Competition and authenticity - From being candidate to being juror

„Wettbewerbe“ (St.Petersburg 11.Nov.2012): inhaltliche Vorbereitungsskizze zum Thema

Thüring Bräm

Competition and authenticity

From being candidate to being juror

Being candidate

I cannot judge what candidates feel nowadays, when they go to competitions, although I have made my observations over the last almost 50 years of my professional life. So I take myself as my best and only true case study and try to develop some kind of theoretical model through my observations on others later.

I hated competitions and I hated so called ‚Vortragsübungen’, ‚training concerts’ for little kids in music schools, where the director or his substitute, the teacher and the parents smiled at you with this benevolent faked smile, when everybody really felt most uncomfortable, because what they heard was usually the helpless trial of the pupil to present him-or herself in order to be judged by adults. These adults wanted to see, if I had done my homework and fullfilled their wishes. In the local music school I had to present myself in the age of 11 with in a stinky and narrow room with about six others in or around my age, where I was judged by the director and a special expert (both over 60) and the teacher plus about 8 parents all sitting along the wall of a 15m2 room while the victims had to stand for the whole time with their instruments in their hands. That was my violin eperience. Of course, I had not done my homework, because the objective of that situation had nothing to do with music and I had played instruments since my first lessons with 5 or 6 for the music’s sake and not to prove something to others about myself.

While I was taught piano in that early age by my father who was a good player but not a musician by profession, I was free of all institutional – one would say today – quality management -. I played because I wanted to play, I wanted to learn – and – as a competitive motivation I wanted to play on the two pianos we had at home as soon as possible with my brother, who was five years older, or my father the great literature for two pianos. I arranged some house concerts for my family for fun (I always liked to ‚compose’ programs). I loved to give little concerts, but it had to be the ‚real’ thing and not some pedagogical experiments.

That was my background when I decided in the second year of my professional studies with 21 to apply to my first real competition, the ARD-Competition in Munich where I had spotted a piano sight-reading section. Sight-reading was my strength and came out of my ambition to practice as little as possible (and somewhat out of an insight that if one knew the pianistic formulas of the last 300 years technically well enough, one wouldn’t have to practise too much, because everything in the major-minor system of the tonality belonged to the same system: If one knew the more or less limited amount of movements well enough, one just had to learn the different stylistic aspects and then could play anything one wanted without practising the pieces for hours). This somewhat naive attitude came later to a stop, when I saw that I would have to practice Boulez’ second piano sonata for a year in order to arrive perhaps to a decent result and that was part of the reason why I decided later that I was not made for a piano career. Playing over and over again the same pieces would have been pretty boring (with some few exceptions like the Well-Tempered Piano or some of the Beethoven-Sonatas). Going back to the ARD competition: I did not expect anything, I just wanted to try out in order to know where I was standing.

I got to the second round and ended up among the last seven candidates, but struggled a bit with a handwritten piece by Frank Martin who was in the jury. I had never played manuscripts other than my own ones before. So that threw me out. But contrary to what I expected I had some new experiences:

I realized that I was good enough to compete with others. I became acquainted with interesting international colleagues. I got inspired to learn Italian. I was immersed with all the other competitions (especially the one for string quartet) in an ocean of classical music, I composed two pieces of my own out of a trance of sound.

Why did I get inspired to learn Italian? The second prize winner was a woman from Naples, older than me. I waited at a tram stop in pouring rain for my tram when she approached. I wanted to talk to her, but I stumbled over my few words I knew from the Italian workers in Basel and from my first musicological studies of baroque Italian opera. So my little Italian I know nowadays has its roots in that meeting, because I decided to learn more in order to be able to talk to educated people of my field in their language. At that time I hadn’t succeeded.

After I came back I told my teacher about my participation at the famous competition. He was quite amazed, that I made it to the second round. He wouldn’t have allowed me to go to an international competition yet, but he showed signs of being pleased. And I had gained self-confidence and had learned that it payed to have courage. Through a musicalised environment a whole new world had opened up. Playing had to be existential. And there was not one right interpretation, there could be many ways to play a piece.

