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.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear