The pianist Peter Donohoe, a judge at last month’s Queen Elisabeth Competition, is distressed at the low attention received by this historic and prestigious event. He writes:
That the Queen Elisabeth Competition ends up being described as ‘low-key’, as a result of the shamefully thin media coverage this great event has received is sad. I realise that the main thrust of this is to observe that it was not covered so much outside Belgium, which when one is in Belgium is quite difficult to detect or otherwise. Within Belgium, however, it was as major as any classical music event could be.
I did, however, realise that the coverage of this event by the British media was almost zero. If the same applies to Germany and France and elsewhere, that is also a shame. Time after time I find myself feeling concerned that my own country’s media only seems interested in a music competition – please don’t mention the depressing unmentionables as an example of my being wrong – if there is a chance of a scandal – (as they always seem to expect in Moscow, only to be disappointed in recent years.) Even the coverage of our own Leeds competition has been relegated to a shadow of its former self; one would have expected that the colourful personality of Dame Fanny Waterman would have kept things interesting enough for the competition to be deemed a major event, but not so. And now, DFW has retired from the competition. Even BBC Young Musician of the Year seems sidelined in the present anti-cultural and anti-intellectual climate.
Anyway, readers will be happy to hear that the competition was completely without scandal, exceptionally well supported by Belgian TV, radio and press, attended consistently by members of the Belgian Royal Family – in particular Queen Mathilde, who showed an interest in the competition that far exceeded token Royal support – and very large numbers of the Belgian public were glued to it from the word ‘go’. There was of course an increase in coughing and fidgeting from the audience during the last night, indicating that we had amongst us a large contingent of the sort of people who only wanted to be there at the climax. However, no competition in the world could hope for more community-spirit than this, and I was very happy and honoured to have been involved.
As far as the final result is concerned, nothing happened that isn’t inevitable at competitions. Everyone knows that no jury can – or at least, should – enter into any post-competition public discussion of the various candidates. However, I, too, was very sad at the absence of a prize for certain competitors. In one case, in conversation later I did not find a single jury member who did not feel the same way. To those who have never experienced competitions from the inside, this seems impossible, but it happens more often than not; it is therefore something about the system that needs to be constantly re-thought. It is agonised over by many of those running competitions – certainly the organisers in Brussels did so.
As stated many times before, the jury did not ‘see fit’ to ignore the talent of certain people; such an absurd, although oft-trotted-out statement, implies the usual assumption that everyone on the jury felt the same way – they did not and never could. No musician has the same opinion; if that were possible, we would be involved in a dead art. What is possible is to be respectful of each other, and we were.
No, we did not cynically remove good pianists from earlier rounds, in order to eliminate any threat that they might pose to the expected winner; we are grown-ups. If it is true that anyone has ever succeeded in doing that, they form a disgrace to their profession; however, I don’t know of it.<
The placing of Lukas Vondracek as first prize was as inevitable as it was popular with the public, and I – along with all the other jury members, I am sure – wish him the very best with his future career. Comments that he is 29 and already has a career, and therefore should not be entering, touch a nerve with me; I was 29 and already had a very satisfying UK career when I did the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982 (I had my 29th birthday in the middle of the competition). I hope it meant that I had the experience to follow through after the media storm that the prize created had subsided. The same might apply to Lukas Vondracek, and those who wish to prejudge what will occur need to cork it; you do not know, and neither does Lukas, nor, indeed, does the jury. We do not have a crystal ball; all we can do is our best to be fair, genuine and objective at the time of the performances presented to us, vote and then respect what transpires as an average. I speak for the whole jury when I say that we did all of those things.
Playing Rachmaninov 3 at a competition final should not comprise a black mark. The only reason a repertoire choice of any sort has any relevance is that it often demonstrates program-planning abilities, which form an intrinsic part of being an artist, particularly at this level. Of course the end of Rachmaninov 3 is a crowd-pleaser, but it is also one of the great landmarks of the piano concerto repertoire. The jury can see beyond the fact that a major audience reception, in this case including a unanimous stand ovation, is almost written into Rachmaninov’s score; we are in theory experts in our field – at least give us credit for that.
(c) Peter Donohoe/Slippedisc