Journal of a Piano Teacher from New York to California

Two side-by-side approaches to Schubert and ONE wins a prize


Over in Fairbanks, Alaska the awards ceremony that capped a prolonged Internet channeled e-competition was dragged out mercilessly. Every sponsor under the sun had to be acknowledged, including Yamaha International that put its Disklavier center stage, UP-staging the old-fashioned way of delivering music to audiences.

Would you believe, laudatory performances were memorialized on a big screen, while a LIVE Disklavier cranked them out like a player piano would, but through a MIDI process. It was both bizarre and intriguing to see the instrument without a performer at the bench.

When all was said and done, the results came in with mixed reviews among pianists, amateur and professional, who were watching and prognosticating around the globe.

Just for purposes of identification, I’ve extracted two side-by-side performances of Schubert Sonatas that have glaringly different approaches– one which landed the entrant from Denmark/Sweden the Schubert PRIZE, and eventually, the big CHEESE first place, $30,000, plus a bunch of prestigious concert engagements.

And as happens in the course of many COMPETITIONS (where music is uncomfortably placed in the SPORTS arena), disappointments abound among the players and fans. (The fervor of World Cup Soccer and other athletic events have set unhappy precedents where emotions rise to fever pitch, sometimes spilling into physical confrontations)

Within the more sedate Fairbanks concert hall, by contrast to an open mega sports stadium, disenchantment with the final POINTS tally was nonetheless manifest in posted comments on a rolling Internet board.

Heated exchanges surrounding the choice of winner resulted in one particular posting being removed for no apparent reason. (Perhaps because it de-commercialized the event and begged for a showcase, and not a round of gladiators vying for victory)

But what makes money are competitions and products that are promoted in the process.

Onto the Schubert AWARD

My personal pick for this particular prize was Mariana Prjevalskaya (Spain) playing the A Major Sonata, D.959 (Fast forward to 9:50 for the performance start)

In my opinion, she spun gorgeous singable lines, and had just the right timbre and tone that blended with the Romantic era and the composer’s alliance with lieder. (Songs permeated his body of works) There was no pounding or Brahmsian climaxes. She stayed true to the era, and was not trying to impress with bravura splurges or dramatic pauses. The pure liquidity of her playing was a hallmark characteristic of all her offerings, and perhaps its intimacy, for the most part did not carry her to the winner’s circle as the competition progressed to the big Concerto round.

To the contrary, the WINNER, Peter Friis Johansson, viewed Schubert in bigger proportion, inserting pauses (fermati over rests) that were so long that an audience member could go out for a cafe latte and return in time for the next phrase.

And his fortes rose to fortissimo levels, notching up the drama quotient to questionable levels for this music.

(Fast forward track to 6:08 for official start of Schubert’s Bb Sonata, D. 960)

In the last analysis, rating a performance is a matter of personal preference and aesthetics, so the judges did what they thought best in awarding a PRIZE for a reading they were comfortable with.

But did that mean all the right notes were played, and minor memory lapses were verboten?

Because music-making is not a sport, the whole presentation was marred by the very ethos that doesn’t fit well within the arts environment. (i.e. scoring phrases and musical expression–trying to level the playing field among star players by slipping into accuracy tallies) It might have been pertinent to icy Alaska where dog races have a clear, decisive victor but not on the universal concert stage, LIVE-STREAMED or just plain LIVE!

As a former piano competition adjudicator poetically expressed:

“Music should promote communication, not competition.
“Music should encourage connection, not comparison.
“Music should be about confirmation, not criticism.
“Music should celebrate creativity, not confusion.
“Music should engender congratulations, not consolation.”

He added a quote from the Schola Cantorum:

“One does not make music against someone else.”

Let the E-Competion contingent of producers, directors, trustees, and sponsors be awakened to the sensibility and sensitivity of these words and proceed accordingly.

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