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Abolish competitions, says competition winner

Boris Giltburg won the Queen Elisabeth to widespread acclamation at the start of the month. But the experience left him furious and wounded. He froze in the middle of a Mozart piece. Happily, he played himself out of it. But he does not think young artists should be put under the kind of pressure that competitions bear on them. He’d like to replace competitions with a better way of discovering talent.

Read his candid interview with Reuters correspondent Barbara Lewis here.

Et maintenant aussi en francais, ici.

boris giltburg

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  1. Malcolm James says:

    The heyday of competitions was the 50s to the 70s when the likes of Pollini, Argerich Perahia and Zimermann won competitions. How many of today’s very top pianists came to the fore through winning the Leeds, Chopin or Tchaikovsky since then? The problem is that, leaving aside vested interests of contestants being the pupils of jurors, there is so much subjectivity that this inevitably leads to ‘horse-trading’ and all too often the award of first prize to a compromise candidate. This means that there is a manner of playing or singing which is conducive to winning competitions, but not necessarily to developing a major career afterwards.

    • In regards to your question about how many very top pianists come to the fore through competitions now, the short answer is “Trifonov”; others whose careers might be considered successful after they won major international competitions are Blechacz, Yundi, Wunder (2nd) — so apparently I am limiting this to Chopin and Tchaikovsky Competitions, and maybe that’s the problem: we are expecting Queen Elisabeth, Leeds, Van Cliburn also to produce that level of pianist, and maybe there are simply not that many very top pianists on the circuit? (The question of whether juries will award original artists or simply encourage the kind of cookie-cutter competition playing that is so boring is another can of worms). But for what it’s worth, I’d rather hear one of the aforementioned young winners than Alice Sara Ott, Yuja Wang, Lang Lang, or Jan Lisiecki, who did not win any major competitions.

      • And now many more know of Giltberg, and I — and many I know — are glad to have heard Bozhanov. Unfortunately, through earliest times young warriors are pitted against one another for ‘entertainment’ — but with concert hall realities (hall mgmt folks don’t want ‘nameless’ musicians) , it’d be good to hear some realistic, doable suggestions from people who lament having to hear them or be heard under these conditions.

        How do you build support and audience for the many thousands graduated each year? It’s the ballgame syndrome but those wanting to actually listen do have a lot of opportunity now, worldwide and with archives that are open to audiences for free, for, literally, years now.

        On the other hand, the concert circuit is a bit of a horror to many musicians too.

  2. Left him wounded. Not the first time I’ve heard this.

    Years ago, John Lill* spoke on Radio 3 about the difficult psychological effects of winning competitions, particularly the performance and repertoire pressures that young and inexperienced musicians are instantly subjected to, in full glare of the public spotlight.

    I wish I could find a link but the search terms are so vague and the broadcast(s) so long ago (late 70′s to mid 80′s) that nothing may survive. I have no idea whether there are any written transcripts, or whether he has commented further on this subject, and have no time to go hunting right now. But he speaks from experience, as most of us cannot, and he’s well worth listening to on this issue.

    *At least I’m pretty sure it was John Lill – if it turns out that I have mis-remembered the name and anyone can correct me, please do! I just recall hearing it discussed on Radio 3 and being hugely impressed, both with the artist himself and the fact that the issue was being aired.

  3. Bob Thomas says:

    “I’m a bit angry at the world for not having come up with another way of discovering talent other than competitions,” he said. I’ve been hearing this for several decades and the short answer is: no one has. With such a large number of talented artists coming out of conservatories each year, competitions are one way of separating them. People know that and they keep entering competitions and then complain about the conditions afterward. I also notice with some degree of interest that Mr. Glitburg didn’t announce that he was turning down the 80 concerts that are coming his way via winning the QE,

    • Yang Wen Li says:

      Poor argument, sir. Humans have yet to discover a better way of getting rid of bodily waste and still have to go to the washroom every now and then – it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily an enjoyable process!

      Mr. Giltburg won the competition fair and square. No matter how he feels about competitions, he has no obligation to turn down his prize.

    • Alan Lai says:

      Bob, not sure whether you read and comprehend the article. Boris states he loves playing concert with audiences and he think that’s the right way to improve, instead of competitions. So why in the world he will turn down the concerts? Are you insinuating that he should give up concerts as well if he didn’t like competitions?

  4. Boris Giltburg is a pro of the competitions. He has participated and won a lot of them. Now he says this. Not very coherent, dear boy!

  5. Well, wounded or not Boris Giltburg is a great pianist. I had him recently with the Jerusalem Symphony and he was outsatnding and everbody could sense that he would be famous one day. WOULD. Because, without the strong projectors of competitions or a recording label, you can wander forever at the edge of the big carreer -which is fine in itself as long as you work and enjoy working…
    I should add that this “agony” of the competition is very similar to the “agony” of the stage fear that will invade a performer, competition or not, jury or not. I am a pianist as well as a conductor, and when I play a concerto with my orchestra, I often consider the audience as our legitimate jury -and the one that follows us much longer…
    So, those competitions “filter” the candidates that would fail to develop that kind of armor that is necessary to survive on stage. What Boris Giltburg described is the same feeling that he probably experiences sometimes in a concert, and manages to override….

    • close listener says:

      All I heard about from this competition was the Giltburg Mozart memory slip. So many attentive listeners, maybe that’s what he’s complaining about, he didn’t get away with it? In contrast, no one talks about Daniil Trifonov’s amazing memory slip in his NYPhil debut where he skipped 7 bars of the Prokofiev 3 finale and had to improvise for a half minute. As you say, the pressure of a competition might only prepare potential concert performers for the massive amounts of pressure that follow winning it. Would Giltburg prefer young concert pianists be vetted by professional music critics while on tour?

      • Taken at a waltz-like tempo of approx. one bar per second, 7 bars of the finale would be about 7 seconds, not 1/2 minute? Or did it take them that long to get back together again?

  6. Novagerio says:

    Another mediatic trick in order to make headlines?…

  7. Stephen Hough had some very interesting thoughts about being a competition winner as well…

    “It was the best of times. Suddenly out of a queue of thousands it was my name that had been called: “Here’s your ticket to a career. Have a safe trip!” Interviews, repertoire-planning, plane tickets, hotels, new tails-suit, broadcasts, managers, recordings – this was my new life, and I had asked for it. From learning to doing in the time it took to boil a kettle; a Doctorate begun and ended, student years over – overnight, at the tender age of 21. It was truly thrilling as I finally got to do what I had wanted to do since first seeing that box of strings out of which sounds were hammered into gold….It was the worst of times. To begin with, I had very few concertos in my repertoire – maybe six or seven. What would I do when it was the eighth which was requested? Learn it, of course! But when in one season I had to learn seven new concertos and keep as many older ones on the boil too my mind began seriously to spin out of control. “Tiredness can kill: take a break” is wise advice, but once this car is up and running it can be very hard to pull over to the lay-by and rest a while. The temptation to continue driving can be overwhelming, particularly, as happened once, I was down to my last 30 pounds in the bank. Those early concert opportunities do not simply sit there in suspended animation, patiently awaiting the moment when we feel prepared to take them up. They are automatically passed on to someone else – first come, first served; the early bird gets the worm; bird in the hand … Entering a competition in the first place is saying “I’m ready for this journey” – yet few at that stage know what the journey entails.”

  8. Alan Lai says:

    The real sadness about competitions? Not the pressure, but the standardized repertoire. Its like a menu in fast foodchain.

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