29 January 2018

Competitions - A Parallel Universe?



The Singapore International Violin Competition started over the weekend and will run on until February 8th.  I have nothing whatsoever to do with it, but as it is mostly taking place in the building where I work, I take every opportunity I can to drop into the hall and listen to the action.  I like competitions.  The spectacle of the cream of young talent appearing in close succession and performing to the best of their abilities is one I never fail to appreciate.

The cream this year comprises 32 young violinists from Bulgaria, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine, the UK and the USA, each of which is hoping to secure the first prize of US$50,000, a loan of a 1680 Stradivarius and a number of performance engagements. 

I would hope, however, that their real ambition is to win the Audience Prize; their future musical careers will depend on audiences liking the way they play, and if they have that magic touch which gets the audience on their side, that is worth far more than any financial award.  As an occasional adjudicator myself (I will be adjudicating at no less than three competitions during the course of this year) I know how intimidating an Audience Prize can be; you desperately hope that your choice matches that of the audience, but it rarely does.  What adjudicators see in a performance is rarely the same as what audiences see.

Sitting in on the First Round performances, I was very conscious that many in the audience were taking their role seriously, and while during the performance I saw copious notes being taken and assessments made, I overheard some intense discussions between sessions over the relative merits of the players.  Whatever result the panel of adjudicators comes up with, it can hardly have been more assiduously contemplated than the audience’s ultimate decision.

Looking around the audience, however, I was conscious of something interesting. 

Singapore is fairly small place, and as a very frequent concert-goer here, I get to recognise the habitués of a local audience.  At the competition, the handful of people, like me, who go to just about everything was there, but the vast bulk of the audience was made up of people who I never see at public concerts.  They were listening in rapt attention and were eloquent in their reserved and undemonstrative applause to most of the performers.  It struck me then that music competitions (and it is phenomenon by no means unique to Singapore) inhabit a kind of parallel universe; a performance sub-genre which seems to be moving further and further away from its parent, the public concert.  It attracts a very different audience, who are there to witness top class playing regardless of player or repertory, and very confident in their own minds about what constitutes a winning performance.

This idea is reinforced by those who are performing in the competition.  In the booklet with the competition, each of the players had provided a biography.  I found it slightly unnerving to read through these and realise that, for some of them, it seems as if their entire musical world revolves around competitions.  Biographies listing innumerable first, second and third places in competitions held in remote places, along with the names of strings of teachers (why do so many of today’s aspiring professionals seem to change their teacher every few weeks or so?) gave a vivid impression of a life bounded by preparing for and participating in competitions.

(Never let it be said that I am cynical, but I wonder whether the profusion of biographies which mention teachers and competitions are encouraged by teachers themselves - if you can show that your pupils consistently do well in competitions, how valuable is that as a marketing ploy when trying to attract new students – but that’s an unworthy comment.)

As a young player I took part in plenty of competitions myself.  Invariably I came out second or third; the same people turned up at each competition, and one fellow always came first, while I along with another seemed to take it in turns to come second and third.  I can hardly think that, had I been asked to write a biographical note then, I would have bothered to mention this; it seemed such an obvious occurrence that it barely warranted comment.  Much more interesting for me were the performances I gave, often, it must be said, drawing on the repertory I had been obliged to learn for the latest competition (and that’s another reason why I like competitions – players are rarely allowed to wheel out their particular party-pieces, and need to learn something special for the event).

Yet there were biographies in the programme here which never mentioned a public performance at all.  If these players had performed to a live audience in a non-competitive environment, they seemed to regard it as of peripheral interest. 

Significantly, the page which recounted the achievements of the laureates from the previous Singapore International Violin Competition informed us that of the six listed, most had gone on to participate in further competitions, some had won prizes and scholarships, but just one confessed to having made an “appearance with the Philadelphia orchestra”.  Is the result of winning a competition the opportunity to participate in another?  Competitions seem to have become self-sustaining, with no need for young musicians to move away from the competitive environment and put their playing out into the public arena.

We might suggest that this is the standard practice in competitions, and we should not question it.  Yet biographies in programmes exert a subtle but undeniable influence over audience perceptions.  We know from research, that most members of an audience (competition or concert) read the biographies first (and often read nothing else in the programme books) and that these biographies affect their perceptions of an artist’s ability.  I am very well aware of this, yet even so, I cannot help myself when I read a biography which suggests the performer only participates in competitions beside one which talks of major performances in iconic venues with leading musical partners and orchestra, of falling into the subconscious expectation that the latter performer will be better than the former.  I assume the latter will have mastered the art of satisfying and appealing to an audience; the former will still be obsessed with the kind of technical minutiae which impresses adjudicators but passes over the heads of most audience members, and I have to battle against this prejudice in order to assess fairly the performances I hear.

It would be good to think that performers and audiences alike see competitions, not as an activity detached from public performance but as one supporting it.

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