American Pianists Association (APA) finals and thoughts

April 19, 2009

Thanks to good weather and competent airlines, I was able to go from the Liszt Society Festival directly to the American Pianists Association’s final evening concert and award ceremony. The juxtaposition of the two made me reflect on the role of competitions today, compared to their role during Liszt’s time.

Liszt did win a major competition, an informal one for the favor of the Princesse Belgiojoso. This high society figure managed a social booking slight-of-hand, obtaining the presence of both Sigismund Thalberg and Franz Liszt at the same charity soirée. Liszt, having earlier firmly established his reputation as Paris’ leading pianist, felt comforable enough to leave on a long tryst with Marie d’Agoult outside of France. During his prolonged absence, Thalberg sensed an opening and began jockeying for the pole position, and, against an absent champion, found a considerable following (with short memories!) ready to crown him #1. Liszt obtained word of this pretender to his throne, and quickly made his way back to Paris to play in the same hall as Thalberg on a following night.
So who was #1? The question was in the air, and needed an answer. To make a long and interesting story short, the Princesse finessed her way to having Thalberg and Liszt play their most impressive pieces, one after another. The hushed crowd awaited her response – would it be politically correct, or would it be socially risky, or possibly personally subjective? The judgment was that Thalberg was the first pianist in the world – Liszt is unique. A “first” was decided, but what to do with someone who is unique, and therefore by definition “first” and only?
The process and results of this match-up could be taken as a model for today’s many competitions, but the result would be a complete uproar. There are very few princesses today who command such respect that their word would be taken without question. And when an indecisive result is announced, there is dissatisfaction among the masses, who demand to know “who is first?”

The American Pianists Association, among the many hundreds of piano competitions for those seeking to become professionals on the world stage, has taken a different tack in many ways, and one of the most obvious is the choice of two “fellows”, equal in their recognition and in the prizes awarded and the support given to them. Where this is similar to every other competition is that there are three others who are NOT fellows. And with this choice, there are obviously disappointments and second judgments and accusations and suspicions; these are part and parcel of the competition process, no matter how it is organized. One organization, the Gilmore Competition, tries to avoid this by making their competition secret, but the process is the same.
The APA tries many other ways to mitigate this competition effect, some quite innovative and many unique in the competition world. Besides the choice of two co-laureats, the decision is arrived at by a cumulative vote of multiple judges on different panels. Where most competitions have a jury panel of many people, the cumulation from one panel to another is innovative, and creates certain effects. Some are good – the fact that individual influence from specific judges is lessened, removing some of the political pressures that are inevitable between professional colleagues. This also removes the “stigma” of responsibility from individual judges in the eyes of both the contestants and the general public.
What remains in this method, and is in fact accentuated, is the mathematical impossibility of putting a number on an amorphous, multi-faceted, highly subjective and passionate interaction between composer, performer and listener, and then manipulating a collection of these nuance-challenged numbers further into a one-dimensional ranking of pianists. The more judges involved, the more this mathematical phenomenon becomes evident. The final results will be skewed to favor more generally pleasing performances. This does not mean a unique, individual talent cannot win a competition – some have – but they will have to be recognized and appreciated far and above someone who has a more centrist, conservative approach.

Another APA innovation is what they call the Premier Series. This is a five-month long process whereby each of the five finalists is invited to spend a one-week residency in Indianapolis (home base for the APA), playing concerts, doing outreach with local schools, and teaching. For each of the finalists, they are paid a reasonable fee for their work, and they feel the least amount of competition pressure that a contestant can feel – there are no other contestants around, and hardly any mention of any others. They have their time in the spotlight, and they become a known entity to the city and to thousands of residents personally, through their community involvement and the media.
This is a huge investment on the part of the APA, in terms of time, energy and budget – they are essentially putting on an entire music season, based around the five artists selected. In the end, I wonder if this is not a more financially clever approach than the one-time, concentrated Piano Competition approach of most other events; there is an investment in the community, and there is a great return on investment then during the finals week and a long tail effect as the fellows benefit from the two years of career support. There is no control group to compare to, so the question is hypothetical. But my impression from the attitude and conversations of the public on the last night of the finals was that there was a family feeling, and a family sense of involvement and protection, no matter what. There were high school students and parents, young couples, and the usual older classical music audience. Whether the APA could do better or not, they certainly have an invested audience.

