, California, a position she has held since 2007, and for the interactive children’s concert series, Baby Got Bach, which she founded in 2010. Shaham has maintained an active parallel career as a respected broadcaster, music writer and lecturer. She has taught music literature at Columbia University, and contributed articles to Piano Today, Symphony and Playbill magazines and NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog. She was also artist in residence on NPR’s Performance Today.
1. As a juror, what do you look for in a pianist taking part in a competition?
I look for potential as well as what they have already accomplished. You can see, based on what they are able to accomplish musically, where they might be able to go with their artistry. So much about a pianist’s abilities has to do with the experiences they’ve been able to have. And, many competitors have yet to have the experiences that would prepare them for being at a professional level.
2. Did you ever compete, yourself, and if so, what do you recall as being good and bad about the experience?
I barely competed myself – never in a major competition. My only experience was as an ensemble member – a friend of mine was the main person who entered the competition. I had a terrible experience: we weren’t even accepted into the live round. But a few people had heard our tape and they thought it was so good they gave us an even better reward than we could have gotten if we’d won the competition. The irony of that was too much for my then-teenage brain to handle, so I never entered another competition. I feel very lucky that I was able to get a career going without winning a competition, but I know that it’s unusual.
3. What advice would you give to competitors?
Be yourself. I know that there’s a lot of pressure in a competition to be note-perfect. But there are a lot of us jurors who understand that note-perfection is not nearly as important as musicianship. If you spend all your time worrying about having a performance that is ‘perfect’, you may not speak through your music. Ultimately it’s much more important to show us your artistry.
4. Do you think competitions are always a good thing, and what advantages do you think they give to winners?
These are two very different questions. I think, definitely, competitions are not always a good thing. It depends on the individual pianist, and what they think they are going to get out of the competition. It’s very important to go in with the attitude that what you’d like to get out of this competition is to have prepared that repertoire to a level that you feel is really your best – because you can’t guarantee any other outcome from a competition. Like everything else in life, what you can guarantee is how you feel about the work you’ve done and the preparation you’ve put in. As a motivation for getting programmes ready, nothing beats a competition. If your personal goal was to get a certain programme ready, and you got it ready, the result of the competition doesn’t affect your accomplishment of that goal.
The best competitions in my opinion are the ones that give a great deal of performance opportunities to winners. In the end, that’s hard to come by and it’s irreplaceable experience. Another advantage that the best competitions give is the ability to get some professionals on your side, to know who you are, and appreciate what you are doing. They may be able to help you in all sorts of ways for many years to come, which is what happened to me in that competition in which I didn’t even advance to the live round.
Tickets for the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia are now on sale.