Posted by: rbbadger | August 9, 2009

Piano competitions

For young pianists today who seek a career as a performer, going through the rigours of a piano competition is now very commonplace.  The great Hungarian composer and pianist, Béla Bartók thought that piano competitions were a horrible idea and refused to judge them.  Competitions were well and good for a horse race, as Bartók said.  But they are no good for musicians.

Had Bartók lived longer, he would have been appalled.  Ever since the great American pianist, Van Cliburn, famously won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow by playing the Russian’s own music and on their own turf at the height the Cold War, piano competitions quickly became more and more a way of life for young pianists.  Soon, a music competition was founded in Cliburn’s honour.  The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is now one of the most famous.  And the prizes it hands out are exceedingly generous, what with several years of professional management and concert promotion provided, a recital at Carnegie Hall, other guaranteed performances with prominent orchestras, and of course a handsome cash prize.  But it is by no means the only one.

There have been serious problems with the competitions for quite a while now.  Sometimes, truly gifted musicians are axed early on.  Musicians who can play loud, fast, and with a minimum of personality often end up the winners.  Sometimes, the losers have gone on to far greater careers than the winners.  The Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich famously lost the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1980 when the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich loudly resigned from the jury in protest over his being axed from the semifinals.  Pogorelich went on to become very famous, but the pianist who actually won the competition is by no means as well known.  Rosalyn Tureck, who served on the jury of the Leeds Competition, voted against András Schiff, a very talented Hungarian pianist who, as it turned out, played Bach better than she did.  (Tureck was a very great Bach player.  While she did play works of other pianists, it is chiefly for her playing of the works of Bach that she is remembered.)

I was reading in The International Herald-Tribune , which is the international edition of  The New York Times this interesting piece about the problems of piano competitions.  The author, Michael Johnson, served on the board of the London International Piano Competition for quite a few years.   It is well worth a look.

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