The latter part of 2015 proved a fruitful time for piano competitions, with three of the most important – Tchaikovsky, Leeds and Chopin – all falling within the space of a few months. The Tchaikovsky, arguably the biggest of them all, took the lion’s share of publicity with record numbers of viewers on the streaming channel Medici.tv, but the others also attracted widespread interest. Music blogs and online forums were awash with speculation and debate about the juries’ decisions, while some questioned the whole enterprise of competitions for placing too much emphasis on technical perfection and flashy showmanship.
In our report from the 2015 Chopin Competition, Stephen Wigler digs deep into the mechanics of the voting system and provides an interesting analysis of what makes a winner. The devil proves to be in the detail, confirming one of the most frequent criticisms of competitions: pianists with strong musical personalities are more likely to divide opinion and miss out on the top prize. Pianists who are competent but lack flair tend to win competitions because they achieve more consistent marks across the board from jurors. Just consider the list of past competitors who failed to win the Leeds but have gone on to enjoy big careers: Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, Boris Berezovsky, Lars Vogt, Louis Lortie, Kathryn Stott, Peter Donohoe and Noriko Ogawa.
Whether the right people win or not, competitions have the virtue of keeping pianists and the art of pianism in the public eye. In fact, some of their staunchest advocates are young artists who need every opportunity to gain exposure and reach audiences. We talk to the 25-year-old pianist Lukas Geniušas, who has been pipped to the post twice in recent years – including the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition – but says he keeps on entering competitions to keep his career in the spotlight. Critics might regard this approach as too self-promoting, but as Geniušas says: ‘I used to think we should be shy about being too much “out there”, but then I realised this was false modesty, because we have to do it for the art – to put the art out there too.’