I have spent the week down at Prussia Cove in Cornwall at the autumn IMS chamber music seminar, together with 50 musicians from around the world. We battle up and down the cliff paths against the wind. Musicians and their instrument cases loom out of the mist in the mornings.
It is always very interesting to play in chamber groups with a) new friends and b) old friends, but I find it almost as useful just to sit around in the dining room having one cup of coffee after another and talking to people about their lives as musicians. In the space of a short week I feel I store up lots of impressions and opinions to think about when I have more time.
Tonight at 7.30pm we are playing a concert in the church of St Pol de Leon in the village of Paul, near Penzance. If you are in the area, please think of coming along. On the programme is a Britten string quartet, a Brahms piano trio, some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations interspersed with music by Gyorgy Kurtag, and the Shostakovich piano quintet. This last is played by Leo Phillips, Olivia Hughes, Yura Lee, Steven Isserlis, and me.
On my way from Porth-en-Alls, the house where we rehearse and have our meals, to the cottage where I stay in Prussia Cove, I pass through the lovely old gate in the photo. There is often a very nice light in the lane beyond the gate, and the sight of the open gate can seem pleasantly symbolic.
A doctor friend has sent me an excerpt from the current edition of the British Medical Journal in which their writer ‘Minerva’ reports:
‘Great composers have tended to die young, but great performing musicians often carry on getting better as they get older. An article in PLOS One (2013 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071630) asks whether older professional musicians have cognitive advantages. The investigators from Toronto compared professional musicians with non-musicians who were matched on age (mean age 60), education, vocabulary and general health. They found that in almost all tests of cognitive function, the musicians did better. Minerva particularly treasures the recordings of public performances which the Polish pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski gave up to his 100th year. There is more cognitive function going on in them than most of us ever achieve.’ BMJ,2013;347:f5444
Since the end of the ARD Competition in Munich I have been mulling over the concept of competitions. Of course we all understand the point of competitions, and many are prepared to put up with the negative aspects in the hope of benefitting from the positive ones.
Personally, I always found it hard to play my best in competitions because of the unnatural atmosphere, but these days many young musicians seem to approach them as a necessary evil. I know some musicians who go in for half a dozen such competitions each year. They seem to take the view that if a jury doesn’t like them in one place, another may like them in the next, and eventually someone is sure to like them, especially if they go in for a mixture of competitions big and small. This seems to be borne out by the fact that every candidate already has a bunch of prizes on their CV.
As I travelled home from Munich I couldn’t help reflecting that there was an astonishing collection of musicians (jury + competitors) gathered under one roof for ten days. Although we’d all accepted the conditions, it suddenly seemed a great pity that there was so little opportunity for ‘knowledge transfer’. Yes, we did give the competitors feedback if they wanted it, but such feedback is given on the occasion of someone leaving the competition, and in my experience they are rarely in the right frame of mind to hear advice at that moment.
On my particular jury were seven extremely experienced piano trio players, some of whom I had never met before. It was remarkable to be sitting next to them, day after day. Would it have been better for us to spend ten days coaching the young musicians, perhaps playing with them? Could we have had a huge festival? Would it have been fun to ‘mix and match’ among the trios, a kind of chamber music speed-dating? Might there be a way to combine masterclasses with some ‘awards’ at the end? It would have been nice, too, to go out to dinner with the competitors and swap stories of life in the music profession. Sometimes you can avoid problems by hearing how someone else solved them.
Of course, such events would need serious commitment of time and money. But I could not help wondering if, instead of Group A (the jury) sitting in judgement on Group B (the young musicians), we could put our heads together to devise a forum which would bring A and B together to share knowledge in an active and constructive way.
The ARD-Competition in Munich ended with three out of the four categories (violin, viola, bassoon, piano trio) awarding no first prize. Only Yura Lee won a first prize in the viola category.
I wonder if it is generally realised by the public that the rules in Munich do not allow the first prize to be shared. There may however be two second prizes, or two third prizes. If there are two very good finalists, and the jury feels it would be unfair to elevate one above the other, their only option is to award two second prizes. There are of course occasions when the jury feels that no-one deserves a first prize, but it seems to happen quite often that the best option is to give two second prizes.
The Munich audience gave the whole competition tremendous support from the very beginning. Every day there were hundreds of people waiting to be allowed into the hall to hear the various rounds. They followed proceedings with great attention, and had clearly chosen their own favourites, whose performances were applauded loud and long. People often waited in the foyer to hear the results of the individual rounds. Our jury chairman was Menahem Pressler, the pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio. At the end of the final, when he announced that there was no first prize for piano trio, the jury was booed by the audience. Luckily I had been warned this might happen, by a colleague who experienced it at a previous Munich competition. It was my first experience of being booed, and not fun. Although I must say my discomfiture was outweighed by my admiration for the audience’s commitment to the young players. I have not experienced anywhere else such a level of public support for classical music.
In the photo you can see the two prizewinning trios, the Trio Karenine and the Trio Van Baerle, standing on the left and right of the photo. The chairman of the jury, Menahem Pressler, is left of centre in a grey jacket.
I am still working on the jury of the ARD Competition in Munich, which reaches the Final of the piano trio competition on Saturday.
Obviously I can’t write anything about the competitors, but I can say how interesting it has been to hear so many different groups playing in the same hall. In the first round, there were twenty-four trios, and naturally all the pianists had to play the same piano. It’s fascinating how at one moment it seems that the acoustic of the hall is not favourable to the piano, while half an hour later, when someone else is playing it, you can hear everything clearly. Sometimes you can see pianists pausing for a second to hear how the sound is ringing out into the hall, and adjusting their touch accordingly. One can learn a lot from seeing and hearing the same instrument tackled by 24 different pianists.
At the same time, there is enormous variety in the instruments used by the violinists and cellists of the trios. Some are fortunate to be playing on wonderful instruments with enormous carrying power, while others are doing their best with more homely instruments. I’d like to say that we are not influenced by the quality of the instrument, but of course it is impossible not to respond to a magnificent violin or cello. The variety of those instruments introduces an extra complication into the assessment. How would violinist A sound if they were able to play on the instrument of violinist B, an instrument worth a million dollars? Would cellist X sound so striking if she or he had to play on cellist Y’s modest instrument? We try very hard to concentrate on artistry, but this being music, sheer sound quality cannot help being a factor.
I said to my string-playing colleagues that it would be interesting to have all the violinists play the same violin, or all the cellists the same cello. They laughed and said this would never work, because you have to spend a lot of time with a particular instrument, especially one with a complex personality, before you really know how to handle it. Yet I can’t help pondering the curious situation in which such a huge range of string instruments passes before us, while all the pianists have to play the same piano.