Rhinegold Photo credit: © Carl Nielsen International Competitions
A visionary practice: Children’s Jury of the Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition 2015

Andrew Mellor

The potential of music competitions is endless – for audiences even more than for artists

8:00, 8th February 2018

We’re all familiar with the post-music-competition cliché: ‘the real winner was music itself.’ Sometimes, the phrase is deployed as a smokescreen for the petty squabbling and managerial politics that are no strangers to the competition circuit (often by necessity). At others, it is a reinforcement of how musically transformative go-for-broke competition performances can be.

I suspect that hackneyed old phrase is also deployed to highlight the fact that repeated performances of a single work can remind us how magnificent that work is; how resilient it is in the face of multiple approaches over a long period of time. That is the mark of a masterpiece, and in one sense – for better or for worse – it is what our industry lives by.

But the issue of interpretation is also one of the thorniest and most elusive we deal with as a community, as well as being one of the most potentially off-putting to newcomers. Conventional wisdom suggests, however troublingly, that you need to know a piece of music relatively well before appraising an interpretation of it – an immediate barrier to the uninitiated.

I have nothing but admiration, and even a touch of envy, for people who can enjoy any performance unalloyed, without wrestling with the question of how successful it may or may not have been in the context of others. But I also happen to believe that toying with what makes some performances more communicative or more revelatory than others (the two aren’t necessarily connected) is a pretty entertaining pursuit in itself.

It has also, in an age that has revived the talent contest, bestowed the privilege of criticism upon anyone with an internet connection and revelled in the taxonomical satisfaction of lists and rankings like none other – a great opportunity for those who run music competitions. We’ve all seen how a competitive element can engage both experienced concertgoers and newbies in new ways. But we might also consider how illuminating multiple, back-to-back performances of a single work, such as those that might come in a competition final, can really be. If nothing else, to a certain point they can fast track familiarity with a piece of music.

But more vitally, they can quickly, efficiently and rather entertainingly introduce the wonders of interpretative nuance and difference of opinion. Hear the Tchaikovsky violin concerto once a year for three years, and the chances are interpretative subtleties will slip away into the chasm of time. Hear three performances in the same evening and any differences will be far more obvious.
Competition finals can, as such, be the best performances with which to engage, friends, family, associates or communities with little or no experience of classical music. They offer the most obvious of talking points and furnish great works with familiarity through repetition. Are the world’s great music competitions good at recognising this and utilising their wares to engage new audiences on behalf of the orchestras and musicians that participate in them? Yes. Could they, in some circumstances, do even better on that front? Absolutely.

Audience prizes have acknowledged this fact for decades. One particularly visionary new practice in Denmark charges juries of local children with the same responsibilities as the parallel jury of adult professionals, right from the complex negotiations of the round table to the announcing of the verdict by a nominated chairperson (the only difference is the prize fund).

So how could the competition community go further? Not least by learning from the way performances at major sports events are analysed and passed over to the general populace for discussion (the World Cup late this year will present a good few examples of its own). But the fundamental starting point is to get more of the uninitiated along to competition finals, and maybe tap their opinions with a little more seriousness. That might deliver more long-term benefits than the latest celebrity-penned ‘why I love classical music’ tome, and it could also help to ensure that, clichés notwithstanding, music itself really is the winner.

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