A Healthy Approach to Competitions

By: Edna Landau

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‘Tis the season to perform in a competition. A little over two weeks ago, the American Pianists Association announced that pianist Sean Chen is the winner of the 2013 Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship, valued at over $100,000. As I write this column, 63 candidates are performing in the first round of the Queen Elisabeth Piano Competition in Brussels. And just a little over two weeks from now, 30 candidates who have qualified for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will give their first performances in Ft. Worth, Texas. I have written before on this blog about the pros and cons of competitions and have written a Musical America Special Report called Choosing the Best Competition for YOU”. Still, the topic continues to interest me. In looking at the brief bios of the candidates on the Van Cliburn Competition website, I was struck by the fact that most of them had entered a significant number of competitions in the past and very few had won a first prize in a major international competition. This would seem logical since if they had, they probably wouldn’t have felt the need to enter the Van Cliburn Competition. Yet I wondered how they found the strength to proceed from one competition to the next with the optimism and mental fortitude necessary to maximize their chances for success. It occurred to me that maybe they weren’t entering only to win a top prize but perhaps there were other important goals they hoped to achieve in the process. I decided to speak with Sean Chen and to his good friend Steven Lin, a winner of the 2012 Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition. Both are candidates in the upcoming Van Cliburn Competition, even though they have won several years of management services and concert bookings as part of their recent top prizes. I was amazed to hear both of them say that a major motivation to enter competitions has been the opportunity to play in big cities for large, appreciative audiences who love the classical piano repertoire. It made me sad to realize how truly rare that must be for many of today’s most promising artists. The competition becomes a welcome excursion away from the isolation of the practice room and into a stimulating and exciting environment in which their hard work may culminate in their first significant recognition as a compelling artist. Sean Chen actually compared today’s larger competitions to a festival where participants often get a chance to listen to one another, something he finds most beneficial. He didn’t see any reason to be discouraged if he didn’t come out on top, as long as he played his best and communicated his musical ideas as he intended. He also appreciates that APA, along with other competitions, offers cash prizes to all finalists. Steven Lin told me that more than once, in his experience, audience members have come forward to offer concert engagements that weren’t part of the official prizes. When he reached the semi-finals of the Dublin International Piano Competition in 2009, he was approached by a French professor who offered him a concert at the Salle Cortot in Paris, where he has already returned several times. Both pianists mentioned the appeal of being able to play with major orchestras, as Steven Lin did when he played with the Baltimore Symphony in the finals of the William Kapell International Competition.

I was curious to know if there was a reason that both pianists achieved particular success in their most recent competition outings. Sean Chen’s triumph with the American Pianists Association may be due in part to the unique nature of their Fellowship program. Pressure doesn’t mount over the course of the final week since the five finalists have actually performed in various formats over the course of seven months! From the time they are selected from a pool of nominees, they each individually spend two separate weeks in Indianapolis performing in the APA’s “Classical Premiere Series” and “Classical Discovery Week”. The first of these includes a three-day residency that involves teaching and playing with a high school orchestra, an adjudicated public solo recital, and a concerto with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. The second week, during which the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellow is selected, includes adjudicated solo recitals, a chamber music performance, a new music performance and a song recital, as well as a concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. This creates more of an Artist-in-Residence environment than a competitive one. President/CEO and Artistic Director Joel Harrison told me that the APA has gone to great lengths to downplay the idea of participants going head to head in competition but rather to focus on individual artistic expression. Perhaps that is why he becomes personally involved in the finalists’ repertoire decisions. Sean Chen feels that his repertoire choices may have factored into his ultimate success, along with the fact that his confidence and artistic maturity would seem to have grown with each competition experience. He took distinct risks in Indianapolis, performing his own cadenzas in Beethoven’s 4th concerto, offering his own transcription of Ravel’s La Valse in one of his recitals, and choosing Bartok’s challenging Concerto #2 for his performance with the Indianapolis Symphony. Dr. Harrison supported these choices all the way. Steven Lin agrees that you learn from each competition you enter. One imagines that nerves will never be a problem for him after he completed his preliminary round performance at the 2012 Sendai International Music Competition while an earthquake struck Japan! He feels that he may have won the Concert Artists Guild competition because he changed his focus from practicing intensely to finding his inner voice. He was helped in this process by listening to recordings of old masters such as Richter, Cortot and Horowitz and realizing that no one would ever mistake one for another. (At competitions, it is not uncommon for a number of artists to sound the same.) He also mentioned that Concert Artists Guild required some public speaking, which he found immensely helpful. He thought a lot about what to say regarding the repertoire he had chosen and he feels that his remarks may have put him at ease and involved the audience more in his musicmaking.

And now, on to Ft. Worth, Texas, where Steven Lin, Sean Chen, and three other APA finalists will compete in the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Both Concert Artists Guild and APA have given them their blessings, recognizing the enormous potential benefits of additional exposure. I asked Steven and Sean whether they felt they were taking any sort of risk after their recent triumphs. Steven said that he is approaching it as another opportunity to perform in front of many people who will now be introduced to him, and to make the best music he can. His goal is to express himself as an artist and to communicate how he feels about the repertoire he is playing. He feels that people go to concerts to experience many different things and that if he and his very gifted co-competitors succeed in being true to themselves, everyone will have benefited from the experience (though he did say that winning a prize would be awesome!). Sean totally concurred with this, saying that most people who follow competitions know that there are many factors that determine who wins. He likened the outing to golf, saying that one can only hope to play one’s best. Both he and Steven are aware that the management services that are provided by APA and CAG will be for a limited time and the chances of obtaining commercial management in the future could potentially be enhanced by their performances in Ft. Worth. In speaking to them about the years that lie ahead, I was heartened to learn that they are both deeply dedicated to music education and that they have well-rounded lives with considerable interests. I feel confident that they will transition from the competition stage of their lives into richly rewarding careers, during which audiences will choose to hear them again and again simply because of the wonderful musicians and people that they are.

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© Edna Landau 2013

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