In Virtual Competition, 26 Pianists Vie From Keyboards Flung Afar

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MONTREAL – The eyes and ears of the music world were focused April 26-May 14 on the 19th Montreal International Music Competition (MIMC), held under conditions no one would have imagined a year ago, when the competition was canceled due to COVID-19. We all knew the competition this year was going to be different, but how different, and how successful? The short answers are very different and highly successful.

In all, 26 pianists from 16 cities in 11 countries jumped through considerable digital hoops in order to compete in the Montreal International. Those in full color were the eight finalists. (Concoursmontreal.ca)

All 26 pianists were carried over from last year’s canceled competition. They came from 11 countries, although “came” is probably the wrong word. Through a monumental effort on the part of the competition organizers, the pianists pre-recorded their 45-minute semi-final and hour-long final recitals on video in one of 16 cities around the world: New York, Kansas City, Ann Arbor, Montreal, London, Paris, Basel, Brussels, Berlin, Milan, Biella (Italy), Vienna, Warsaw, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo, thus bypassing the headaches, uncertainties, and restrictions of international travel. Likewise, the judges were relieved of the need to travel by staying at home and watching the performances via webcast.

“We are told by the World Federation of International Music Competition that we are the first international piano competition to take the 100% digital route,” says MIMC executive and artistic director Christiane LeBlanc. “But others will most certainly follow. In our case, what is special is that we made sure no competitor would have to cross a border to record his or her recital. Which is why we recorded in 16 different cities. From the outset, we decided that the safety of our candidates would come first.”

Quality control was obviously of the highest importance. To that end, Scott Tresham, director of artistic operations, was responsible for arranging the recording venues, booking, and instructing the video crews, and producing the videos and live-streaming. Only Steinway instruments were used, though these varied considerably in quality. Three cameras were used in alternation: a profile view of the pianist from a camera located approximately front row center; a frontal view as seen from the back end of the piano, and a close-up of the keyboard and hands. Each recital was treated as a one-time-only live event; if anything had gone wrong, there were no second chances (none were needed). For various reasons, five of the eight finalists chose a different venue for their second round.

The semi-final recitals were broadcast throughout the day, spaced an hour apart (Montreal time) from April 26-30 in a sequence determined by random draw. Following a nine-day break (a “breather” to most), the finalists gave their concluding recitals two per morning from May 10-13, with the closing ceremony held on May 14. The logistical challenges were monumental, but everything seems to have worked. LeBlanc called the whole operation “an exercise in precise planning and nimble flexibility. Luckily there were no behind-the-scene crises, just a lot of insomnia for the MIMC team with all those time zones! We did have to move Canadian Kevin Ahfat quickly from Toronto to Montreal when Ontario confined the province and closed the concert halls, but that was the only mishap.”

So who were the 26 contestants? Seventeen of them – 65% – were from Asia or of Asian descent (not including Russia). Of these, seven were Korean, making the odds nearly one in four that a Korean would win first prize, and one did – Su Yeon Kim, seen in the video above. (Has Korea overtaken Russia as the world’s leading incubator of competition-level pianists?) One of the two Canadian pianists and two of the three Americans were of Asian descent. There were only two Russians, and neither made it to the finals. (Nor did any of the Americans.) All were born in the last decade of the last century. Youngest of all was Korean Suah Ye, born in 2000. No one attempted to make a sartorial statement this time (there have been exceptions in the past). In fact, all but one wore black, and that exception was a conservative choice, too.

Another big difference in this year’s competition was the choice of repertoire. Each pianist was free to determine his or her own. No picking and choosing from pre-established categories or lists. The only requirements were the compulsory Canadian work (three of John Burge’s 24 Preludes, completed in 2015), to be performed only by the finalists, and, in association with the Montreal Bach Festival, something by Bach in either the semi-final or final round. (Second prize winner Yoichiro Chibo plays Burge’s Preludes at the 32-minute mark, above.)

The norm was three or four works per recital, but some pianists programmed as many as six, while one put all his eggs in a single basket by offering just Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which, when played without repeats, clocks in at about 45 minutes.

The chosen repertoire revealed interesting patterns. Amazingly, of the nearly 100 compositions performed in the semi-finals, only three — Schumann’s Humoresque, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10, No. 2, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka – were offered twice. Those favorite competition standbys like the Liszt Sonata, the Prokofiev Seventh, and Rachmaninoff’s Second were heard just once each. Beethoven’s Appassionata, Balakirev’s Islamey, Prokofiev’s Toccata, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition did not turn up at all, in either the semi-finals or the finals. The only work programmed twice in the finals was Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109 (played by both the First and Third Prize winners). Combining semi-finals and finals, just one work was heard three times (Petrouchka).

