Wednesday, February 18, 2009

e-Competition II - The contestants

It was a great week for pianists and piano-lovers in NYC - at Rockefeller University, contestants hoping to compete in the Van Cliburn Competition were presenting free live recitals for a screening jury and a live audience, and at the Yamaha showroom at 54th and 5th Ave, the e-Competition was holding its screening auditions in a more technologically advanced way, through the use of the Disklavier. Whereas the Van Cliburn Competition is sending its jurors across the world to hear live auditions, we members of the e-Competition jury were happily ensconced in NYC, armchair travelers listening to auditions recorded in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing. I noticed that there were a number of contestants who were present in the rosters of both competitions. I would have loved to hear them play both live and on Disklavier!

Reflecting the state of piano today, the contestants came from all over the world.

China - 12
US - 10
Russia - 10
South Korea - 5
Ukraine - 3
Canada - 3
Others - 19

We weren't given information about where these people are based, or where they studied. Taking the audition site as the only piece of information, it is clear there is much cross-pollination happening on a musical level. (I admit, I'm US biased!!)

Chinese based outside China - 7
Chinese based in the US - 7
Russians based outside Russia - 6
Russians based in the US - 1
S. Koreans based outside of S. Korea - 5
S. Koreans based in the US - 5
Americans based outside the US - 0 (come on, fellow Americans, we need more outside input!)

So one question that comes to mind is: Does piano-playing still reflect a difference of traditions from one culture to another? My impression is that there are two recognizable styles of playing that could be called national "schools", even though they may reflect as much a culturally-grounded approach to music or labor-based activities as they do reflect any national traditions of playing or teaching. These are the Russian "school" and the South Korean "school". The first is distinct on a musical level, which could be described as "robust" and "overt". The traditional emphasis on rigorous technical training is also evident in the precision of the playing, which also contributes to the robust and overt character of the playing. This is a major generalization, of course, which overlooks the presence of at least 2 Russian candidates who can best be described as "ghostly", although ghostly with precision!
The South Korean school is recognizable in its seriousness, both in the sense of a deeply disciplined and studied approach to the music and to the playing. This very often translates into a rather dour musical character as well. Here again, one exception seemed to prove the rule.
What we see in the Chinese and American contestants is also a definite national tendency, but characterized more by a lack of unity than any one particular element. In the Chinese contestants, there is an attention to accuracy and brilliance, but this comes across either as a very conservative, careful approach or a wild, raw approach. Perhaps the difference depends on the amount of influence coming from outside of China - my experience in China has been, up until very recently, that the younger the student, the more impressive and original the musical personality. The continued and currently explosive opening up of China to the European, Russian and American traditions of playing and teaching will continue to make huge marks on its enormous pool of talent. China is far from having mapped out its trajectory in the piano world.
For the Americans, it has always been a hodge-podge, and this competition offered nothing to contradict that idea. In a way, the lack of any major support of Classical music in the US means that those who do end up pursuing it as a career are doing it out a greater sense of personal motivation, and hence are more dedicated, and offer playing that is more emotionally driven. The lack of a cultural base in the US, however, means that the playing is often imitative, or extreme in its ideological pursuit of individual musical goals. The Americans also would benefit from opening up to Europe and Russia, more than just opening up the country to Europeans and Russians!

The repertoire that candidates choose to present is a telling factor. In this particular competition, the screening audition required a movement of a Classical-era Sonata and an Etude. In the context of a 25 minute program, this left somewhere between 12-20 minutes of free choice taken from their first round repertoire. For those lucky pianists whose strengths are the Classical era works and/or virtuosic pianism, the requirements played into their hand. For most, however, their challenge was to be able to present as full a portrait of their interests, in under 20 minutes.
The repertoire that the contestants propose for their first competition round, 65-75 minutes worth, is completely free from restrictions. With this freedom, you would expect a great exploration of the limits of the piano world - great works by obscure composers, or obscure works by great composers, the whole transcription repertoire already in existence, as well as an invitation to add to that repertoire, and compelling contemporary works, perhaps even a world premiere! Unfortunately, this is not the case for most competitions that allow free choice, and was not the case for the most part for this particular e-Competition, at least judging by the selections in the screening round.

