Piano Competition Is Bang-On Clash Of Loud, Louder

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Jayson Gillham performing in the finals of the Montreal competition with Giancarlo Guerrero and the Montreal Symphony.  (Competition photos by Antoine Saito)
Jayson Gillham playing in the finals of the Montreal competition with Giancarlo Guerrero and the Montreal Symphony.
(Competition photos by Antoine Saito)
By Robert Markow

MONTREAL – At some music competitions, several contestants seem destined from the start for first prize. In others, no clear winner emerges until the final round. At the 2014 Montreal International Musical Competition (May 26-June 6), this year for piano (alternating in other years with violin and voice), neither scenario prevailed.  Prize-winners had little more to offer than those who left empty-handed; the difference between winners and losers seemed less about musicianship than about money.

There were 24 contestants from 15 countries.  One third of the total were Asian or of Asian descent, including one from Canada and one from the U.S. (both named Liu, in addition to a Lu from China). Yet despite the prevailing notion in the West that so many Asians are winning the big competitions, no Asian won a prize, and just one candidate of Asian descent advanced to the semi-final and final rounds, Canadian Xiaoyu Liu.  The country represented by the most entrants was Canada with four, followed by Russia, Korea, and Italy with three each.

Australian-British pianist Jayce Gillham won first prize.
Australian-British pianist Jayson Gillham won the first prize.

Contestants were offered a wide-ranging, extensive repertoire to choose from, but aside from the imposed, newly commissioned Canadian work, they all chose to play only music by dead, white, European composers. A Haydn sonata was required in the first round, but there was not a note of Mozart to be heard throughout the competition, and only two Beethoven sonatas. Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff figured prominently, as to be expected, but there was little Bach or Schubert, and even less Mendelssohn.     

The  traditional exhibitions of pianistic pyrotechnics made their appearances – Islamey, Petrouchka, Alborada del gracioso, Gaspard de la nuit, the Liszt Sonata, and the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata. The sole departure from standard repertoire was Annika Treutler’s account of Hindemith’s Suite, Op. 26, a barnstormer that caused jaws to drop but ultimately amounted to not much more than a lot of banging. Nine of the 24 contestants were prepared to play a Rachmaninoff concerto if they got to the final round, and four more the Tchaikovsky concerto, but no one offered Liszt this year.

I did not hear the quarter-finals, in which 24 contestants played their initial rounds, though I was informed on good authority that no truly deserving candidate was eliminated at this point. Twelve were selected to advance to the semi-finals, all of whom I heard at Bourgie Hall.

The results were disappointing and disturbing. Only one pianist, 17-year-old Xiaoyu Liu, youngest of the lot by a good margin, sounded as if he really loved music and loved playing the piano. The others seemed to regard the instrument as an adversary to be attacked, beaten, and conquered. Muddy textures, over-pedaling, rushed tempos, a clangy sound, and lack of poetry, charm, a singing line, and imagination afflicted to some extent nearly all of the candidates.

Worst of all, there was so much senseless banging that it almost took on epidemic proportions (bangitis?). So many notes, so little music. Whatever are teachers teaching these days?

Parisian-born Canadian pianist Xiaoyu Liu stood out.
Parisian-born Canadian pianist Xiaoyu Liu stood out.

What a relief – and pleasure – then, to hear Xiaoyu Liu offer playing that sounded, well, musical. There was something a bit restrained and reticent about his approach to Bach, Beethoven, and Ravel, but with time this should correct itself. His reading of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata, on the other hand, was electrifying. Of particular note in the context of this competition is that he alone found more to do with it than just hammer away mercilessly. Melodic lines were well-defined, there was steely clarity to his articulation, a huge range of dynamic contrasts (not just loud, louder, and loudest), and the lyrical episodes were lovingly shaped. Liu compelled you to listen.

There were fine moments from other pianists also, to be sure, but they were isolated instances and not sufficient to ensure a first prize. Viviana Pia Lasaracina (Italy) brought a range of colors and dynamic nuances to Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, and much interpretive insight to Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, but to this same sonata she also brought a lot of banging; the last movement was a tangled mess. Kate Liu (U.S.) revealed a pearly touch and a range of hues in her Bach, but then went on to ruin the Brahms Handel Variations with an approach so mechanical the notes could have been punched out by a computer.

Six pianists advanced to the final round – concertos with orchestra – a two-evening display at Maison symphonique of mostly generic, charmless playing from pianists who still belonged in the practice room (in fact, four of the six are still in school, as are 19 of the original 24 contestants). Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero didn’t help matters by allowing the Montreal Symphony to cover the pianists in all but their most exposed moments.

One wag suggested that Jayson Gillham (Australia/UK) won first prize ($30,000) simply because he was the one the jury could hear the best (Beethoven Fourth, rather than Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, or Prokofiev, with their bigger orchestras). Second prize ($15,000) went to a Canadian, Charles Richard-Hamelin, who also won the award for Best Canadian Artist ($5,000) and third ($10,000) to Treutler, all of whom reprised their concertos (or movements thereof) at the competition’s final event, the gala concert on June 6.

Yet the most interesting piano playing that evening came from Serhiy Salov, first-prize winner of the Montreal competition in 2004 and this year of the newly instituted Improvisation Prize ($5,000), reportedly the only one of its kind among members of the World Federation of International Music Competitions. Although the “improvisation” he offered – a fantasy on themes from two of the concertos elsewhere on the program (Beethoven’s Fourth and Rachmaninoff’s Second) – could, in fact, have been studiously prepared well in advance, Salov’s performance generated the fire, imagination, and electricity sadly lacking in the rest of the evening’s performances.

Gillham with Annika Treutler and Charles Richard-Hamelin.
Gillham with Annika Treutler and Charles Richard-Hamelin.

Gillham also won the People’s Choice Award ($5,000), not surprising as he dressed well (many pianists did not) and had no reservations about smiling and assuring the audience he was glad to play for them (again, many others did not). Gillham won a third prize as well (another $5,000), for his interpretation of the imposed new work by Canadian Marjan Mozetich, who described his Tremors: Homage to Ligeti as consisting “entirely of trills and tremolos that challenge the performer’s endurance and musicality.”

I would not have been surprised to learn that the jury had a hard time deciding whether to award a first prize this year, or even a second. I would have offered three third prizes, but win or not, none of this year’s entrants stood out as an international competition winner.

Violinist Rodney Friend, a jury member at Montreal competitions during violin years, uses as his litmus test for a successful candidate the question, “Would I go across town and pay $50 to hear this person again?” I would certainly keep my eye on Xiaoyu Liu, but as for the rest of this year’s line-up, the answer is no.

The next Competition, for voice, will be held May 25 to June 5, 2015. www.concoursmontreal.ca

Archived performances may be heard at www.cbcmusic.ca/mimc for a period of one year.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.