The composers best represented included Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartók, and Ravel. No surprises here, but there was very little Chopin (no sonatas at all) or Liszt, and not much Schubert, either. Baroque pieces popped up on several occasions (Rameau, Scarlatti, Couperin), and modern music made its mark in such works as Carl Vine’s blistering First Sonata (1990), some of Ligeti’s impossibly difficult Preludes (late 20th century), John Adams’ minimalist China Gates (1977), Isang Yun’s Five Pieces (1958), and Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island (1981). Works that rarely turn up at competitions came from Dohnányi, Szymanowski, Busoni, Respighi, and even Czerny, author of all those infamous exercises pianists suffer through in their early years of training. Several pianists played music by a composer from his or her country of origin, but only two – both Americans – played music by someone still living (Stephanie Tang did Adams’ China Gates and Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner did Monk’s Ellis Island).

The Bach requirement might easily have resulted in a Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier from each competitor, but several offered interesting alternates, including the Toccata in F-sharp minor BWV 910, the Adagio in G major BWV 968 (an arrangement of the first movement of the Solo Violin Sonata BWV 1005), the complete Second Partita, Busoni’s transcription of “Ich ruf’ zu dir,” the Ricercar from The Musical Offering, and the Overture in the French Style (actually a full-length suite), among others.

To many who follow competitions, it’s only the final solo round, or even just the concerto round, that attracts the most attention. For me, it’s the first round I find most interesting. Here is where one gets an overall picture of the breadth and depth of the field, and where some of the most persuasive and interesting competitors are often eliminated. This year, I discovered at least four who did not advance to the finals but whose careers I will watch with keen interest.

Ji-Hyang Gwak had me wondering how anyone could draw such enormous volumes of sound and Vesuvian eruptions from a piano in Vine’s First Sonata (this was one you really needed to watch as well as to hear), yet she also revealed remarkable control of subtleties in Liszt’s shimmering, sparkling water music (Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este).

Canadian Kevin Ahfat made the Berg Sonata into something truly appealing with warmly caressing lyricism and structural integrity accomplished through strict attention to all dynamic markings (a ffff was louder than a fff), and many of Schumann’s Kinderszenen were totally enchanting.

Russian Andrei Iliushkin brilliantly contrasted the monochrome hypnotic serenity of the Bach/Busoni “Ich ruf’ zu dir” with a world of colors in Scriabin’s Third Sonata, but it was Brahms’ Op. 118 that will remain longest in my memory for the singing lines, the profoundly poetic moods he created, and the sheer beauty of tone Iliushin drew from the instrument – full, rich, and mellow.

Chinese Jiacheng Xiong brought to the Barber Sonata one of the most compelling performances of this work I have ever heard – not to everyone’s taste, perhaps (fury and aggression predominated, probably alienating some of the jury), yet utterly persuasive. The second movement conjured up a climate of powerful nervous energy (light years away from the playfulness many other pianists find in it), and the slow movement was downright creepy, moving inexorably to a towering climax that threatened to crack walls and break leases. In the finale, we heard the kind of playing that deserved a monstrous roar of applause, had there been a live audience.

And then there was the curious case of Romanian Cristian Sandrin. Juries often seem wayward to the outside observer, and this one was no different. Sandrin was not only bold and courageous enough to offer a single work, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, as his semi-final program, but he played with immaculate technique, crystalline clarity, and thoughtful musical input. Every variation was tastefully varied in mood, touch, tempo, and dynamics. I couldn’t help thinking that if the Goldberg Variations have never been your “thing,” Sandrin might well change your mind. Yet, inexplicably, he did not advance to the finals. He did not even receive the Bach Festival Prize – a shameful oversight on the jury’s part.

Voting procedure was as follows: the semifinal round was a point-based evaluation that brought the list of competitors from 26 down to eight. The final round was evaluated by ranking, with semi-final performances also taken into account. Presumably there was no discussion among the jurors. but with every recital immediately available on demand in archival form, jurors (as well as the audience) were free to re-hear any material they chose.

To my ears, most of the finalists played better in their first round. This may have contributed significantly toward the jury’s choices for the top prizes. In her semi-final, First Prize laureate Su Yeon Kim played Bach’s Italian Concerto like she truly loved it and Prokofiev’s Third Sonata with power and dazzle to spare, yet she failed to impress me with a single work in the finals. Similarly with Third Prize laureate Dimitri Malignan, who played magnificently in his first round – elegance and poise in Bach, poetry and breathtaking beauty in Brahms – but offered just bland, “good student” renditions in his second recital, captured in the video above.

Prizes of $3,000 each went to five finalists, from left: Alice Burla (Canada), Francesco Granata (Italy). Ying Li (China), Chaeyoung Park (South Korea) and Marcel Tadokoro (France).