Here are the composers most represented (in parentheses, the composers included in the required rubrique "Classical Sonata" and "Etude")

(Chopin) - 49
Chopin - 13
(Beethoven) - 33
(Liszt) - 13
Liszt - 11
(Haydn) - 18
(Mozart) - 10
Ravel - 9
Rachmaninoff - 8
Brahms - 7
Prokofiev - 5
(Scriabin) - 2
Scriabin - 3
(Stravinsky) - 1
Stravinsky - 4

And the most presented individual works:

Beethoven Opus 110 - 8
Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit - 8
(Chopin Etudes Opus 10 #1) - 7
Liszt La Campanella - 6
(Chopin Etudes Opus 10 #8) - 6
(Chopin Etudes Opus 25 #12) - 5
Rachmaninoff Sonata #2 - 5

Given the vastness of the piano literature, why are there so many contestants piling up on so few works? Part of it is the fact that these are canonic works, necessary for every student to pass through in order to understand the common language and traditions of piano-playing. Beethoven's Sonata Opus 110 is a beautiful work that is so rich with detail and yet so ambiguous that it invites multiple approaches, reveals different aspects of its construction with the constantly changing perspective of time and cultural distance.
Even a work as straightforward as Liszt's La Campanella fits this description - rich and yet ambiguous, creating a clear framework while at the same time providing enough freedom of interpretation for a performer's personal take. Not to mention the continuously challenging virtuosity which makes every attempt to play it a make or break occasion!
Given the competition's age limit of 32, it is to be expected that many of the contestants are still in their studying phase - exploring the standard piano repertoire, with the guidance of a teacher and their classes. It is also to be expected that they would find the core repertoire very compelling - there is a good reason these works have been included in the "core" over the years. We find, therefore, many contestants presenting themselves in professional competitions with the works they are currently immersed in, which will very often be the core pieces. This is completely sincere and smart from the contestant's point of view.
From the judge's point of view, however, the breadth of the young pianist's interests is as important as the depth of their understanding of particular pieces. There must come a time when one begins the break from the crowd, and judge's are also looking for that break. We are looking for a difficult balance - a respect for the core, put into relief by a contrast with non-standard works. This is also the case in terms of the details of interpretation - we want to see that the player knows the basics, and at the same time, that he knows when he is introducing something beyond that.

The development of the competition "circuit" is a major factor in the decisions of today's young pianist. When I entered into that age of competing internationally, there were merely a few dozen events around the world. Today, there are many hundreds, often taking place at the same time (see the Van Cliburn above!). The fact that many competitions often ask for certain required works, someone presenting themselves to many competitions would do well to use their repertoire efficiently. Ironically, this is the exact opposite effect that one would wish for if one's goal in organizing a piano competition was to encourage the knowledge and enjoyment of the piano.
Even as competitions are opening up their repertoire requirements – ever since the 1993 Van Cliburn, the year that I was involved – there are still incentives to limit the scope of one’s repertoire, because of the great pressures on competitors to present seasoned works, works that one has lived with for many years. These will tend to be those works one learns early on as a student, i.e. the canon of the repertoire.

At the other end of the spectrum, here are the pieces that only one pianist chose to present:

Barber Sonata
Bartok Out of Doors Suite
Granados Goyescas
Gubaidulina Chaconne
Liebermann Gargoyles
Messiaen Regard de l’Esprit de Joie
Mozart/Arcadi Marche Turque
Schnittke Improvisation and Fugue
Schumann Carnaval
Tchaikowsky Dumka
Vine Sonata #1
Zaimont Wizards (2003)

Of these, I would single out for special mention the Gubaidulina, Schnittke and Zaimont Wizards as being particuarly daring. These are not pieces usually associated with competition repertoire – not easy to listen to, approachable works. The Zaimont was the most original choice – a work written 5 years ago, therefore with very little performing history behind it. I wonder why there is not more of this kind of exploration of repertoire. The first impression given by an artist to a judge or an audience member is established well before the performer comes out on stage, by the calling card which is the program. The intrigue developed by intelligent and probing programming is important to the state of mind of the listener, especially in a competition, where the default mindset is one of being critical. Judges are, whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are consciously looking for it or not, are influenced by comparisons. If there are 10 people playing the same Beethoven Sonata, it is tempting – if not inevitable – to wonder if this one was “better” than that one, losing sight of the real goal, which is judging each performance by its own merits.

