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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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit