What does it take for media to cover a premier competition?

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.< lukas vondracek

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

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  • If the Queen Elisabeth Competition had wanted coverage in the UK press, perhaps they might have sent out a press release to some UK music journalists? Doesn’t guarantee coverage, but it’s generally a good start.

    • Perhaps the competition itself doesn’t give a monkeys about coverage in the British press. I am personally concerned about the lack of interest from my own country – not just from the press, and not just in this particular event. The Queen Elisabeth Competition has been regularly held since 1937, and has always been highly regarded by the music world. I knew that long before I was invited to be involved, and I am not a music journalist.

  • Even the music world doesn’t care so much about major competitions any more.
    It used to go without saying that all the biggest orchestras and recital halls would invite the most recent major prizewinners.
    It still happens now, but rarely. The biggest competitions are not what they once were.

  • Well stated, Peter. It is very difficult to sustain the high level of media attention for almost anything in a world drenched with multiple distractions and growing technology, and finger pushing on smartphones, laptops, keyboards of Macs, HPs and other typewriters. Alas, the piano, the pianoforte as we should say, still merits as the keyboard of choice for many. Competitions which were, at one time, held in highest regard, have become greater platforms of pianistic entertainment and competition for many, and unfortunately less publicized by others. This should, in no manner, dilute their traditions and challenges to the young performers nor the jury to respectfully uphold their values and voting principles true to their hearts as well as in tribute to the competitors. In reality, had we not enjoyed this surge in technology, perhaps we would never enjoy reading your essay of the competition, and feel closer to its merits as a leading stage for many young and outstanding artists. There are several competitive events in music which also offer online access to the events, bringing the performances straight to the eyes, ears, hearts and souls of the viewing audience unable to attend the onsite festivities. True, publicity has indeed changed since the days we often read about such events in print, but this has also empowered organizations to publicize online to a wider audience, the likes of which have never been possible in the 20th century. Social media has also empowered audiences to be involved in the global network of attendees when events are streamed as webcasts. It is a learning experience for many, as to maintaining interest in respected traditions of the past, combined with the present. Media is growing and its use is still trying to be figured out between the world of yesterday and the world of tomorrow. I surmise it may be very different in the coming decades. Above all, I hope the next generation(s) will prize the values and events held in the highest regard in the past, and will publicize them appropriately to new viewing audiences online as well as locally.

    Regarding repertoire for competitions, there will always be the ‘smart choices’ and, when played on the highest level, will push those players to the finish line. However, it would take an entirely new thread to discuss repertoire for the future. As you know me by now, this is a tender subject, as I personally believe the concerto repertoire for performances, recordings and competitions needs tremendous developments and expansion further into the 21st century. There is a need to develop the repertoire for all instrumental soloists with orchestra. Commissioning such works is vital for the future of the repertoire, for future musicians, for concerts, and indeed, competitions.

    • Many thanks, Jeffrey.

      To follow up on your repertoire comment: at the QE Competition the finalists, as well as performing a concerto of their own choice*, all played a remarkable new work, specially commissioned by the competition from Belgian composer Claude Ledoux, called ‘A Butterfly’s Dream’.

      *We heard 3 performances of both Prokofiev 2 and Rachmaninov 3, and 1 each of Chopin 1, Brahms 2, Rachmaninov 1 and 2, Tchaikovsky 1, and Liszt 1.

      This piece is very challenging, from many points of view – particularly rhythmically, for its use of colour and in particular working with and listening to the orchestra. It was very rewarding to observe that almost all 12 performances were exceptional – I hope the composer would agree. Perhaps, therefore, it is fair to say that the traditional repertoire is still the music on which an artist is judged, because it is that music that throws down the greatest challenges to their artistry; the more recently a piece has been written, the more young contemporary artists can relate to it. It would have been great to have heard a work that pre-dated Chopin in the final, but having said that, each semifinalist had performed a Mozart Concerto, so the tendency was bound to be to choose a major Romantic work in contrast to that which we had already heard.

      • Glad to hear this detailed overview of the repertoire presented in the final round. The QE competition has maintained the tradition of requiring a new work for the competition which is to be commended. Is there a chamber music component as well?

        • You don’t think it is possible to have so many exceptional performances? I don’t understand your objection.

  • Thank you for your commentary, Peter Donohoe. Since I was the person who brought up all the Rach 3s in a previous thread, I’ll just add that while I don’t need to hear this piece again for a very long time, I’m glad the jury feels differently. It would be horribly unfair if they felt the way I do.

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