Steinway Owners’ Magazine: The Competitive Edge

As seen in the Issue One 2013 edition of the Steinway Owners' Magazine.

As 2013 throws the spotlight once again on some of the world’s most prestigious international piano competitions, Jessica Duchen examines the benefits of these contests for aspiring pianists, and records the testimony of three notable prize winners

Winning a prize in an international competition is a milestone virtually expected of most emerging concert pianists. Throughout the past century, competition triumphs have provided stepping stones to fame, with some passing into the realms of legend: Murray Perahia at the 1972 Leeds International Piano Competition, Martha Argerich at the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, 1965, and Krystian Zimerman, also at Warsaw, ten years later, to name but three. The greatest drama of all took place at the height of the Cold War, when Van Cliburn, a young American pianist, won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow against all political odds. The US welcomed him home as a national hero.

In the past twenty years, though, the role of competitions has undergone a sideways shift. There are now so many that the sheer number of winners is often thought to have ‘devalued the currency’ to some degree. Meanwhile, coverage of classical music in the mainstream media has reduced to such an extent that public awareness of competitions has inevitably lessened too. Yet there’s no doubt that when a buzz spreads about an exciting winner, it can still change that musician’s life. Nor are the benefits limited to the person who takes first prize: from the chance to be heard and noticed to the personal boost of confidence that a prize can bestow, taking part is a potentially invaluable process for any young performer.

Behzod Abduraimov from Uzbekistan was the winner in 2009 of the London International Piano Competition (LIPC). The event kickstarted his career and he has continued to build on the momentum it generated. His recent recital at London’s Southbank Centre sent the audience into ecstasies, the Sunday Times hailing his performance as “pure genius”.

“The atmosphere at the competition was quite intense, with four rounds consisting of solo and concerto works,” remembers Adburaimov, who is now 22. “I think competitions like this always present an opportunity to be heard, and winning one could lead to a successful career.

“I started to take part in international competitions at the age of nine, but LIPC was my first major international competition. It was definitely exciting to play in London and to have a chance to perform with the London Philharmonic in the final round. Obviously I was very happy to be a winner of the LIPC, since it was my first experience participating in such an important event, but I also realise that I was quite lucky to achieve this as well.

“Following the competition, I was heard by different management agencies and I had the opportunity to sign with Harrison Parrott and subsequently got an exclusive recording contract with Decca. Since then I’ve collaborated with conductors such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Charles Dutoit and Pinchas Zuckerman. I also released my first disc for Decca. Now I’m looking forward to a number of debuts and recording my second CD.”

Often the crucial matter is not the prize itself, but the platform on which to be noticed. In 1974, Janina Fialkowska, a Canadian pianist and Steinway Artist of Polish background, took third prize in the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv. It changed her life for an extraordinary reason. “My friend Emanuel Ax got first prize,” she says, “but I got Rubinstein.”

Rubinstein himself was then in his late eighties, but still performing and a hugely influential figure. “I wanted to be a musician but I had no backing from home and I had enrolled in law school,” Fialkowska relates. “I only entered the competition because Canadian Radio — the French branch of the CBC — believed in me and sent me there.” After the second round, Rubinstein came up to her and told her how much he had enjoyed her playing. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure you have a career.’”

He was true to his word. The following season, he stipulated that whichever concert engagement he received, she would also be given. “My whole career since then has been based on those concerts,” she says. “It was a real case of deus ex machina, and it could only have happened at a competition.” Fialkowska adds that she now takes pains to help young musicians whose playing she likes when she is a juror herself.

The British pianist Anthony Hewitt was joint winner of the top prize in the William Kapell Competition in 1992. His view of such events is pragmatic, personal and down-to-earth. “Most competitions provide exposure and a prize is a great calling card,” he says. “This prize, first of all, gave me a considerable amount of money, which was good for my independence and confidence, and it gave me some concerts as well — I was able play in some amazing places, like the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. It was a huge morale boost for me because the competition’s standard was as high as you’d find anywhere in the world and I’d never expected to get anywhere in it. I enjoyed the earlier rounds and the adrenalin, but for the finals there’s an additional pressure from having done well. It’s like tennis, when you’re serving the last game to win Wimbledon!”

What is his advice to today’s young pianists approaching these events? “I think it can be a mistake to do too many competitions because it can become like a career in itself,” he points out. “There should be an aim beyond. I know from having sat on juries myself that it’s much more important to have something to say and to have conviction in your musical ideas — not just to play with the jury in mind, being ‘correct’ technically and musically. Above all, don’t put too much importance on it. Competitions are good for learning repertoire and it’s a platform for you to perform, but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. If you’ve practised enough and you feel confident, just get on stage and play your heart out.”

The piano on which contestants compete can make a world of difference. “A great piano takes away a huge level of stress, particularly if you have a choice of instrument,” Fialkowska says. Hewitt agrees. “It makes a huge difference, a new piano with reliable action, and Steinways are known for that. You usually do have a choice of pianos at competitions and I’ve generally chosen a Steinway. There’s a quality of luxury in the sound of a Steinway — its resonance and beauty is a living, breathing thing and the sustained tone seems to go on forever.”

2013 Competition Calendar

Hilton Head International Young Artists Piano Competition
4–9 March, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Virginia Waring International Piano Competition
24 March-1 April, Palm Desert, California

Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition
6 May-1 June, Brussels

Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
24 May-9 June, Fort Worth, Texas

Top Of The World
16–21 June, Tromsø

Cleveland International Piano Competition
30 July-11 August, Cleveland, Ohio

Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition
21–30 August (TBC), Bolzano

ARD International Music Competition
2–20 September, Munich (for Piano Trio)

What next, though, for the world of piano competitions and their winners? Inventing or harnessing new ways of disseminating information and performances to a wider audience — especially streaming on the Internet — will prove crucial to most competitions’ repute in the future, and here the potential for exciting development remains unlimited. It is already beginning to make a major difference not only to the number of music lovers the contests reach, but also to the way they can be entered and judged.

In the end, though, each musician has to carve out his or her individual niche in the musical world. A competition win can provide advantages of many different types, from morale to experience, from prize money to record contracts — but for the pianists themselves, that is just the beginning. Hewitt, who studied in the US with Leon Fleisher, returned to Britain after his competition win and today divides his time between solo performance, chamber music, teaching and running his own music festival at Ulverston in the Lake District. Fialkowska enjoyed international celebrity and made numerous acclaimed recordings before being stricken with cancer in her shoulder ten years ago; since then she has reinvented her musical approach and rebuilt her career. Today Abduraimov is well on the way towards international stardom and, with luck, he will enjoy a brilliant future.

Pianists take note: a prize can kickstart a career, but after that, it is up to you.

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