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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 8

Tomorrow’s Pianists

by Lucie Renaud / May 1, 2001

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Competitions appear to be a forced rite of passage for young pianists: some submit to them willingly, others do it because they have to. Once the competition is over, life picks up where it left off, relentless work is resumed, the artists draw their conclusions, which doesn’t prevent them from having dreams for the immediate and the more distant future. Five Canadian pianists of the new generation shared their thoughts with La Scena Musicale: Katherine Chi, first prize at the Esther Honens Competition in November 2000; Mathieu Gaudet, winner of, among other things, the Harrison L. Winter Competition and the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music Concerto Competition; David Jalbert, who placed 2nd at the CBC Competition in 1999 and 4th at the Dublin International Competition, last year; Stephan Sylvestre, winner of the Prix d’Europe and the Special Canadian Music Centre Prize and Li Wang, winner of the Canadian Chopin Piano Competition in 1999, presently preparing for the CBC Competition (this month) and the Liszt Competition (in September).

When questioned about the relevance of the competitions each of them has a different response. David Jalbert speaks about his Dublin experience as having been extremely positive: “This time, unlike my experience with the CBC Competition, (see the interview in the April 2000 issue of La Scena Musicale) I didn’t feel any pressure. Each of the stages I completed came as a surprise for me.” As for Stephan Sylvestre, he considers that “competitions are unfortunately necessary to succeed in the profession. They are a stage in the learning process of every musician aspiring to an international career, a stage which can be dangerous if one’s time and choice of competitions are not carefully managed. Winning a competition by no means guarantees a long-term career. Necessary, yes, but at what cost?” Li Wang claims that the competitions are the only way to be noticed by concert organizers. In fact, he argues, in a way they even jeopardize the future of classical music. “To be able to win, you have to be tough. You have to play everything, from the baroque to the contemporary and you cannot have a strong character because if you have too much personality, half the jury will dislike you! You have to be a very good pianist but maybe not a very good musician. You have to play like a computer: fast, loud and with no mistakes. When young competition winners perform, they’re all the same! I don’t think Chopin could have won many competitions but his music is beautiful. Sadly, it is a vicious circle: today’s competition winners are tomorrow’s teachers.”

Still none of these young artists could imagine a different career from the one they have selected. “Often, we end up in this career not because of something but in spite of it,” says Mathieu Gaudet. “I go on because I don’t want to stop, I can’t imagine another life.” David Jalbert adds: “It’s a career choice that goes against current trends, a reaction to the technological invasion, a tradition we want to maintain because nothing beats the magic of a concert. When someone comes to see me after a concert and tells me, ‘You have changed my life’, what else is there to say?” Li Wang agrees entirely: “If the audience likes my playing, you can see it in their faces, you feel like you’ve moved them, made them happy. Once you feel that, you can’t stop, you become addicted.”

When we ventured to ask how they will have evolved musically in ten years, answers varied considerably. Katherine Chi hopes to be giving recitals. “The greatest challenge for the interpreter is to find the courage to change and grow. I believe that if I come to the limits of my capacity to adapt, I will decide to give up my career,” Li Wang dreams out loud. “I would like to be everywhere! I’ll teach maybe, but I will play. Will that be enough to earn a decent living? I hope so.” Aside from limited performing, Mathieu Gaudet will devote some time to teaching, for the stability it brings (he would like to raise a family) but also because “it is a potential worth exploring.”

These young pianists feel they owe a lot to the teaching they received. “At every stage in my learning, my teachers influenced me each in their own way, which is what made me the pianist that I am. Naturally some of them had a greater influence, like Marc Durand, Leon Fleisher, Monique Deschaussées, and John Perry, who trained a number of pianists of the new generation. With hindsight, the sum total of this teaching allows me to choose the musical approach that suits me best,” says Stephan Sylvestre. This is how David Jalbert will perpetuate the art of piano playing: “I will certainly teach because as a pianist I learned so many things, physically, in terms of repertoire, style and phrasing that it is almost too much for just one head. I have to share this knowledge.”

Dreams of youth, wishful thinking? Do we detect a concern for the future of classical music? Katherine Chi swears that “classical music will never die.” Stephan Sylvestre agrees with her. “I think that people listen to it and are increasingly moved by it.” Mathieu Gaudet, for his part, deplores the laziness caused by the proliferation of recordings and the poor attendance at live concerts, “It is a profession that doesn’t pay. Music doesn’t help the economy, which is not such a big deal. The main thing is that it makes people feel good.” Maybe young people will change the world yet…

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