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32 Virtuosos. 1 Passion.
Next Competition July 2020

Blog #5 from Kathron Sturrock

Announcement release date 27-Jul-2016

The Competition is over

I had meant to write a newsletter after the first two finals nights but somehow the time got away from me - at the start of the competition the days seemed to be unfolding at a leisurely pace, but after the semi-finals were over an accelerandoset in: by the time the finals arrived the days seemed to be careering towards the finishing line, mixed in with a sense of – almost – inertia….as if one was trying but helpless to stop this amazing competition from coming to an end.

It was a very intense workload for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the two conductors, Benjamin Northey and Nicholas Milton. With six finalists, each playing two concertos, these all had to be scheduled in with the orchestra’s designated hours. It is too expensive nowadays to factor in overtime, so all six Mozart concertos - and, on the second rehearsal day, all six big romantic concertos - had to be fitted exactly into the two sessions, 10.00-12.30, and then 1.30-4.00. As I said in the last newsletter I went to most of the sessions, only having to miss a couple as it clashed with a piano rehearsal – and it was a lesson in productive use of rehearsal time.

This was easier to achieve in the Mozart concertos, as none of them are terribly long, and there was space to do a few bits again and have a discussion without too much pressure – but for the second concertos it was a different matter. Just in the matter of length there was already a problem, as both Rachmaninoff 2 and Prokofiev 3 are around 40 mins, and Brahms 2 comes in at closer to 50. Saint-Saens 2 was the shortest, around half an hour, so that was easier to deal with, but it was hard for both pianist and conductor not to feel rushed. Clearly, just a runthrough was as much as could be achieved, though the players dealt with this admirably, on the surface at least, and all of them had a chance to talk things through afterwards with the conductor.

On each day of the finals there was a further orchestral rehearsal for the three finalists playing that evening, this time in the Opera House, a very different acoustic from the hall in the ABC radio where the first rehearsals had been held. Piers Lane, the festival director, went to all of these, and was able to give the competitors feedback on balance, and other ideas if they asked – I heard that this personal contact was much appreciated, which was rewarding as one of the aims had been to offset the inevitable feelings of displacement and stress with a friendly and informal atmosphere.

Some of the competitors asked for several piano rehearsals, mainly because the concertos were new to them: the advantage of a pianist over a whole orchestra is that you can stop and start more easily, go over bits for memory, talk through ideas and so on. Ideally, I think, one would choose a concerto that had been well played in, as it must help when you walk out on stage to a packed house, and cameras and mikes waiting to stream your every note to an international audience. However, their repertoire might not have included the concertos on the list, which was quite narrow (as mentioned in an earlier newsletter) for many reasons: the concertos need to be varied enough to make an interesting mix for the audience, well-known enough that the orchestra didn’t have to learn a whole new concerto in two short sessions, compatible in difficulty, both technical and musical, so that the jury had a more-or-less level playing field for comparison….

Many people reading this newsletter will have been following on line, and it will I think be no surprise to anyone that the standard of playing was as every bit as high as we had come to expect over the course of the competition. It was only to be expected that there was anxiety and apprehension backstage, but all six finalists – and, indeed, all thirty-two competitors! – played with the utmost professionalism and engagement, and any nerves were admirably concealed.

I understand that it must have been a hard task for the jurors to come to their decisions – not least in the placement of the six finalists. The feeling in the audience – which was where I was for much of the time – was that Andrey Gugnin was the frontrunner, and so it proved to be – but each finalist had their adherents and followers. When the results were read out at the end the prizes included several which were given to competitors who had not reached the final: as these names were read out, there was a great deal of cheering and foot stamping, showing that there was much support for these wonderful players as well, and showing that it isn’t possible to make absolutes in a competition – there is just so much talent, and such diversity -

To underline this point, Ming Xie from China - who didn’t make the final - got probably the biggest ovation of the evening for being awarded the audience prize, voted for across the competition in the halls and online. He was certainly one of the most talked-about pianists, and this prize will have been very welcome to his many followers, as well as to Ming himself.

Nevertheless, I think from talking to the audience and other friends that the finalists’ list was seen as a fair and equitable selection, and casualties along the way are to be expected. I hope that the competitors who were not lucky in this respect will bear this in mind, and not allow their confidence to be too dented, or – at any rate – for too long.

The trouble with being a performer is that – however much one tells oneself otherwise – any rejection is personal. It has to be – a player will bring their heart and soul to the platform, and any judgement is a reflection on their very essence. Sometimes this vulnerability is what brings a special quality to a performance, but the cost is often very dear. Being resilient is one of the absolute necessities of a performer’s make-up – being able to scoop oneself off the floor and get going again. It may sound humdrum, but a lot of a performer’s life is based on things like this – developing a practical way of dealing with the demands of this difficult profession in order to be free to get on with playing the music.

As a rider to this, I would like to make a plea for competitions to make one little area easier – I don’t know what the system was here, but some competitions tell the competitors the result before the long-drawn-out session on the stage in the full glare of the spotlight. If this doesn’t happen, words like lion….arena…..gladiator ….spring to mind. I can quite see that most of the audience loves the excitement and the anticipation, and would hate to know in advance who is going to reach the top of the pyramid….and it’s possible that if the competitors were in the know they might give it away (he looks a bit glum, she’s looking all smiles etc) but surely this is a small thing to weigh up against the pain for the competitors of having to be scrutinised if they miss out on the place they hoped to win. I cannot for the life of me see what benefit this gives a player – their strength has been tested to the limit throughout the competition, and it seems unnecessary to add to this. OK. Off my soapbox.

If I may, I will end on a personal note. Early on in the competition, I got the news that my little dog had been killed in an accident back in England. I do not know how a small dachshund could take up such a huge space in my heart, but there you are – there was now a huge dachshund-shaped hole there. I was helped, eased and often made very happy the kindness of the friends I had made in Sydney at the competition. But most of all, I was helped by immersing myself in the wonderful playing of all the competitors – It really is true, that music will never, ever let you down, and the generosity of the playing I heard did more than I can say to help me keep my head up.

So I would send my thanks to everyone who was part of this great competition – and to say – until we meet again!

Kathron