It was a great week for pianists and piano-lovers in NYC - at Rockefeller University, contestants hoping to compete in the Van Cliburn Competition were presenting free live recitals for a screening jury and a live audience, and at the Yamaha showroom at 54th and 5th Ave, the e-Competition was holding its screening auditions in a more technologically advanced way, through the use of the Disklavier. Whereas the Van Cliburn Competition is sending its jurors across the world to hear live auditions, we members of the e-Competition jury were happily ensconced in NYC, armchair travelers listening to auditions recorded in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing. I noticed that there were a number of contestants who were present in the rosters of both competitions. I would have loved to hear them play both live and on Disklavier!
Reflecting the state of piano today, the contestants came from all over the world.
China - 12
US - 10
Russia - 10
South Korea - 5
Ukraine - 3
Canada - 3
Others - 19
We weren't given information about where these people are based, or where they studied. Taking the audition site as the only piece of information, it is clear there is much cross-pollination happening on a musical level. (I admit, I'm US biased!!)
Chinese based outside China - 7
Chinese based in the US - 7
Russians based outside Russia - 6
Russians based in the US - 1
S. Koreans based outside of S. Korea - 5
S. Koreans based in the US - 5
Americans based outside the US - 0 (come on, fellow Americans, we need more outside input!)
So one question that comes to mind is: Does piano-playing still reflect a difference of traditions from one culture to another? My impression is that there are two recognizable styles of playing that could be called national "schools", even though they may reflect as much a culturally-grounded approach to music or labor-based activities as they do reflect any national traditions of playing or teaching. These are the Russian "school" and the South Korean "school". The first is distinct on a musical level, which could be described as "robust" and "overt". The traditional emphasis on rigorous technical training is also evident in the precision of the playing, which also contributes to the robust and overt character of the playing. This is a major generalization, of course, which overlooks the presence of at least 2 Russian candidates who can best be described as "ghostly", although ghostly with precision!
The South Korean school is recognizable in its seriousness, both in the sense of a deeply disciplined and studied approach to the music and to the playing. This very often translates into a rather dour musical character as well. Here again, one exception seemed to prove the rule.
What we see in the Chinese and American contestants is also a definite national tendency, but characterized more by a lack of unity than any one particular element. In the Chinese contestants, there is an attention to accuracy and brilliance, but this comes across either as a very conservative, careful approach or a wild, raw approach. Perhaps the difference depends on the amount of influence coming from outside of China - my experience in China has been, up until very recently, that the younger the student, the more impressive and original the musical personality. The continued and currently explosive opening up of China to the European, Russian and American traditions of playing and teaching will continue to make huge marks on its enormous pool of talent. China is far from having mapped out its trajectory in the piano world.
For the Americans, it has always been a hodge-podge, and this competition offered nothing to contradict that idea. In a way, the lack of any major support of Classical music in the US means that those who do end up pursuing it as a career are doing it out a greater sense of personal motivation, and hence are more dedicated, and offer playing that is more emotionally driven. The lack of a cultural base in the US, however, means that the playing is often imitative, or extreme in its ideological pursuit of individual musical goals. The Americans also would benefit from opening up to Europe and Russia, more than just opening up the country to Europeans and Russians!
The repertoire that candidates choose to present is a telling factor. In this particular competition, the screening audition required a movement of a Classical-era Sonata and an Etude. In the context of a 25 minute program, this left somewhere between 12-20 minutes of free choice taken from their first round repertoire. For those lucky pianists whose strengths are the Classical era works and/or virtuosic pianism, the requirements played into their hand. For most, however, their challenge was to be able to present as full a portrait of their interests, in under 20 minutes.
The repertoire that the contestants propose for their first competition round, 65-75 minutes worth, is completely free from restrictions. With this freedom, you would expect a great exploration of the limits of the piano world - great works by obscure composers, or obscure works by great composers, the whole transcription repertoire already in existence, as well as an invitation to add to that repertoire, and compelling contemporary works, perhaps even a world premiere! Unfortunately, this is not the case for most competitions that allow free choice, and was not the case for the most part for this particular e-Competition, at least judging by the selections in the screening round.
