When a competition eliminates the finest artist

When a competition eliminates the finest artist


norman lebrecht

November 25, 2014

A ripple of shock ran round the flute world at news that Sébastian Jacot, recent winner of the Nielsen Competition by a nautical mile, did not make the semi-finals of the Concours de Genève, the flute world’s equivalent of Warsaw’s Chopin competition for pianists.

Sébastian, principal flute at Ensemble Contrechamps, is not only a star. He’s also a local hero, Geneva born and bred.

And the programme he played – from memory – was a stunner:

Ferneyhough Cassandra’s dream Song; Telemann Fantasie n°3; Faure Fantaisie; Telemann Fantaisie n°6; Schumann Drei Fantasiestücke;
Telemann Fantaisie n°10; Debussy Syrinx; Frank Martin Ballade. It was brilliantly played and the audience were thrilled.


sebastian jacot


So what went wrong?

Sébastian plays a wooden flute and speculation was rife that it had let him down – as it threatened to do once or twice at the Nielsen.

We asked Sébastian for an explanation, and this is what he told us: ‘The only problem was that in this competition they are looking for technical perfection with a bit a music and I played music with a bit of perfection.

He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. It’s a fatal flaw in the competition industry that dull technicians often triumph over dazzling artists.

sebastian jacot2




  • Christophe Huss says:

    Why does a “star” need to compete ???

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Good question. Why does anyone?

      • rambonito says:

        This time it is not even about having teachers in the jury… there you have solo of Vienna Symphony, concertgebouw orchestra, and Berlin Phil … so I guess excellent musicians and no politicians, for this time maybe trust professionals and wait fot the results, in being respectful for the musical abilities of the other candidates.

  • The Incredible Flutist says:

    Bravo, Norman!

  • Mikey says:

    By the way, it was Debussy “l’Après-midi d’un faune” and not “Syrinx”.

    It was a very beautiful performance. He even made the Ferneyhough appealing despite it not really being a style of music I am overly fond of.

    I also question, however, why someone who is “recognized” as a star and is part of an internationally-known ensemble would need to participate in competitions.

    • bratschegirl says:

      Unless the competition required orchestral excerpts, it’s doubtful that you’re correct concerning which Debussy he played.

      • he says:

        Flutists play a version for flute and piano. Which doubt?

      • The Incredible Flutist says:

        Actually, Apres-Midi is done commonly as a work for solo flute and piano. There are several good arrangements from the orch. score. It was required repertoire at the Nielsen Competition last month. It’s a good competition piece because it shows everything.

        Not too likely that Syrinx would show up as a piece for an international competition.

        Specific repertoire is not all listed for Geneva for the round we’re discussing – most looks tobe free choice by style period. But it would be no surprise at all if M. Jacot played Apres-Midi since he competed successfully with it last month. His performance was exquisite at the Nielsen and is avail on Youtube.

        Here’s the Geneva rep list http://www.concoursgeneve.ch/sections/flute_2014?a=collapse40

      • Mikey says:

        It’s quite simple: I watched the competition. Most of it, both1st and 2nd rounds, is on youtube.
        he definitely played Apres-midi, with piano accompaniment.

        • Anon says:

          Mikey, wait – are you saying the 1st and 2nd rounds of the Geneva Competition or the Carl Nielsen Competition are on youtube? Nielsen we all know has posted on youtube the entire
          competition from last month. If Jacot’s 1st and 2nd rounds from GENEVA are on youtube that would be big news. Can you clarify, please?

  • Jean-Pierre A. says:

    Why do you make such comment before the end of the commpetition?

  • Milka says:

    These competitions are an abomination.The question is – why did Mr. Jacot lend himself to this ?????
    Why would any one who presents himself
    or herself as an artist feel they must
    subject themselves to a competition,
    especially when most if not all music competitions are suspect ????????.
    Is it because in truth there is little of the artist but much more the performer as in a circus .Perhaps Mr. Jacot may enlighten us to why he felt he had to enter a competition when his preeminence as an artist was seemingly so assured .

