What I think of competitions

Last week, I judged a competition for the first time in my life. This got me thinking about what the point of instrumental competitions is. When I was a kid, I used to watch the televised finals of the Tchaikovsky competition with the same sense of empathy and suspense that came over me when I watched Olympic figure skating or gymnastics. I was always rooting for a certain person to win, and it was all about virtuosity and breathtaking leaps and humiliating falls. At the end there were three prizewinners and you usually never heard of any of them ever again. With a few exceptions.

When I came to Berlin and started studying with the wonderful, irreplaceable Boris Pergamenschikow, he urged me after a few years of playing in orchestra to ‘activate’ my solo career. He used that word, bless his heart and may he rest in peace. I envisaged a red switch in a complicated fuse box: ACTIVATE SOLO CAREER. DO NOT PUT IN REVERSE! I didn’t want to enter competitions, I said. You don’t necessarily have to, he said. And anyway, if you win one competition, it’s not enough. You have to win two, three, four first prizes to get your career started.

Four competitions. Seriously? Four? I decided to try one because I didn’t know what else to do with my latent energy and ambition. I had a good job already in the city I wanted to be in and was generally thinking: now what? I traveled to Tongyong, Korea and played in the first round of the Isang Yun Competition. I took my then boyfriend with me as a piano accompanist because I suspected there would not be a second round for me, and I didn’t want to hang around a small town with a hundred cellists for the rest of the week. Indeed, the first round was also my last and we subsequently took off for the island of Jeju, Korea’s Majorca: a bizarre meeting place of identically dressed newlyweds and Japanese businessmen playing golf and getting soused.

Please excuse the unnecessary detour.

Suffice it to say that that one brief experience did not leave me hungering for more. I remember one juror snoring during my performance, but more than anything I remember having no interest in performing in a huge hall in an industrial Korean town in the middle of nowhere for six old men, even if they were venerable cellists. It just seemed, well, completely out of touch with reality.

Last week I was on the other side of the fence, not at an international competition but at a small one open to the cello students of both Berlin conservatories. To my credit I did not snore during anyone’s performance. I did, however, have some thoughts, such as:

Are Ligeti and Hindemith considered contemporary composers? They are both dead. It’s pretty hard to be contemporary when you’re dead. The contestants had to choose between Ligeti, Hindemith, and Dutilleux. At least Dutilleux only died this year. Only one student out of ten chose to play his Trois Strophes.

Violinists have Paganini. Cellists have Piatti. This is a sad state of affairs. In both cases these pieces are only charming (if one can use that word in this context) when they appear entirely effortless on the part of the performer. Performers who can play the big Ps effortlessly do not necessarily have great interpretative insights in other works. When these pieces are compulsory in the first round of a competition, many musicians are eliminated who might have great interpretative insights in later rounds.

In all seriousness, do we really want today’s (and tomorrow’s) soloists to still be playing only the Dvorak, Elgar, and Schumann concerti?

This is not a plea to make everyone play music written today and yesterday, but just a little reality check. It’s the twenty-first century and this is a competition in the capital city of Germany, Europe’s classical music mecca, and one would think that its requirements would be in touch with today’s actual musical reality. When I was a kid there were maybe three major cello soloists out there. Now you can’t throw a stone without hitting one (especially if you live in Berlin). Should they all go around playing Dvorak, Schumann, and Elgar for the rest of their lives?

Non-musicians, a quick survey: if you could listen to more than three pieces of music in your life, would you? Oh, sorry, I forgot. You listen to music all the time and don’t even notice it’s on because it’s all for free.

I understand the pedagogical motives for holding a competition: introduce ‘unbiased’ judges, outside professionals, into the conservatory. Make students practice harder to win small monetary prizes which, when divided by number of hours spent practicing for it, would not equal half the proposed minimum wage in this country. Show public what talented youth it is supporting with its taxes.
And then the reality: is this performance experience? Playing in a room for five professional cellists, then as a reward playing one or two pieces in a big hall that is three-fourths empty? Can’t we do better than this?

Non-musicians, audience members: do you remember the last time you heard live music? Do you remember whether every note was executed perfectly, whether every word was sung in tune? Would you know if it wasn’t? Did you trek all the way across town to a bar or an arena or a concert hall just to make sure perfection was happening, to make sure it sounded just like it did on your iPod?

Musicians, music students: the answer is no. They came to receive the energy you can only get from live performance. They came to have a human experience, with other humans. They came to see what you, what YOU, as an individual, can give them through your music, whether it’s pop or soul or Beethoven or Boulez. It’s up to you to show them what distinguishes live music from live streaming.

And that’s why I hope to not have to judge a competition again anytime soon.

4 Responses to What I think of competitions

  1. Speaking as an audience member, I can only confirm that I actually dislike it when it sounds like on the iPod. It kind of steals the reality out of the listening experience. The happiest moments are when artists try something new on a song, when you can witness the creative process, may the outcome sound perfect or not.
    And it is very true, at least for me, that the personality of the artist is of highest importance for the joy of listening. I cannot enjoy music interpreted technically perfect by an artist I do not like on a personal level, and some of my favorite artists are far from perfection, but they have an eternal place in my heart for being such lovely humans. It may sound safe for an artist to hide behind technical perfection, but true affection of the audience is rather based on the personality of the artist. Once you have opened their heart, they will readily accompany you in whatever you try out in growing musically, and eventually they grow with you.
    In that sense, I am very excited about the concert of the Ensemble Modern next Sunday, where I will probably find new delightful aspects of contemporary music, that I would not know about, if it weren’t for the personality of Elena Cheah. Thank you.

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