Here are the composers most represented (in parentheses, the composers included in the required rubrique "Classical Sonata" and "Etude")
(Chopin) - 49
Chopin - 13
(Beethoven) - 33
(Liszt) - 13
Liszt - 11
(Haydn) - 18
(Mozart) - 10
Ravel - 9
Rachmaninoff - 8
Brahms - 7
Prokofiev - 5
(Scriabin) - 2
Scriabin - 3
(Stravinsky) - 1
Stravinsky - 4
And the most presented individual works:
Beethoven Opus 110 - 8
Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit - 8
(Chopin Etudes Opus 10 #1) - 7
Liszt La Campanella - 6
(Chopin Etudes Opus 10 #8) - 6
(Chopin Etudes Opus 25 #12) - 5
Rachmaninoff Sonata #2 - 5
Given the vastness of the piano literature, why are there so many contestants piling up on so few works? Part of it is the fact that these are canonic works, necessary for every student to pass through in order to understand the common language and traditions of piano-playing. Beethoven's Sonata Opus 110 is a beautiful work that is so rich with detail and yet so ambiguous that it invites multiple approaches, reveals different aspects of its construction with the constantly changing perspective of time and cultural distance.
Even a work as straightforward as Liszt's La Campanella fits this description - rich and yet ambiguous, creating a clear framework while at the same time providing enough freedom of interpretation for a performer's personal take. Not to mention the continuously challenging virtuosity which makes every attempt to play it a make or break occasion!
Given the competition's age limit of 32, it is to be expected that many of the contestants are still in their studying phase - exploring the standard piano repertoire, with the guidance of a teacher and their classes. It is also to be expected that they would find the core repertoire very compelling - there is a good reason these works have been included in the "core" over the years. We find, therefore, many contestants presenting themselves in professional competitions with the works they are currently immersed in, which will very often be the core pieces. This is completely sincere and smart from the contestant's point of view.
From the judge's point of view, however, the breadth of the young pianist's interests is as important as the depth of their understanding of particular pieces. There must come a time when one begins the break from the crowd, and judge's are also looking for that break. We are looking for a difficult balance - a respect for the core, put into relief by a contrast with non-standard works. This is also the case in terms of the details of interpretation - we want to see that the player knows the basics, and at the same time, that he knows when he is introducing something beyond that.
The development of the competition "circuit" is a major factor in the decisions of today's young pianist. When I entered into that age of competing internationally, there were merely a few dozen events around the world. Today, there are many hundreds, often taking place at the same time (see the Van Cliburn above!). The fact that many competitions often ask for certain required works, someone presenting themselves to many competitions would do well to use their repertoire efficiently. Ironically, this is the exact opposite effect that one would wish for if one's goal in organizing a piano competition was to encourage the knowledge and enjoyment of the piano.
Even as competitions are opening up their repertoire requirements – ever since the 1993 Van Cliburn, the year that I was involved – there are still incentives to limit the scope of one’s repertoire, because of the great pressures on competitors to present seasoned works, works that one has lived with for many years. These will tend to be those works one learns early on as a student, i.e. the canon of the repertoire.
At the other end of the spectrum, here are the pieces that only one pianist chose to present:
Bartok Out of Doors Suite
Messiaen Regard de l’Esprit de Joie
Mozart/Arcadi Marche Turque
Schnittke Improvisation and Fugue
Vine Sonata #1
Zaimont Wizards (2003)
Of these, I would single out for special mention the Gubaidulina, Schnittke and Zaimont Wizards as being particuarly daring. These are not pieces usually associated with competition repertoire – not easy to listen to, approachable works. The Zaimont was the most original choice – a work written 5 years ago, therefore with very little performing history behind it. I wonder why there is not more of this kind of exploration of repertoire. The first impression given by an artist to a judge or an audience member is established well before the performer comes out on stage, by the calling card which is the program. The intrigue developed by intelligent and probing programming is important to the state of mind of the listener, especially in a competition, where the default mindset is one of being critical. Judges are, whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are consciously looking for it or not, are influenced by comparisons. If there are 10 people playing the same Beethoven Sonata, it is tempting – if not inevitable – to wonder if this one was “better” than that one, losing sight of the real goal, which is judging each performance by its own merits.
Overall, my impressions of the competitors reinforced my feelings about young pianists today – there is wonderful cross-pollination happening, with the Chinese pianists having passed a tipping point and now roaring up from behind. This experience reinforced my impressions about competitions as well – their influence is still overwhelming on young pianists, and it is difficult to engage the system without falling into the traps that exist within. The ratio of unique talents to wonderfully trained pianists is about what I expected – of the 62 pianists, I had 10 in my “absolutely” list. Not all of them made it into the final 24. But that will be the topic of another blog entry!