Overall, my impressions of the competitors reinforced my feelings about young pianists today – there is wonderful cross-pollenation happening, with the Chinese pianists having passed a tipping point and now roaring up from behind. This experience reinforced my impressions about competitions as well – their influence is still overwhelming on young pianists, and it is difficult to engage the system without falling into the traps that exist within. The ratio of unique talents to wonderfully trained pianists is about what I expected – of the 62 pianists, I had 10 in my “absolutely” list. Not all of them made it into the final 24. But that will be the topic of another blog entry!

e-Competition I - the Yamaha Disklavier Pro Mark IV

A virtual contestant playing in Moscow, behind the Disklavier playing in NYC.

This past week, I spent 4 days immersing myself in the latest of young pianistic talent, as well as the latest in piano technology. Each merits its own entry, so that's what I'm going to do!
The e-Competition, based in Minnesota, started in 2000 with the idea of embracing fully the possibilities of technology in the service of good old-fashioned piano playing of the great traditions begun over 300 years ago. Based on Yamaha's extensive development of the concert grand piano CFIIIS and their parallel development of electronic recording of MIDI information, the Disklavier is an incredible 21st Century piano. Full disclosure requires me to say that I'm a Yamaha artist, but having had a hand (actually, two hands) in the development of the CFIIIS during my time in Paris, I feel I've made an investment in Yamaha - both professional and personal.
The e-Competition's screening auditions take full advantage of the Disklavier technology, and I believe they are the only competition to do so, at least currently. My suspicion is that, as economic times continue to get difficult, especially for the arts, the possibilities of using the Disklavier will become more and more tempting for our very conservative little artistic niche. The technology has advanced past a critical tipping point, and any continuing mechanical concerns with using the Disklavier are now on par with the constant and expected mechanical concerns of using an instrument as complex as a grand piano - tuning, voicing, pedal regulation, escape regulation, etc.
In the company of three wonderful colleagues - Rees Allison, Stanislav Pochekin, and the e-Competition director Alexander Braginsky - I spent a happy 4 days listening to over 60 pianists perform 25 minute programs. While we worked with very little pause from 10am to 8pm every day, the process was much less tiring than similar processes have been for me at other events. This is the first unexpected observation about this particular experience: listening to auditions with the Disklavier was much less tiring than I expected.
In the past, I have participated in juries where auditions were held live, and others where applicants sent in audio recordings. My memories of both processes are broadly painted over with one feeling - fatigue!
In the case of live auditions, we jury members went to the contestants - we traveled around the world, over a period of weeks, setting up physically and mentally in many different cities, battling jet-lag, food issues and strange beds! We spent a substantial amount of time ... waiting - for planes, for taxis, for contestants, for audiences.
With the Disklavier, we were able to leave the traveling to a single coordinator, who worked with local Yamaha staff and technicians to set up the taping of the auditions. Once auditions had taken place - in NY, LA, Paris, Moscow and Beijing - the recordings were collected together in NY, where our jury group was able to hear them in quick succession.
For myself, it was a dream job for 4 days. I got up in the morning, dressed, grabbed some breakfast as I headed out to the Metro-North train station. The hour-long ride gave me ample opportunity to read the newspaper, look over some mail and grab a quick snooze before stepping onto the Grand Central platform in NYC. A brisk walk to the Yamaha showroom gave me a good alibi for another day passing without doing any swimming! I checked my pedometer - 2000 aerobic steps one way, already better than the number of steps the average couch potato American takes in a day.
By the third day, I was fantasizing about having an office job, timing my short drive from home to the train station parking lot with only 2 minutes to spare, lining myself up on the train platform at the exact spot where the train doors would stop and open, my pre-paid ticket ready in my wallet. Unfortunately, the third day was a Saturday, and the 8:04 ran only on weekdays. Fortunately, the weekend train arrived 20 minutes later, which still got me to Yamaha on time, albeit with a brisker walk.
Soon after we began, it became clear how efficient this would be. There was no waiting for the contestant to walk to the piano, sit down, adjust the bench height, wipe the keyboard, find their concentration before starting to play. Electronic editing had eliminated all of this before we arrived. The timing between pieces was also edited, so that we could move on to the next piece as quickly as we wanted. On the flip side, whenever a break was necessary, we could put everything on hold. The fact that the performances were not live allowed us the freedom to stretch, have quick discussions, signal for help, without the worry of disturbing the performer's concentration.
The Disklavier playback took place in the acoustically designed showroom, on a piano that had been prepared by the best technicians Yamaha has to offer. The performances were recorded around the world in similar spaces, on similarly prepared pianos. Besides the MIDI Disklavier information, the recording also included a hi-def video, synched with the playback. In the showroom, the image of the pianist - seen in the standard profile-view first preferred by Liszt - was projected on a large screen just behind the piano. As a result, the pianist appeared life-size, with the keyboard of the Disklavier seeming to project out of the screen as a strange 3-D extension of the keyboard in the video. It took very little time to adjust to the dichotomy of seeing a 2-D visual "performing" in 3-D acoustics.
Comparing this listening experience to listening to performances recorded on CD reminded me of the different set of challenges I experienced listening to auditions submitted by audio recordings. It is harder to stay focused on a performance over a long period when only one of the senses - in this case, hearing - is involved. With the synchronized video, enhanced by the illusion of life-sized presence, the playback on Disklavier became much closer to a multi-sensory experience of a concert, which allowed the inevitable lapses in aural concentration to be bridged by the visual stimulus, and vice-versa.
Another challenge with CD auditions is the quality of the audio reproduction itself. If the recording is captured with inadequate tools, and especially when the audio playback is on a less-than-audiophile equipment, the reduced fidelity narrows the sensory field of the listener. One's attention turns more and more to minute details that actually have little bearing on the overall performance - a buzz, an intonation problem, a missed note become irritations that distract. Researchers have discovered this same difference between driving while talking to a passenger and talking on a cell-phone - lack of fidelity and focus on a single sensory input. It makes it much more dangerous to have a long conversation on the phone while driving than with your passenger. Using CDs to screen contestants might also cause more accidents!
The Disklavier experience solved many of these issues. Besides the video component's influence, the greatest advantage over recorded performances is the fact that the Disklavier is producing actual piano sound. The richness of overtones, the minute and multiple differences of color, the effects of the pedal, the enveloping sensation of a carefully designed acoustic in the hall. All of these allow the listener to move freely between the overall picture and the minute detail, the freedom which is the richness of a live performance.

