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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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.