My second big international competition was the Dimitri Mitropoulos-Competition 1971 in New York. There I learned how to study fast an impossible number of works. I learned that you had to be able to learn an ‚easy’ piece like a symphony by Mozart or Haydn in a weekend and a more difficult piece like Debussy’s ‚La Mer’ in a week. Otherwise you should forget any chance of successfully advancing in this profession. And above all I learned that apart of all skill and knowledge that was required there were some other elements if you wanted to follow a career: rules of business and belonging to lobbys. Living with a broker of New York City just above Central Park was an incredible experience for a young person from a small country. Switzerland was a high level banking country and knew at that time how to deal with money. Unfortunately she did not know how to deal with culture. Usually there was one participant per country admitted except for bigger countries. I was the participant of Switzerland and felt pretty proud about that. Not for long. At an oppulent reception dinner I saw that I was totally abandoned from any lobby that could have helped me on an international level. While all the other candidates were in contact with their diplomatic representatives I hovered around between the marvellously lush buffets, not knowing how to put myself into contact with anybody until a tall man approached me and asked me: ‚You seem to be lonely. Where are you from?’‚Switzerland’,I said.’And where is your representative?’’Representative?’ I said, ‚I have no representative.’. ‚You mean, there is nobody from your embassy?’ I said: ‚Not that I know of.’ ?’Ok then, I am the British ambassador, I will take care of you.’

Switzerland was the only nation of all the participating candidates that was not present.I felt ashamed.

So I learned that being a successful conductor is also a task within society. And I learned that apart of your skill and your musicality you have to have a lobby to succeed. And musically it was already worth to participate because I had the chance to conduct for twenty minutes at Carnegie Hall!

My last big international competition was the Malev Conducting Competition in Budapest in 1975. Again there were totally new aspects. This time I was not student anymore who had more or less time to devote for preparing 15 pieces in 3 months. I had already a very busy job. But the new aspects offered new interesting learning experiences. Since all the rounds were filmed for TV you could see also visually what you had done. And you had to get tough with yourself, having this objective control. I had also for the first time the chance to talk to one of the jurors afterwards who could still more or less remember what I had shown. The Finnish member of the jury told me that I was too modest, too bland, that I needed more musical profile. Tough, but enormously helpful. It was also a human experience among the colleagues: While nobody talked to each other before, we started helping each other psycholgically after the first round . A friend of mine from the US made it to the final round and suffered under the stress of the pressure enormously. Since I was out, I was free to advise him and be there for all his problems. And one thing, nobody can understand nowadays anymore: I was 31 years old and saw for the first time in my life two people from the Sovjetunion! They were real people! During the Cold War there was no contact and there was also no desire for a contact between the West and the East. One of them was a blond and impressive guy, very much suited for television (now quite a successful conductor). The other-one –just as gifted – looked like Einstein and the Hungarian orchestra treated him very badly by pretending not to understand Russian. I couldn’t converse with them but at the final evening we drank together and shouted „Mozart“ – ah!!!- „Beethoven“-„Tchaikovsky!“. It showed me that even if you don’t talk the same language and if you are in a cold war, there are levels in communication, if there is a common topic to share.

So,even when on the level of ranking there was nothing successful about this competition - from what I have heard later about the winners they were not in a better standing in their career than I – but there was a big gain: It was the networking with colleagues that was very important: With two of the candidates I was later still in contact and exchange: We invited each other to conduct at our places .

Being juror

Later in life, let’s say from 40 on, you know, that stepping up the ladder depends on your steady professional work and also on your human development – yes and a little bit on luck, if you can combine artistic and ‚private’ life in a successful way. It depends more on that than having won several competitions. You will find out that we do not need more than 10 famous pianists to feed the world market and you may not be one of them. And you start developing other skills, you will take over cultural and social responsibilities for the society in general and you will become – juror. Now I am not going to talk in this context about the numerous examinations as the head of a professional school where you have to judge and rate and rank your students according to all kinds of criteria. I will limit myself to two fields of jury work which I have done for years now. One contained projects of music and art’s research and the other was concerned with music competitions in performance and compostition. The combination of the two brings me to the conclusion I will formulate at the end of this column.

When you generally talk about a classical music competition, people will usually think immediately of the grand piano competitions, maybe also of violin competitions and certainly of singing contests. These are the great fields for the gladiators of classical music. That’s where the small crew of big stars is going to be started and where the business is interested in because there is money involved. They are founded in deep 19th century virtuoso thinking. However, during the last sixty years many new fields of competitions have arisen, but they are less attractive for business, because they center less on the artistic vituoso aspect. They probably wouldn’t qualify for the big World Championships, because they don’t cause the same thrill for the public than the single fighter’s exposure, where the arena is filled with blood and the thumb-up or thumb-down of the jury means success or death. Chamber Music, choral or composition competitions or competitions for New Music belong into another category. A juror from Warsaw with whom I had a fervent discussion in a chamber music competition said: „This here seems to me rather a festive gathering, sharing music than a real competition. I have been in the Warsaw piano competition as a juror and that is a real fight“. First he meant it as a criticism, but then I felt I might convince him,that a real feast of music and the learning from each other could be just another and more fruitful aspect than the big fight.