  • stopthemusic says:

    One need only look at the 1910 Anton Rubinstein piano competition in St. Petersburg. 1st Prize went to Alfred Hohen (who played no wrong notes). 2nd prize went to Arthur Rubinstein, who hit a few too many klinkers for the jury to forgive… Now, if you’re saying “Alfred Who?” you’ve just answered your question as to the value of competitions.

  • Tiffany says:

    Perhaps ‘local hero’ doesn’t necessarily mean international observers are taking notice of him? Emmanuel Pahud (now at the BPO) entered (and won) the Concours de Geneve when he already had a good job, principal at the Munich Phil. The enduring wish that someone big, who hasn’t heard you before/yet, will notice you? I don’t know. Just musing.

    On another point, is there a conspiracy against wooden flutes? Were they supposedly saying a wooden flute wasn’t the right choice of instrument for the repertoire choice, or is this a more generally divisive topic? I play the flute, but not professionally, and I genuinely don’t know. A lot of top orchestral players use them.

  • Adrianne Greenbaum says:

    There IS. A bit of risk when competing on a wood flute. For a couple of reasons straight off:
    The expected-round-the-world sound confuses many ears, especially if you’re not the first to play for the day. It’s a robust sound, darker than gold, silver, or platinum, and preferred by less than the majority. I play a very fine quality wood Powell and, until I even played one note, the conductor of the orchestra I was principal of said “oh dear, you’re not playing that here, are you?!” Then heads turned as I played and all were quite happy and maybe relieved. But as a comparison, up against platinum more often now, wood flutes are risky in competition, so it seems, especially if the listeners expect that pristine, sometimes lacking dimension because their flute almost plays for them – yet the notes pop out seemingly by themselves…Also, although I don’t know about HIS flute, but when I play, say, Martin or any modern or contemp work, there exists an automatic trade-off of ease and projection in the extreme registers. You have to be willing to take a risk and obviously Sebastian is at the right level in his career to present himself, all risk perhaps considered, or better yet, ignored. He played the music and with a pump of sound often not associated with the average flutist. He probably wasn’t as silvery clean as others and a committee of a competition is often a bit lazy, checking off the misses of ultra-clean pristine note negotiation rather than focusing on the musical output. Happens a lot and has been throughout in competitions and in orchestral auditions.

  • rambonito says:

    Does anybody already heard him? He didn’t got a job until now.

  • Susan says:

    Thx so much for writing about the competition. Plz write more about it when something of interest crops up.

  • James Beresford says:

    Hey Bratschegirl, FYI there is a fine version of Debussy’s L’apres midi arranged for flute and piano – not just the orchestral excerpts originally for flute, the whole piece. It was included in the repertoire for both the Nielsen and Geneva competitions. So it looks like you’re the doubtfully correct one there. Perhaps leave the flute facts to the flute players?

  • Dan says:

    Maybe he just had a bad day, he’s only human after all.

    On the other side, I agree that arts competitions, among them music competitions, are a stupid idea, aiming at publicity and populism, not musicality and creativity. So if you wanted to play this stupid game, play, and don’t cry afterwards.

  • rambonito says:

    Before asking the player himself (who also could stay respectful and humble…) , ask maybe the jury who are probably also competent (Dufour for example??).
    If he wanted to take the risk then ot is hos own responsibility.

  • Kyril Magg says:

    I really rebel against these sensationalistic and under-informed “headlines.” How on earth are you in a position to know whether he was “the finest artist” in this particular Geneva Competition? It is very simple: people enter competitions in the hope of gaining further recognition; people audition for orchestras (certainly also competition) in order to get a job that they covent or to improve their negotiating position in the job that their already have. It’s their choice, they realize the process and its pitfalls, so live with it. I have no doubt that Sébastian Jacot is a phenomenal flutist and artist, but he chose to subject himself to the judgment of this jury, and that’s what he got from it. Competition exists in any field where the opportunities for professional success are minuscule and the number of people interested in entering into – or rising within – the profession is gargantuan.

