Sunday, June 10, 2007

Life Is a Competition

It is time to forget the nagging headache and try to return to writing. My partner for almost 30 years seems to be convinced that I’m suffering from early Alzheimer’s, a terrible condition that has plagued my family on my mother’s side. I don’t think my wife could cope with it and would be shipping me off back to Finland in a hurry if that happened. However, I feel mentally fine and my memory has returned for the most part, so she needn’t panic. I also have almost memorized the “Final Exit”, and contacting the Hemlock Society is a mouse click away, should the need arise. Life is full of the unexpected: perhaps being the caregiver will fall on my shoulders one day. My mother used to tell me when I was young that she expected to live alone at the end of her life, as my father was six years her senior. Statistics can be deceiving as she has been gone almost a decade and my dad seems to be still going relatively strong, turning 96 in a few days time.

My topic today is music competitions. Although a relatively recent phenomena in a large scale, we know that even Paganini took part in musical duels. I guess a few fiddlers of his day thought that the Little Pagan was all fingers but lacked a beautiful tone. Based on writings from those days the opinions of the audiences were split: other violinists obviously couldn’t reproduce the pyrotechnics of the Italian, but many listeners preferred the beauty of sound and musicality of the others. This already indicates how difficult it is to judge musical skills, or those in any other art form. Today’s audiences often go wild after a soloist plays a virtuoso piece at a breakneck speed. I have taught the Sibelius violin concerto to quite a few during this past year. That work was not at all popular after its creation, and it took the much-faster-than-intended tempi of Jascha Heifetz to turn the concerto into the popular choice it is today. Sibelius was quite upset by this reinterpretation and told Heifetz this to his face when the two men finally met a few years before the composer’s death. When asked whose recording he liked the best, Sibelius without any hesitation answered “Oistrakh”. And what was the reason? He played the last movement the slowest, but even then too fast. If music only could be judged as simply as an athletic event, then one would only need a stopwatch and perhaps penalty seconds would be added for wrong notes.

There was a time when mature artists would compete against each other. In one such contest Ginette Neveu beat David Oistrakh. He in turn won the next time and Ricardo Odnoposoff got the second prize. In that last match Oistrakh wanted to shake hands with the silver medalist, but the latter felt so strongly that he should have won and turned his back to the winner on the stage. This move is said to have destroyed Odnoposoff’s career. Of course he played all over the globe but many of those engagements were in smaller and less important cities. Yet his playing was as good as anyone’s and never ceased to amaze me with its perfection and beauty when I studied with him. After the 1950s and -60s the number of competitions mushroomed and winning one was no longer an automatic ticket to a career, although in short term it meant quite a few solo opportunities. Doing well in one usually required at least one teacher sitting in the jury; this is still the case today, unfortunately.

Just a few days ago another piano competition, the Maj Lind, was held in Finland. Originally meant as a domestic affair, it was transformed into an international one some years ago. I didn’t hear any of the performances over the Internet as the Finnish Radio Co. had to stop broadcasting music in this manner, due to excessive royalty demands. However, I understand that the Russian winner Sofya Gulyak was quite impressive, especially in the final round with her Rachmaninov third concerto. Based on the photo, Ms. Gulyak may not be in the “eye candy” category but her inner beauty must have impressed both the judges and audience members. Aforementioned Ms. Neveu was supposedly so unglamorous that people in the hall laughed out loud when she first appeared, yet everybody was quickly spellbound as soon as she started playing.

Music competitions come in many forms and seem to be especially popular with Asian students and/or their parents. Reading about the fierce competing in the final school exams in China makes one understand this trait better, as scoring higher than others is essential to be able to enter one of the better universities and thus a key to a successful life. Tutors have been busy all year and often no expense has been spared. Students have been given oxygen treatments and placed in fancy hotels to improve their chances. Even high tech cheating has been discovered, with communication devices hidden in shoes or clothing. Here in the States many competitions are more low key and often also unfair. I had a student submit a required compact disc to a community orchestra and he was selected as one of the finalists. On the day of the finals Mother Nature was playing one of her tricks and the event had to be postponed due to adverse weather. A new date was to be announced shortly. However, the hopeful finalists ended up getting a letter saying that the orchestra’s conductor had decided to select a winner based on the recordings. Surprise, surprise: the first prize and the solo opportunity went to an offspring of another baton-wielder in town. One will never know if this young instrumentalist deserved to win; perhaps in this case the most money was spent on editing the recording to be note-perfect, or if this was just a blatant case of brown-nosing. For that matter I could have played for my student, but might have been pitted against a Yo-Yo Ma. Had the orchestra just hired this youngster to play, there would have been none of the hurt feelings and question marks.

Running for an office is a political competition, and an unfair one since it is intended only for the rich. No matter how brilliantly someone thinks and how fabulous his/her ideas are, all that is meaningless unless there are big bucks involved. It would be sad indeed if this form of our “free democratic system” finds its way into the politics of music and the arts.

Photo of Sofya Gulyak
© Sami Kero / Helsingin Sanomat