So when we talk about judging music competitions we have also to consider the cultural environment and the purpose and the composition of the jury.

If one has a jury of so called ‚insiders’, who may invite each other from one place to the other, one creates a canon of what kind of interpretation is expected on a technical and a musical and sometimes also on a visual level. I do not say that the jurors are by principal partisan (although there are examples for that), but there is by nature a subjective element in a judgment that cannot and therefore should not be excluded in the judgment. That’s why there are usually several judges from different schools and aethetics on a jury. It has been often discussed, that one purpose of a competition is to promote your own students. And this could end in rating them either unreasonably high or sometimes also unreasonably low – depending on the artistic culture you come from. Michèle Lamont, a professor of Harvard University, wrote a noteworthy book about the world of academic judgement, which in many points may be transfered also to the world of artistic judgment („How Professors Think“, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2009).: „Peers monitor the flow of people and ideas through the various gates of the academic (in our case: artistic) community. But because academia (also the art world?) is not democratic, some peers are given more of a voice than others and serve as gatekeepers more often than others. Still, different people guard different gates, so gatekeepers are themselves subject to evaluation at various times.“ (pg 2) So e.g. the French pianist Guy says: „The jurors are the people who ‚know’. They have a kind of musical code and if you are not connected to this code, you have no chance“. Charles Rosen says about the selection of a jury: „Teachers don’t like to hear an interpretation that is different from the way they teach a piece....Composers and conductors on a jury will almost always be more open“.

But then, one has to consider also, what Gustav Alink, president of the Alink-Argerich Foundation said: „It is remarkable to see how emotional people can be at competitions..., especially about the results. Even the jury members themselves! When hearing some of them talk, it is difficult to believe that their judgment is impartial“. „But then, there is no such thing as objectivity in music. Thank God for that. Music is art, and every judgment on art is bound to be subjective – except when one chooses to consider purely technical aspects of a performance“.

(Alink, Rosen and Guy from: Johnson, Michael. „Behind the Scenes at Piano Competitions“ Facts&Arts. 10 June 2009)

This is surely true, but there are still some objective points in judging a performance, but they differ also from the topic of the competition. In several chamber music competitions, where I had the honor and the pleasure to take part as a juror, there were serious discussions, because often some excellent players get together for a couple of months and compete with some technically less experienced players who have worked for a long time together. The result is often, that the latter play better as an ensemble than three or four soloists who play brilliantly but without reacting to each other. The result is in this case often a parallel performance of virtuoso players who haven’t understood that especially in chamber music the hierarchy and leadership in the group changes between the participants according to the demands of the piece. And here it often happens that one gets the impression that the style of the piece has not been analysed enough. Authenticity is in this case not only an individual dimension, but there is also an authenticity of the group. And this authenticity comes not only out of a mutual understandig within the group, but also of the understanding of the style the performed work belongs to. Thus pure individual self-fulfillment is not the key to an excellent performance.

For a juror who has to judge if a candidate or a group in whatever field may be ready to reach the public is a very important factor, if the performer conveys a feeling of authenticity. Is the performer or are the performers convinced of what they are doing, is the performance ‚existential’, have they reflected about the contents of the piece, have they come to a cognitive and emotional result they can convey and communicate to a public, so that something like a ‚communion’ can take place? Jeremy Eichler quotes the violinist Christian Tetzlaff in his article „String Theorist“ (The New Yorker, Aug.27,2012) as saying: „ And that’s what the concert situation is about for me, when I’m sitting in the hall and also when I’m playing myself. It’s about communication – I almost want to say ‚communion’. As a player, you really don’t interpret anymore. You listen, together, with the audience“.

Prof. Klaus Scherer of the University of Geneva, a researcher of emotion psychology tries to approach the emotional part of public reaction to opera singers with an interesting new argumentation (in „The singer’s paradox. On authenticity in emotional expression on the opera stage“ to appear in Cochrane, T., Fantini,B., Scherer, K.R, (Eds): The emotional power of music Oxford University Press 2013):

He distinguishes between two separate determinants of emotional expression:

„1) internal push factors, which „push“ the expression characteristics in a certain direction due to the effect of psychological changes underlying emotional arousal, and 2) external pull factors, which „pull“ the emotional expression towards a specific target pattern as a result of socio-cultural conventions“.

One could say that if there is a balance between the two factors on an emotional as well as on a cognitive level, that we reach a perception of what we call authenticity in performance. And the degree of balance between these two factors brings a jury in an ideal case to judge, if a performance is ready to go out to a larger public. In any branch of competition.

ThB, Basel, Nov 4 2012