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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 8

Searching for the Next Star

by Lucie Renaud / May 1, 2011

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From May 24 to June 3, the hearts of Montreal music-lovers will beat to the rhythm of the Montreal International Music Competition which, in 10 years, has become impossible to overlook. This year, 161 pianists from 30 different countries submitted their applications in January, 24 of which (8 women and 16 men, 4 Canadians) will attempt to seduce a jury that has seen—and heard—it all.

The Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen, soloist, chamber musician and professor at the prestigious Indiana University, is fully aware that the situation has evolved since his victory and the Busoni International Competition in 1972. Although concert societies in large cities are struggling or have completely broken down due to lack of support, the number of young musicians embracing the idea of turning professional is paradoxically increasing. “Competitions are still the best place to be heard, to stand out. How are you going to make a career for yourself otherwise?” he explains. “If you are rich, you can rent a hall and pay an orchestra. You can also be the protégé of a famous figure in the music industry, like a conductor, who will invite you to play across the globe. You can also be a genius like Evgeny Kissin who, at 13, was already playing Chopin’s two concertos remarkably. Other than that, you can take part in a competition where the prize isn’t nearly as important as being discovered.”

Grand prize winner at the Long-Thibauld International Competition in 1969 and at the Cziffra competition the following year, Jean-Phillipe Collard will also stand on the other side of the mirror this time, after having broadcast for Espace musique in 2004. “When I arrived a few years ago, I told myself that I was much better off behind the microphone! Of course I will try to be kind, but I will keep in the back of my mind that, unfortunately, we will have to declare winners. Outside the box, the competition shouldn’t be seen as something conclusive. First, it would have to be renamed as something other than competition. It should be a celebration, following which the jury favours one artist or another. A career is built, as is a relationship with the audience. We shouldn’t foster any illusions about the future. Love of music is not the same as love of the spotlight.”

Arnold Cohen believes that the grand-prize laureate already possess all the necessary assets for a successful career, both in terms of stage experience and the ability to play with an orchestra. “The problem with our profession is that it always entails a meeting with inspiration, yet you only get one chance. You have worked for thousands of hours and you are given one recital. So many things can go wrong—that’s the brutal side of the job.”

It is taken for granted that all the selected candidates will have impeccable technique, full sound and understanding of the chosen works. “It’s important to remember that music is an alternate language that lets you express yourself,” he reminds us. “It is a mix of skill and emotion, and you can’t have one without the other. If you don’t have the necessary skill, your emotions become chaotic, and we won’t understand what you’re conveying. But if you only think about your sound of style, what will your soul be saying?”

Jean-Phillipe shares this natural vision of musical listening. “I am much more sensitive to people who give a more natural performance than to those who will deliver a perfect execution, with lots of work involved and often very well thought-out,” he explains. “The nature of a musician is something that they can develop themselves, that they cannot learn because it doesn’t exist. If I get the impression that the pianist is creating moments which stem from his deepest nature, I may not be 100% seduced but I will certainly be very attentive.” The emotion felt at the hands of a candidate that jury had not retained during his last appearance at the MIMC remains vivid: “Seven years later, I remember his approach towards piano and the instants of pure music that this young man shared.”

Open-mindedness is an essential element. “You must be sufficiently generous and open your ears, be ready to listen to a performers point of view rather than judging them according to your own. I think this transforms the whole experience into a fascinating process,” considers Cohen. “For us, on the other side of the barrier, it is enriching to hear all these young men and women,” adds Collard, “it’s a perpetual quest. Everything I will hear over the competition will inevitably portray some of these works in a different light and expose me to other ways of experiencing music. I am also coming to Montreal to enrich myself, not only to give opinions, but to enjoy listening to great music, even if, at one moment or another, I will have to submit my evaluation. Until that moment, it will be a musical feast; there will be surprises in the repertoire, schools, and we will be exposed to a fantastic piano panorama. As a member of the jury, I will sit down and feast...while feeling on vacation, because I won’t have to play!”

[Translation: Catherine Hine]

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