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The piano competition of the future?

Honens International Piano Competition 2012 announces its search for not just a pianist, but a "complete artist".

New Statesman
(Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

“It should be a requirement for entry to the Honens Piano Competition that you’ve had at least one bad break-up,” says president and artistic director Stephen McHolm, only partially in jest. “If you haven’t fallen in love and had your heart broken how can you play half this repertoire?”

It’s unorthodox criteria, certainly, for a piano competition – events that have traditionally been seen as a simple battle of technical might – but somehow strangely persuasive. Based in Calgary, Canada’s prairie-city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, most famous for its annual Stampede rodeo, Honens is as far in context from the metropolitan competitions of Russia and Europe as it is possible to imagine. At a geographical distance from the conventions and values of the more established events, Honens has seemingly also found the ideological space to set itself apart.

Founded in 1991, with its first competition taking place in 1992, Honens is one of the youngest piano competitions in the world, battling against the prestigious and long-established likes of the Queen Elizabeth (founded 1938), Chopin Competition (1927) Tchaikovsky (1958) and our own Leeds (1961). It is also however the most remunerative, offering the single largest prize of any competition – a $100,000 cash award to the winner, coupled with three years of career development estimated at a further $500,000.

But these big numbers are the only really macho element of a competition whose ideals and aims are otherwise nuanced, prioritising musicianship over pure virtuosity, curiosity over straight capability in the search not just for a pianist but for a “Complete Artist”.

A browse through the competition handbook yields this definition: “The Complete Artist is the whole package – a sensitive musician, a consummate collaborator, an awe-inspiring virtuoso, a communicator, a dreamer, an explorer…he/she inspires the heart and engages the intellect.” It’s a tall order for any musician to achieve, let alone those 20-30 year-old pianists eligible for the competition. But, as McHolm explains, searching for a Complete Artist is not the same thing as demanding to find one ready-made.

“We’re not expecting to find a musician who is already fully formed, who is already the Complete Artist,” he explains. “That would be naïve. But we are looking for musicians that are informed, not just about piano literature, but about music as a whole, and also the visual arts and literature. We want to find interesting people, because if you are an interesting person that will translate into the music.”

The 2012 competition, whose finals took place in Calgary last week, saw this theory tested by a group of 10 finalists – pianists from Australia to Ukraine, Russia to South Korea. These 10 had been chosen by a lengthy series of earlier rounds, designed to showcase not only the technical skills of the performers but their ability to conceive an interesting recital programme, and – most unusually – their work as a chamber musician, accompanying and collaborating with both instrumentalists and singers.

It’s an ambitious series of demands, and one that consciously swims against the conventional current of thought that would identify the skills for a great piano soloist as almost directly opposed to those of a great accompanist or chamber musician. Detractors could cite any number of internationally revered pianists who would have been eliminated by this round, but according to juror Aleksandar Madzar this way of thinking is a luxury we can no longer afford. He argues that “while 20 or 30 years ago soloists could just produce recital programmes, today’s performers are expected to come up with fresh ideas and collaborations. Musical life is now very much geared towards flexibility, towards people having many different roles.”

This holistic practicality, keeping an eye on the living, working experience of being a pianist, runs through every aspect of the Honens process. Gone are the days when a competition win could guarantee a career; pianists are created differently in the digital age, leaving piano competitions feeling like the increasingly dusty historical hangover of an earlier age. If they wish to survive with any relevance they must evolve. But does Honens offer the model for the future?

I think there’s a good chance that it might. There’s a self-selecting element to the Honens competition; its diverse and demanding rounds discourage any casual applications from pianists working their way around the competition circuit, the raised lower age-limit takes the teenage prodigies with interpretations shaped by imitation rather than intellect out of contention. There’s an emphasis on music-making rather than pure performance that puts attention back where it should be – on the repertoire rather than the artist.

After his fresh and occasionally whimsical performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, there’s every reason to hope that this year’s winner Pavel Kolesnikov will grow during his three years as a Honens Laureate. Whether he truly becomes a Complete Artist will rely as much on his professional priorities and choices as his skills, but his post-finals declaration that he is now done with competitions, and that “music is not a sport”, suggests that Honens have indeed found a musician who will embody their values.

The challenge from here onwards lies with Honens itself. Having focused so thoroughly on building the careers and brand of their laureates over the past two decades the competition must now look to itself. With literally hundreds of competitions taking place annually across the world, each must fight to secure not only its place in the hierarchy but also the best competitors. McHolm’s entrepreneurial approach has seen Honens fundamentally reworked, building its appeal not only financially but also educationally, as satellite events, workshops and career-development elements have all taken an increased role.

With these enticements, as well as a jury of active career musicians, hopefully Honens can continue to raise its profile, drawing a pool of performers equal to the prize. This year’s finals saw two outstanding young musicians – 23 year-old Kolesnikov and 22 year-old South Korean Jong-Hai Park – compete, either of whom could have made a deserving winner. When the competition next returns in 2015 it would be wonderful to see five such musicians in the finals.