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.

Find out more / apply


Daniel Tong

 

 

 

Daniel Tong’s website

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Between 20th – 23rd November this year, the brand new building at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire will be alive with the sound of chamber music, all involving the piano. An array of leading international artists will share the platform with talented young musicians in a brand new event, directed by Daniel Tong (pianist and Head of Piano Chamber Music at the Conservatoire). Musical friends will be joining Daniel from across Europe for concerts, masterclasses and also a competition for young ensembles, more about which below. Given the wealth of such events for piano or string quartet, for instance, a celebration of chamber music with piano is overdue, especially given the keyboard’s place at the heart of so many great composers’ musical personality. Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and many more were all musicians with consummate mastery of the piano, speaking freely through their wonderful instrument.

The festival line-up is headlined by pianists Katya Apekisheva and John Thwaites, cellists Christoph Richter and Alice Neary, violinist Esther Hoppe and violist Robin Ireland, who are lined up to take part in concerts alongside the Gould Trio and London Bridge Trio. Together they will explore the chamber music of Brahms, Schumann, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and present new works by Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Concerts take place in two magnificent new performance spaces at the Conservatoire, opened this year: the larger Concert Hall for evening events and the more intimate Recital Hall for daytime performances. The same artists will work with students from Birmingham and beyond, as well as providing the jury for the competition.

Daniel Tong says: “Chamber music is a multi-layered medium, in the wealth and depth of its repertoire as well as the skills and characteristics required to realise it. It is music for sharing, both with one’s performing colleagues and the audience, and is therefore somewhat confessional. It is open to wide-ranging interpretation, despite often being put together by composers with great intellectual rigour. A competition in this discipline may therefore seem like a paradox, which is why our festival is as collegiate and inclusive as possible. We will make music together. Each competing ensemble will give a recital and take part in masterclasses. All jury members will also perform as part of the festival programme. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire has put chamber music at its heart with inspiring results.

The competition is set up to offer maximum benefit to the young competitors. After preliminary audition (all applicants will be heard, either live or by video if entering from outside the UK), eight ensembles will be invited to join the festival in November. Each will present their recital as part of the festival programme, take part in masterclasses, and three groups will progress to the final concert. The winning ensemble will be offered mentorship and a commercial recording with Resonus Classics, as well as engagements including London’s Wigmore Hall.

For more details about this unique and inspiring event, visit the festival website

Or email keyboard@bcu.ac.uk

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Recital Hall at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Julian Lloyd Webber, acclaimed cellist and Principal of the newly rebuilt Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, on inspiration, passion and the importance of music education

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Who or what inspired you to take up the cello and pursue a career in music?

I always loved the sound of the cello and I found it a very natural instrument to play – unlike the piano which my mother attempted to teach me. Therein lies a lesson: never learn an instrument from your parents!

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

I wanted to play the cello professionally after I heard the great Russian cellist Rostropovich in concert.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career?

Every performance is a challenge.

You are a passionate advocate of music education? Why do you feel we need proper provision for music education in our schools?

Children deserve a wider education than just a few narrow subjects. They should leave school knowing a lot about the world – and that includes its culture.

As Principal of Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, how do you see this institution’s role in the context of music education in the UK and beyond, and the wider society of the city of Birmingham and the UK in general?

Birmingham is a fantastic city with a great future – soon Londoners will realise that they can have a far better lifestyle for much less cost in Birmingham. Unfortunately that will be the end of the city’s comparatively low property prices. The Royal Conservatoire will be at the heart of the city. We have five performance spaces and we will be running an extensive programme of concerts of every kind of music.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Keep thinking for yourself and never lose your passion for what you do.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Bringing music to as many people as possible.
Professor Julian Lloyd Webber is the Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire. Widely regarded as one of the finest musicians of his generation and described by Strad magazine as ‘the doyen of British cellists’, Julian Lloyd Webber has enjoyed one of the most creative and successful careers in classical music today. As founder of the British Government’s In Harmony programme and the Chair of Sistema England, he continues to promote personal and community development in some of England’s most deprived areas. He was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1994 and – in recognition of his lifelong devotion to the music of Elgar – he was elected President of the Elgar Society in 2009.

At the age of sixteen Julian Lloyd Webber won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and he completed his studies in Geneva with the renowned cellist, Pierre Fournier. Since then he has collaborated with an extraordinary array of musicians from Lord Yehudi Menuhin, Lorin Maazel and Sir Georg Solti to Elton John and Stephane Grappelli.

Julian Lloyd Webber has premiered more than sixty works for cello and he has inspired new compositions from composers as diverse as Joaquin Rodrigo and Malcolm Arnold to Philip Glass, James MacMillan and – most recently – Eric Whitacre. His many recordings have received worldwide acclaim: his Brit-award winning Elgar Concerto conducted by Lord Menuhin was chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine and his coupling of Britten’s Cello Symphony and Walton’s Concerto with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner was described by Gramophone magazine as being “beyond any rival”. He has also recorded several highly successful CDs of shorter pieces including Cello Song, Unexpected Songs and – together with Jiaxin Lloyd Webber – A Tale of Two Cellos: “It would be difficult to find better performances of this kind of repertoire anywhere on records of today or yesterday” – Gramophone.

Julian is married to fellow cellist Jiaxin Cheng. He was the London Underground’s first official busker and he was the only classical musician chosen to perform at the Closing Ceremony of Olympics 2012. In April 2014 Julian received the Incorporated Society of Musician’s annual Distinguished Musician Award.

www.julianlloydwebber.com