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Managers: Do Competitions Matter? (or not)
By George Loomis
May 1, 2012
If being on the roster of an artist management firm is key to having a successful career, then how important is it to a manager that an artist be a competition winner? Would it be the deciding factor in whether to sign someone? Three different managers specializing in three different kinds of artists—instrumentalists, vocalists, and conductors—discuss the importance (or not) of competing, especially for younger artists.
Patricia Winter, Senior Vice President Opus 3 Artists
Musical America: Pianist Daniil Trifonov is on the Opus 3 roster. Is that because he won the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition?
Patricia Winter: No, we’d been following him from before and were already very impressed by him. It wasn’t as if no one knew who he was, but when he won he leapt to people’s
We had also been following the cello winner, Narek Hakhnazaryan, and when he won we wanted to take him on.
MA: Does that mean you would sign someone on the basis of a competition win?
Winter: A competition win is just one factor. Very recently we took on Haochen Zhang, not so much because he was one of two gold medalists at the Cliburn in 2009, but because he convinced us musically and we wanted to further his career.
MA: Have you ever recommended to someone that s/he enter a competition?
Winter: It was obvious from the time she was 14 that Joyce Yang was a major talent. You couldn’t exactly say she was stagnating five years later, but I thought the Cliburn might be
MA: She won the Silver at the 2005 Cliburn, as I recall.
Winter: Right, plus she was the most popular pianist at the Competition. It’s not just the top winners who get all the attention. Lots of people who don’t win can receive big career boosts.
MA: What factors should a young artist consider in deciding whether to enter a competition?
Winter: Stakes are high and they need to think carefully about what is involved in preparing for it. Is the competition’s repertoire appealing? Competitors have to work really, really hard to prepare.
MA: Is it important for young artists to have a competition win on their résumés?
Winter: Not really. There are tons who haven’t won competitions. Among our artists, Yo-Yo Ma, Sarah Chang, Midori, Jonathan Biss, and Alisa Weilerstein immediately come to mind.
MA: How impressed are presenters by competition winners?
Winter: It depends on the presenter and the series. Some like to promote winners—it can be a great marketing tool. But among those who really know, competitions aren’t that important. The Philadelphia Orchestra is not going to engage someone just because he or she won a competition.
Musical America: When is the best time for an artist to enter a competition?
Bruce Zemsky: Competitions can be very helpful at the very beginning of a career. Timing is important. When you’re just starting out, there’s no real downside
MA: That implies that there’s a downside…?
Zemsky: For singers who have already sung around and have reputations, a poor showing could work against them. Exposure can be great—the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World is televised for a whole week—but the flipside is you might not be in good voice.
MA: Let’s say I’m just starting out and thinking about entering a competition. How do I choose one over another?
Zemsky: You should consider the composition of the jury—it’s very important.
Zemsky: Meaning you want a good cross-section of people who are significant players in the field.
MA: Is that something I can find out in advance?
Zemsky: Yes. Most competitions will let you know up front who is on the panel. It can be crucial in getting exposure and confidence, apart from the prizes.
MA: What would you say to a singer who doesn’t come in first?
Zemsky: Don’t be disappointed. So many factors enter into the decision. Think of the 1999 Operalia Competition. Rolando Villazón, Joseph Calleja, and Giuseppe Filianoti all competed, but
MA: If one of your artists wins a competition does that make it easier to book him or her?
Zemsky: Maybe a little, but I can’t think of a theater that would hire just on the basis of a competition.
MA: So on what basis do they hire?
Zemsky: For singers, auditions are more often the determining factor than for instrumentalists.
MA: So is entering a competition good practice for auditions?
Zemsky: Performing, auditioning, and entering competitions require three different skill sets.
MA: How much does personality matter in a competition?
Zemsky: It matters. A really great personality can capture the affection of the public. The Francisco Viñas International Singing Competition in Barcelona and the Operalia Competition give
MA: If you could change one thing about competitions, what would it be?
Zemsky: I’d like to see prizes going to people who really need them, to be awarded at the right time in a singer’s career when he or she can benefit from
Musical America: I gather you’re not too keen on conducting competitions. Why?
Linda Marks: Competitions are a very difficult way to judge people and very artificial. Compared to instrumental or vocal competitions, conducting competitions give a less complete picture of the qualities an artist needs. And they are relative—someone may win but not be exceptional.
MA: So how do you evaluate a conductor, if not through competitions?
Marks: It’s better to follow them in rehearsals and concerts. Watching young conductors take over something on relatively short notice can be very telling and show their ability to work with
MA: Would you ever recommend to a young conductor that s/he enter a competition?
Marks: I never have. I’d rather have them do master classes with a great teacher. But sometimes it’s the only way to get going. It can be a way to progress. There are some good competitions—the Besançon Competition and the Sibelius Competition. Interestingly, we manage several Finnish conductors, but many Finns don’t go in for the Sibelius. It’s better for them to study with Jorma Panula.
MA: How important is personality?
Marks: It’s very important. A conductor can be terribly musical and have a great technique, but orchestras won’t like it if he talks too much. Conductors need to be
MA: Can you judge that from watching a competition performance?
Marks: Personality can come through in a competition. But there are so many attributes a conductor must have that a competition can’t reveal—authority, charm, humility, exceptional musicality,
MA: What about physical appearance?
Marks: Also important. Good hands, elegance and fluidity of movement. And they need to look natural, young ones are often rather stiff.
MA: Would you ever sign someone just on the basis of a competition win?
Marks: I can’t remember taking on anyone just because of a competition, but I wouldn’t rule it out. We have taken on a number of competition winners but not immediately. We like to follow
MA: I take it you don’t regard a competition win as essential to advancement for a young conductor.
Marks: Most of our conductors actually haven’t been competition winners. There’s no substitute for good teaching and mentoring.
George Loomis has more than 25 years’ experience writing about music in the U.S. and abroad, with a focus on Russia. In addition to MusicalAmerica.com his articles have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, Opera News, The New York Times, The Moscow Times, and The St. Petersburg Times, among others. A former lawyer, he is a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Music and its Law School and holds a Ph.D. in music history from Yale University.
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