This magnificent instrument called ‘the piano’ can become nothing less than a mystic hyper-computer using mathematical equations and sonic designs, carrying us into the very soul of the creator: the performer, composer, and even God himself.
Some say that if we were ‘open’ enough, we would be able to touch the soul of some of our fellow audience in that concert hall as well. The usual setting has all the requirements: it is quiet and respectful, and everybody sits still, much like in a pastoral setting. No wonder the famed Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos has often used a Hall and a Congregation in his writings and interviews as parallel entities.
As the frequent concert-goer will tell you, such mystic experiences happen rarely; when they do, it is something to remember and recall for life. For example, I also had such experiences with pianists like G. Sokolov, K. Zimerman, M. Perahia, and only a few more. But only sometimes, even with them. Not every performance can bring the Spirits and the Gods on stage…
Back in everyday life, more than 20 years ago, the director of a famed music conservatory in Greece asked me to consult them about creating a major international competition. As I had explained (and I maintain this opinion today), the competition’s success will have little to do with the sponsorship, the fame of the jury members, or the size of the money prizes and more to do with the winners. Find the artist of the future, and the competition becomes initially famous and, later on, notorious.
International Piano Competitions of repute (our subject since the previous article) should aim to discover nothing short of the next high priest or priestess if we hope to reinvigorate concert attendance worldwide.
Joseph Horowitz wrote in his classic book ‘The Ivory Trade’ (1990) that ‘not since Krystian Zimerman won the Chopin competition in 1975 has a gold medal launched a major career”. I would approach it the other way and say that the Chopin Competition in Warsaw became what it is today because artists like M. Pollini, M. Argerich, and K. Zimerman won the first prize. At least in the eyes of my generation.
Competition organizers have yet to see that the winner lends glory to the trophy (with his future accomplishments) rather than the other way around. This is why the Nobel prize was so coveted- look at the winners, especially earlier. So, what can we do to change almost everything and hold competitions designed to identify the next Rubinstein, Arrau, Gould, or Michelangeli through a quantified, measured system?
1) Multiple juries, physically present and never online, choosing one winner for their respective category. No 2nd and 3rd prizes, no finalist diplomas. Silver and bronze medals are meaningful in sports activities because we can objectively measure performance. However, artistic endeavors are unique, beyond comparison, and they either succeed or they do not. Incidentally, this one was also proposed by the reputable music historian mentioned above.
2) For measuring purposes, the winner who will get awarded more distinctions from more juries gets the final award.
3) The first jury (and award ) will be (from) the general public. ‘Audience award’ as they call it today, and although it exists in most current competitions, it plays a secondary role and sometimes consols the most charismatic player for not winning the competition. The audience should be center stage, participating and playing a significant role.
4) Next would be the ‘Contestants Award.’ Ask any competition participant, and they will remember one or two impressive contestants who got nothing. Needless to say, professional musicians have the criteria and vital insecurities to spot a worthy opponent instantly! An award from colleagues boosts comradeship and sends a message of brotherhood to the profession instead of endless politics and backstabbing within juries and their students.
5) Next should be the ‘critics prize.’ Indeed, we need those in competitions, although my readers know how critical (!) I have been throughout the decades about their current role in the music industry and society at large. Nevertheless, one must admit that during the last 30 years or so, some of the most notable ones expressed their dismay regarding several first-prize winners and the standards that got them there. Finally, they could put their money where their mouth is, and we would see what they are worth.
6) At this point, we could arrive at the award given by elite pianists, as it is happening today. And in such a setting, it would play just the part it deserves. We have to ask ourselves, do professional pianists attend the concerts of other pianists often? You usually find no more than two in an audience capacity of thousands. And as far as the outstanding ones are concerned, they typically have other things to do, like practice, perform their concerts, teach, and record. Audiences are not comprised of professional pianists…
Nevertheless, their expert opinion should be considered. And playing only a part in the overall grading system would make all the current politics and backstage trading pointless.
7) Next would be the most crucial award (in my opinion, but should not have an increased significance compared to the others), the one bestowed by legendary artists from other fields: sculptors, architects, choreographers, visual artists of all kinds, actors, directors, conductors, orchestra instrumentalists, they should approach the work of the finest young pianists and filter it through their unique and vital perspective.
The reason I proclaim this jury as the most important has to do with the fact that it resembles the ideal version of an audience: cultivated and sensitive but not biased or competitive.
In conclusion, 5 different awards and no chance of a draw if additional rules are set (for example, if a different pianist wins each category…).
Last but not least, a minimum of four years between each tournament would be necessary to ensure proper career development for the winner and create anticipation for the next event.
Only by setting criteria covering the human condition most holistically can we discover the artist(s) who will change the future and enrich our lives.
Young talented pianists (and other instrumentalists) have to ask themselves why most of the successful classical musicians of our time never participated in a competition or did once and got nothing. Instead, what they did was go their way, carve a most personal path, and fill concert halls.