The piano competition of the future?

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

“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.

(Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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