Another innovation that I want to point out is the idea that there is an American school of piano-playing, and that it is something worth looking for and supporting. The APA is open to US citizens, even though the scope of the program is international, and the fellows travel around the world as part of their career support. The contestants are international in their origins – Russian, Korean, Chinese, Polish, etc – but that is a singular characteristic of the United States, and one that is worth underlining. The boundary line of citizenship for qualification makes the international element of the competition even more visible and remarkable, for the public and for the contestants themselves, I think. As the “fellows” travel outside the US, their role as cultural ambassadors will be highlighted, and give them a chance to reflect on what it means to be an American pianist, vs a Russian pianist or a Korean pianist, etc. There is something particular about the American “school”, which is not sensed so much in the music itself as it is in the more globally passionate and liberated approach to playing and to career-building. It is a meta-style, and because of that, we need (we being players and listeners) to recognize what we are being meta about! Being an American pianists means needing to know what you are not, and that means needing to know about other cultures and other styles and other philosophies. It’s not so much serving up a melting pot, but rather providing a grander view of the entire menu and making your own mix.

My disclaimer will come here, as I describe a final innovation that may seem self-serving but which has been one of the significant developments for my own career. In 1985, while still a student, I became one of the fellows (there were three at that time, and the APA was called the Beethoven Foundation). The prize and the support that came in the following years gave me a great platform for experimenting and experiencing. While the competition was very different back then in an organizational way, the basic underlying idea was already there. I have since been lucky enough to be involved in the APA in other ways. On the other side of the divide, being a screening judge charged to select the five finalists out of a pool of close to 100. And right on the divide, as I gathered with the group of finalists to take them through my Deeper Piano Studies workshop, for the express purpose of removing some of the competitive aspects of the event. The DPS workshops encourage not only a more holistic approach to piano-playing, they also focus on aspects of learning that are more collaborative rather than independent or competitive, something which most pianists don’t even recognize while they hole themselves up for hours a day in the practice room. I was disappointed not to have been able to organize the DPS workshop for this last group because of some date conflicts, but previous competitions proved to be some of the most satisfying groups that I have worked with.

I would have loved to work with this particular group - Elizabeth Joy Roe, Grace Fong, Adam Golka, Michael Kirkendoll and Igor Lovchinsky. I only had the opportunity to hear Michael (Corigliano Concerto) and Adam (Rach 3) in concert, but met the others, and was struck by the great diversity and most notably the great experience that these finalists were bringing to their performances. It would have been wonderful to work with these five and see how they deal with stage fright, what methods of meditation and imagery they bring to their practicing, their approach to analysis, and above all, their interactions with each other as colleagues and as people.
At the end of the evening, the two fellows were named – Adam Golka and Grace Fong. Not having heard Grace, or Elizabeth or Igor, I had to hold my own judgment, but judging from the repertoire and the personalities, I was very intrigued by Michael Kirkendoll, and there were many in the audience who seemed to agree with me. He brought an intensity and engagement to the Corigliano that captivated the listeners who, I’m very sure, were hearing the piece for the first time, and probably hearing a piece like that for the first time also, never thinking they would actually enjoy the experience. There was a general breath of relief when the opening of the Rachmaninoff emerged under the hands of Adam Golka, but he didn’t let the audience sit back and just relax either – his reading was unusual and complex, very personal and a bit restrained for my tastes. There was no denying the talent, and given the fact that Adam is young, I was also incredibly impressed.

Where do these young pianists keep coming from!? With my career as a competition pianist long gone, my reflections on the state of the classical music world and the world of the piano especially go through ups and downs. With my own experience as a parent, I wonder where do children today have the time to focus on an instrument in a long-term, daily way that is necessary for the real development of the body, mind and heart that goes into piano-playing? Then I hear talents like the ones in Indianapolis, and I talk to them and hear their personal engagement, their passion for their projects and their pieces, and I feel reassured that the talent is there, at the very least. The piano and its incredible repertoire has won over yet another set of people. And if presenters and competitions will provide the necessary platforms, there will be for many years still the artists and the audience for an evening of great piano music.

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