  • Anon says:

    People, read between the lines here. With all due respect, the author of this blog is a classical music commentator whose job it is to find spicy news in current classical music events. He looks for the story, an angle to present. That’s what’s happened here. Competitions – ANY competitions – are easy fodder.

    There is really no story here. A candidate, who is a fine player and by all reports a very nice person, didn’t have his best day and was eliminated. It’s a stand-up jury, a well-run competition and I’m sure the decision is fair and square. This happens all the time.

    By taking the angle that “Competitions are for horses” and inherently unfair the author is taking a popular stance and making this elimination newsworthy.

    The headline of the story is sensational and yes, unfair. But the content of the article is benign and informative. Would you be reading about the Geneva Competition if the snappy headline didn’t catch your eye? Probably not.

    So don’t get all riled up. This is how things roll on the Slipped Disc blog.

    • rambonito says:

      You forgot the detail that Norman called the candidate to ask what happened. So it s not any more about information but about gossip

      • Candide says:

        No, if it’s heresay it’s gossip.This isn’t heresay. Norman went directly to the source and asked him, which is informative and good journalism and NOT gossip. He asked Sebastian what many many Geneva followers were wondering.

        • Kyril Magg says:

          Let’s look at what Mr. Lebrecht actually wrote. He says that “the programme … was brilliantly played and the audience was thrilled.” Was he there? Is this his personal judgment, and – if not – where is an attribution that would raise “good journalism” above gossip? The only quote is from M. Jacot, who is arguably the one person with the least objectivity in this particular instance. The “source” to which you allude would have been the members of this competition’s jury.

          • Anon says:

            Oh please stop it, Kyril. Don’t make scandals where there are none. This is one of the fairest, up and up juries of all times. No one is talking to them. They are sequestered for heaven’s sake. This is a 75 year old competition. They know what they’re doing and it’s fair.

            The competition is open to the public. Every audience member I’ve heard from who was present says exactly the same thing that Norman does. Except for the unfortunate title, it’s a good article, Norman did his homework and yes, it’s good investigative journalism. End of story.

  • JA says:

    1 – What does curriculum have to do with this? There is another winner of the Nielsen that went through to the next round. For you, someone who likes numbers and irrelevant information, the person in question won it at 19 years old and is, nowadays, 2nd solo at Orchestre National de France. Is that of any relevance? I think not. But maybe that’s just me.

    2 – I guess since Mr. Jacot is “a local hero, Geneva born and bred”, it isn’t that weird that the local Geneva born and bred public were cheering for him. Also, I think someone who says this: “The only problem was that in this competition they are looking for technical perfection with a bit a music and I played music with a bit of perfection”, also goes by the name of sore loser?

    3 – There was also a ripple of shock when Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany in the world cup. So what?! S*** happens. Maybe he didn’t convince the jury this time. Different juries different opinions.

    4 – Have you heard all the others? Or do you say “the finest artist” strictly based on other peoples opinions? Also, is it possible that other peoples opinions differ from yours? And that there’s not necessarily a right or wrong? Just different?

    I must say this would be a pretty boring world if we all liked the exact some thing.

    Peace Out.

  • Mikey says:

    another detail that seems to be incorrect: he did not play from memory. I watched him play the Ferneyhough and the Debussy (again, NOT “Syrinx”), and he had his sheet music laid out across two music stands. There is even a humorous moment where he adjusts both stands to see his accompanist better.

  • syrinx flute says:

    Oh… please!! You guys watched the video from the Nielsen Competition!!not from the Geneva Competition. All pieces have to be played by heart in this competition and he did it. (And he had the 1st prize at the Nielsen competition)

  • ruben greenberg says:

    It’s only a flute.

