Guest post by Daniel Tong
The second edition of the Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Competition will take place as part of the Conservatoire’s November Festival celebrating the role of the piano in chamber music. Six young ensembles, chosen at preliminary audition, will be invited to join the festival, give a recital, take part in masterclasses and compete for prizes that include a Wigmore Hall debut, commercial recording with Resonus Classics, mentorship and further concert engagements.
But why another competition? The arguments against are often-repeated: music is an art, not a sport; competitions encourage perfect technical performances of lowest-common-denominator artistic merit; it’s all a fix anyway, and the jury merely choose their own students. There has been some truth in all of these arguments, but none of them are essential to the idea of a music competition. The arguments in favour are made less often, and perhaps less clearly; it is down to the competitions themselves to take a lead.
In Birmingham I have created a competition that, I believe, does all within its power to make the experience positive for everyone involved. Of course there will be a winning ensemble, and those who are not chosen will be disappointed, but there is something on offer for everyone in a collegiate atmosphere of musical celebration. The competition takes place within a festival, where leading professional artists will perform alongside Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students and the six competing ensembles. These six young chamber groups will all be given the opportunity to take part in masterclasses, and their performances will be publicised as part of the Festival and livestreamed. The grand final livestream will be shared by Classic FM. All of the jury members will also play in concerts, dismantling some of the barriers between them and us. They will take their seats in the audience to listen to the young artists, rather than behind a desk with bottles of mineral water.
A competition gives anyone a chance. We have undertaken to hear all applicants at preliminary audition, either in person or by unedited video. Jury members will not be given references or biographies of the musicians that they hear. In a way, this is a fairer process than one in which an agent takes on an artist who is recommended to them by a friend, or who is already successful. To me, the argument that personal networking is a fairer process than a structured competition doesn’t make sense, and it can be guaranteed that all of our competitors will have plenty of chance to hone their networking skills in life before and after the event. Our competition also endeavours to make sure that there are no barriers to application, and that the open and accessible nature of video and livestream performance, which blossomed during the pandemic, are not lost in the rush to return to ‘normal’.
I have created a mark scheme for the competition that encourages artistic understanding and flair. So, although a performance that is a mess technically is unlikely to succeed, there are far more scoring categories that address artistic considerations than technical perfection. Of course ‘technique’ and ‘artistry’ are intertwined, the former being the means of producing the latter, but we have all been deeply moved by performances that couldn’t necessarily have been put out into the sanitised world of CD recording. Our mark scheme recognises this; music will inevitably be beautifully subjective, but this will be the case when our young artists gain reviews and are received by audiences in concert. And this is the nub: I would far rather that we rewarded artistry, communication, beauty, feeling and all of the attributes of music that elevate it above so much else in life, than focussed on the rather more mundane and measurable, even if highly-skilled, qualities. This is, I think, another important idea for our competition to own: we are looking for the ensemble who win on the night. The music that touches us and somehow steals the show. We are not trying to conjecture as to who are the ‘best’.
Oh, and the jury aren’t allowed to score or advocate for any ensembles with which they have a prior connection.
So, I hope that many young ensembles will throw their hat into the ring, and I look forward to welcoming six of them to Birmingham in November, when we will celebrate piano chamber music in all of its many guises.
Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Competition takes place between 14th and 16th November 2022. Applications are welcomed from duos, trios and quartets with an average age of 28 or under, as long as the ensemble includes a single piano.