Tuesday, November 22, 2011:The Hot Seat

Sixteen teenagers will compete Saturday on the Prague Conservatory stage

Sitting in the Hot Seat

This Saturday (Nov 26), 16 teenage pianists will compete in the sixth annual ‘Young Piano of the Prague Conservatory’ competition. Looking at the list of competitors, it’s clear that the audience will be privy to performances by some of the best young European pianists ages from 12 to 18.

So if you’ve never witnessed a music competition, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pop in for a couple of recitals. You may hear the first tinklings of the next Ashkenazy!

But how does an international piano competition really work?

All the competitors are chosen for their already-prestigious background of winnings, or else they are specially recommended by Europe’s leading pedagogues. The competition takes the whole of Saturday, starting at 10 am and finishing with the announcement of winners at 6 pm.

Each pianist has long been preparing their programme for this event, which they were asked to send in recently. So we know exactly what they are going to play – but how well are they going to play it is the real question!

So how does one decide who gets the prize, when all the pianists are so talented?

This is the job of the five judges – lead by Avo Kouyoumdjian, professor of Piano and Chamber Music in the Keyboard Department at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, and the only non-Czech judge on the panel. The other four are leading members of the Prague Conservatory’s piano department. They will all listen intently to each musician’s recital.

But what makes a great performance? Musicians have been arguing about this since man first started whistling; however, for this competition the judges will be listening specifically for a few things.

For instance, they will question how well a piece is played technically. They’ll look at how well the student has realised specific parts of the music and at the same time how well he or she is able to give a unified performance of the piece.

The judges will want to see that each pianist has made the decisions of tempo and dynamics, phrasing and movement in a way that is instructed by what the composer has written in the music (this is what we term interpretation) and that the pianist is consistent with this interpretation.

So what prizes are up for grabs? The best (with no specific number given) are given the title Laureate of the Young Piano of the Prague Conservatoire 2011. They have the privilege of playing at a special Laureates’ Concert in April, again at the Prague Conservatory’s wonderful new hall, but this time broadcast live on Vltava Radio. They are also given a free invitation to the conservatory’s two-week summer piano masterclasses, an opportunity to work with some fantastic international teachers.

There is also one prize of 5000 kč, called the ‘Unicorn Award’ (after the name of the main sponsor); and multiple prizes of 1000 kč to spend on music and accessories kindly donated by Talacko music shop. All participants are awarded a diploma of participation.

Though competitions are sometimes scorned for their encouragement of rivalry and bitterness, by not having strict first, second, and third prize winners the Prague Conservatory has created an event which does not create such an imposing hierarchy. Often judges do not wholly agree on who should be the winner, so a system of choosing a number of laureates allows them to give more musicians the same opportunity. It’s a fantastic system, and though not all musicians will leave with an invitation to come back in April, they at least will not feel completely put-off trying again next year.

The day will surely be a spectacular event. The judges are definitely not going to have a hard time spotting talent, but they won’t find it so easy to decide whom to invite back soon, either! – oo

– Samuel Goldscheider

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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