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American Pianists Association (APA) finals and thoughts

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 innovat