Overall, the performance level was expectedly high. Mercifully, there was little banging this year compared to previous piano competitions here, and there were few cases of rhythmic sloppiness. There were some extraordinary displays of virtuosity, and in terms of accuracy, many of the performances were close to note-perfect. Lacking, though, in most, was a sense of engagement, of drawing the listener irresistibly into the pianist’s world of music-making. Call it attitude, if you will. The standouts here were the aforementioned Romanian Cristian Sandrin, Canadian Alice Burla, and the Japanese Yoichiro Chiba, who made a poor showing in his semi-final recital but who in his final became a different pianist altogether. Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka were both rich in evocative narrative, imbued with textural clarity, and revealed a vast range of articulation and colors. (Chiba, whose video is seen above, won Second Prize.)

The final component in most big international competitions is the concerto with orchestra, omitted from the MIMC competition this year. Is this a loss? Maybe. By the time a pianist has played two solo recitals, it’s pretty clear what he or she can do. A concerto in addition doesn’t usually reveal much new. Furthermore, it’s a whole different exercise from a solo recital, and one not every pianist is comfortable with. From a tiny list – all concertos we’ve heard a hundred times – a contestant picks one to be performed with an hour or less of rehearsal with orchestra – a dicey situation at best. From the financial point of view, omitting the concerto round saves the competition a bundle of money, which can be spent on prizes instead The MIMC’s offerings this year were an unprecedented $235,000 (Canadian).

On the other hand, this is where the competition’s glamor comes in, what the audience gladly pays to hear – and see: a grand finale amid the craving for a shared experience. Applause is thunderous, smiles are wide, hugs and kisses are everywhere, the winners leave crowned in glory, and everyone goes home in a state of euphoria. That didn’t happen this year. Personally, I didn’t miss it. But some probably did.

Another significant difference resulting from a totally online competition was how the Audience Award was handled. One could vote (only once, of course) for any finalist or semi-finalist, but the criteria this year felt different. There was no audience engagement at all. Stage deportment was limited to sitting at the piano. No deafening applause to encourage favoritism among the undecided. No heated discussions among friends. Just the music. With viewers around the world, and with some contestants from highly populous countries like China, Japan, Korea, and the U.S., it was not unthinkable that the tally might be tipped in favor of a national hero or heroine. Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to be the case, as the winner turned out to be a Frenchman. In total, only about 1,100 ballots were cast, but they came from 40 countries.

Looking back on the 2021 competition, LeBlanc notes that “we made a lot of new friends in the past year. Conditions forced us to create new partnerships and to reach out to other competitions, to different broadcast platforms and worldwide publications. These include Amadeus.tv, Medici.tv, bachtrack.com, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and Instagram. These new collaborations will stay with us. Without neglecting the local audience, the MIMC will now be more international than ever. Our biggest breakthrough was penetrating China through Amadeus.tv and Weibo, where we reached over two million people in the semifinal round.”

The MIMC rotates among piano, voice, and violin. Next year’s competition is for voice, and will run from May 30 to June 9, 2022. In the meantime, and until 2024, music lovers can watch any or all of this year’s competition at concoursmontreal.ca or on one of the competition’s partner platforms.

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THE JURY

Arnaldo Cohen (United States), Martin Engstroem (Sweden), Till Fellner (Austria), Mari Kodama (Japan), Hélène Mercier (Canada), Costa Pilavachi (Canada), Charles Richard-Hamelin (Canada), Rena Shereshevskaya (Russia) and Susan Wadsworth (United States).

Zarin Mehta, Chairman.

THE WINNERS

FIRST PRIZE – Su Yeon Kim (South Korea, $30,000 cash prize plus additional awards totaling over $150,000 more, an unprecedented amount for an MIMC First Prize winner. These include a career development grant from the Azrieli Foundation, a solo recording on the Steinway and Sons label, a concerto appearance with the Montreal Symphony, a North American concert tour, an artist residency at the Banff Centre, and artistic representation by Forbes International Artist Management.)

SECOND PRIZE – Yoichiro Chiba (Japan, $15,000)

THIRD PRIZE – Dimitri Malignan (France, $10,000)

The remaining five finalists received $3,000 each:

  • Alice Burla (Canada)
  • Francesco Granata (Italy)
  • Ying Li (China)
  • Chaeyoung Park (South Korea)
  • Marcel Tadokoro (France)

AUDIENCE AWARD – Dimitri Malignan (France, $5,000)

BEST CANADIAN ARTIST – Alice Burla (Canada, $5,000)

BACH FESTIVAL AWARD – Dimitri Malignan (France, $1,500)

AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE COMPULSORY CANADIAN WORK – Alice Burla (Canada, $2,000)

PHILANTHROPIC ENGAGEMENT AWARD – Anna Han (U.S., $5,000)

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