    • Kyril Magg says:

      NO, sir – nor is it “only” music. It is an artistic attempt to transmit aurally the undefinable breadths of human experience and expression. Some people explore that potential holding a flute, some sitting at a piano, some vibrating their vocal chords. There is absolutely nothing ONLY about it, your sarcasm nonwithstanding!

  • Anon says:

    For Slipped Disc readers who are not on Facebook, Sebastian has just written a lovely, thoughtful reply to this post on Norman’s facebook page. He sounds to me like an intelligent, sensitive young artist with a terrific career ahead! Here’s what he says:

    Sébastian Jacot

    Dear all,

    I am very surprised at how many people actually follow what i do, i had no idea i was under such high surveillance
    I just want to answer the question “why do i do competitions”
    I have never pushed myself technically musically physically psychologically further than i did during these competitions.
    i have learned so much about myself, what i can do and what i cannot what i could do i what i cannot do anymore and i don’t regret anything from it.
    For this Geneva Competition i only had a month to prepare and learn by memory about 15 pieces. If i had not participated in this competition, i would have never imposed myself such a task.
    I don’t see the competitions as a goal in itself, i rather see it as a good challenge and exercise.
    When i came to Geneva i already had a feeling i wasn’t gonna go all the way to the end.
    I had worked 300 hours on a program almost completely new to me in a very short time and was extremely tired. And by looking at who advanced to the second round and who did not it was already clear that they were eliminating imperfection and waiting for the last two rounds to take into account the personality the musicianship maturity and integrity of the players.
    Not that they didn’t judge these aspects in the first two rounds but they were clearly not the main criterias.
    I still wanted to see how far i could push myself.
    If my goal was to win Geneva i should not have come or should not have taken part in the Nielsen Competition before and prepare longer.

    The jury’s decision is fair i think because they have been very clear and consistent about what they were looking for specially in the first few rounds.
    Clean precise and well prepared playing.
    I could provide all these aspects in the first round but in the second with such a challenging program of 9 pieces i was a few days short of sleep or preparation and i could not be as impressively precise as they were expecting.The program i had prepared was also not made to impress but rather to touch. Wrong choice maybe this time.
    I had just bought a new Lafin headjoint a month before and the broken wooden headjoint from Nielsen came back fixed only a week before the competition tuned a quarter tone lower than before and thus forcing me to play Schumann on the metal flute..the judges don’t want to know why or how or any excuses…they heard me play Schumann bit out of tune and they judge this.
    Let’s say it was an entertaining, exciting and well executed program for a concert but just not perfect enough technically for this particular competition where so many young perfect technicians came.

    Now i will finish preparing Jolivet concerto for the final so i have one more concerto to my repertoire and i will not have waisted the 250.- of inscription fee..

    I will probably do ARD but will be more prepared in all subjects and improve from what i learned here at home In Geneva.

    All my best wishes to you all!

  • The Times says:

    How about the koreangirl who got 3rd prize at Nielsen? She played all the music by memory at Nielsen and she got until to semi-final. AND she is 18!

  • Raanan Eylon says:

    I participated in 1973.My accompanist was unable to play together with me.I requested a different accompanist and told that it was not possible.In the actual audition she began without me.Afterwards when I inquired why I did not make it to the next round-I was told by Paul Meisen-you were not together with the accompanist.
    But,I met Jadwiga Michalska at this competition.She,too,did not make it to the next stage.She told me that her teacher,James Galway,did also not make it at Geneva.
    Geneva was a remarkable city at the time:Watches,chocolate and banks.I even came across Hitchcock walking his bulldog.
    After this contest,I never played in contests again.

    • Dottie B. says:

      Maybe he just didn’t want to tell you the truth.

      • ERaanan E. says:

        The truth usually prevails. Roger Bourdin said the same,so I guess he was also being gentle with me.Maybe you need a few more people around you who save you from uncomfortable truths. Maybe. Who am I to know.