There were some technical issues with the Disklavier technology. For the very first session, the right pedal was not properly regulated, causing it to descend less than what the pianist originally executed. Over the course of 6 contestants, we judges were alternately impressed, horrified and quizzical about the strangely dry approach of these players. Impressed by the daring and the clarity of the playing and attention to articulation, which was actually no more than just hearing the bare bones of the playing without pedaling. Horrified at some of the obvious inaccuracies revealed by the lack of pedal cover. And then quizzical when it seemed that the piano-playing traditions of 200 years had suddenly been forgotten by this new generation! We took a break while the Yamaha technician did some emergency regulations and computer debugging. When we regrouped, the pedal issue had been resolved, making such a big difference that we decided to relisten to the candidates with a fresh ear. We were all reassured by the results - in fact, one of those six players made it to the final 24 contestants.
A few contestants pushed the Disklavier to its technological limits, where it concerned repetition and controlling slow releases. The successful execution of both of these elements depends on finding the sweet spot - for repetition, the sweet spot where the key's escape mechanism re-engages; for controlled release, the sweet spot where the damper just begins to touch the string. These spots are different on every piano, and different on every key. They even evolve over the short course of a single performance. The Disklavier is not designed to be able to sense these individual spots and track their changes. Ironically, this means that the pianist who is extremely sensitive and is playing right around these spots will not hear his performance reproduced well on a Disklavier. To be truthful, very few of the pianists danced on this particular edge (more on that in the next blog), and those who did were able to project their daring and control on other levels that were also evident to us. It is, however, one of the remaining issues with the Disklavier, and reproducing pianos in general.

I've had the opportunity to make recordings for Disklavier, and I've been impressed with the technology, even though I could list all of the defaults and challenges with the instrument. In this prolonged exposure to such high-level playing, I was even more impressed with the overall possibilities that Disklavier allows. Certainly at the highest professional level, the Disklavier combines the best of live performance with the best of recording and reproducing technology. Other competitions should take note!

Next blog, I will write about the overall impression with the performances I heard.