Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Music Competitions

I have experienced music competitions from both sides, as both competitor and judge, but I can't say I'm very fond of them. Via Norman Lebrecht comes this account from a recent competition winner.
"I'm a bit angry at the world for not having come up with another way of discovering talent other than competitions," he said.
I only entered a couple of competitions when I was a young performer seeking a career. One was a kind of talent competition I entered just for the heck of it and was more surprised than anyone to be chosen for the finals. I have no idea how many auditioned--hundreds? But I was one of five finalists chosen to play in the final round before an audience of about 5,000. Oddly enough, I wasn't nervous. I played the Prelude No. 4 by Villa-Lobos that I had played at the audition. Not the best choice as I was informed in no uncertain terms by the classical judge on the panel. He was the tympanist from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. As I recall, one of the other competitors was a vocal group modeled after Manhattan Transfer. Much more popular kind of music so no wonder they won. But if I had played Asturias instead...

Here is my recording of the Prelude No. 4 by Villa-Lobos:

Years later, not long after releasing a commercial recording, I got a phone call from New York. The promoters of a competition called "East and West Artists" wanted me to come down and play for them. The prize was representation by the New York artist's agency sponsoring the competition. They just wanted to see who was out there. So several months later I went to New York and walked into this room at the 92nd Street "Y" where there were three or four people to play for. That's what much of a career in music consists of: you walk into a room, sit down and play for some strangers and hope to hell you don't have a memory lapse! One of them, as I recall, was like a cliché New York agent: short fat guy with a big cigar: "So whaddayagotfaus?" The winner was a bassoon player from Julliard.

A more typical competition was one named after and sponsored by Andrés Segovia in England in the mid-1980s. How you qualified for this one was by getting an endorsement from some well-known figure in the music world. I got a letter from John Duarte, well-known composer for guitar and music critic. He had heard me perform at Wigmore Hall and thought well of my playing and musicianship.

Let me outline the demands of this competition as well as I can recall them. There were a lot of set pieces and only one free choice. At different stages you had to play various pieces which included:

  • Prelude, Fugue and Allegro by Bach
  • Fantasia para un Gentilhombre for guitar and orchestra by Rodrigo
  • Sonata by Castelnuovo-Tedesco
  • Nocturnal by Britten
  • Concierto del Sur for guitar and orchestra by Ponce
There were some others that I can't recall. My free choice was going to be one of the Rossiniana by Giuliani. This is a formidable list and they all had to be played from memory. The only one I knew previously was the Fantasia by Rodrigo which I had played at my bachelor's graduating recital. So I set out to memorize all of these. I had about six months. I was deep in the process when I just started to come apart psychologically. This is a brutal amount of music to learn from memory in six months and I had a teaching job as well. I taught around 22 hours a week, which is itself pretty draining. Anyway, somewhere in there my girlfriend broke up with me and I had a kind of nervous breakdown. I dropped out of the competition, quit my teaching job and just hid out for a few months. I was really shattered.

Many months later I heard what happened in the competition. The winner, a Japanese guitarist, had a bit of a nervous breakdown himself. After returning to Japan he cut off one of his fingers so he would never be tempted to play the guitar again.

Competitions are vicious and brutal, especially if you know what is going on behind the scenes. In the competitions I have watched, I have usually found the second or third place competitor to be the most interesting musically. The one who won was usually the best technician. Ideally you would be a sensitive musician with nerves of steel. Not many of those around!

I have been a judge in quite a few music festivals, which is usually a less high-pressure context because these are mostly younger players not yet embarked on a professional career. I have also judged the year-end performing exams of the Conservatoire du Québec and graduating recitals of performance majors at McGill University. I regarded my role in these events as one of helping the performers advance.

But the big-time professional competitions are a very mixed blessing. They can destroy performers through excessive stress. I suppose the only real benefit is bringing forth young artists who have been judged by other musicians and not just by their commercial success in the marketplace.

My career was always an uneasy balance between commercialism and musical quality--and it was not a dilemma I was ever able to resolve...

Here is my recording of Asturias by Albéniz:

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