Here is a report from the Geneva Competition. I hope it will be helpful to those contemplating entering competitions -- and for those who feel that competitions are not for them. And I hope some of the insights will help teachers when deciding with students about selecting repertoire.
From November 15 through 21, I participated in the adjudication of the Geneva International Music competition -- category Flute. Other members of the jury were:
I was very excited to be part of this jury because, knowing most of the members, I thought there was an excellent chance that we would avoid the classic syndrome of rewarding technically perfect, "safe" players who offend nobody but play squarely. My hopes were that the best musicians would be recognized -- and these hopes were fulfilled. Despite a certain amount of voting for fingers, the three best musicians did indeed place first second and third.
Prize winners were:
Second - Sabine Morel, from France
Sarah Louvion - from France
The Geneva Competition had been inactive since the early nineties, and there were budget constraints in departments other than the prize money. Thus the flute jury was smaller for the first round and I was the person who came in for the second, third and final rounds. This was both a relief and a disappointment. I was relieved because the scheduling allowed me to stay in New York for the premiere of my largest chamber composition to date, the newly composed sextet "A New Prehistory". I would have hated to have missed it -- and might have had to decline participating in the competition altogether if it was an "either, or" situation. So serendipity was sympathetic and I heard the New York New Music Ensemble play my piece really well, a joyful experience. And then a flight back to Switzerland the next day (a bit nerve wracked because of the crash at JFK that morning), a day home and then off to Geneva!
To be a contestant was a herculean task. Everything had to be played by memory -- four programs including repertoire from the baroque to contemporary. While I don't know what happened in the first "elimination" round, there were remarkably few memory slips throughout the huge amounts of music in the following three rounds. I would say that for someone who memorizes well, it would be at least six months of work to learn the full course of programs. For someone not so confident a memorizer, at least a year, with plenty of trial performing from memory, would be needed. My hat is off to all the contestants who showed up prepared for the marathon ahead.
The European bias was bothersome, at least to me. The only non-European work in the entire four round repertoire list was Takemitu's Voice. American music and music from the last decade were strikingly absent from the required list, although the Muczynski "Sonata" was played by a couple of contestants in their "free" program, where the repertoire choice was open. Also, having an all-male jury seemed dated and tacky.
So we start with the fourteen survivors of the elimination round. Ahead lie Recital 1, Recital 2 and the finals with orchestra. For Recital 1, each played a substantial 30 - 40 minute program that centered on the 19th century French and German repertoire and Paris conservatory pieces. This included a mandatory choice of either the Schubert Variations, Beethoven's Serenade Opus 41, or the flute and piano arrangement of Mozart's C Major Quartet K285b. Each also played another major work from a list that included the Prokofieff Sonata (2 movements), Jolivet's Chant de Linos, the Franck Sonata, Dutilleux Sonatine, etc.
The jury sat in the balcony of a reverberant, large concert hall. To reach us clearly, projection and definition were a must. The number of ways to play Schubert out of tune was a surprise. As were the many ways to phrase his Introduction unmusically. The tempo needs to be a heartbeat, that of a person in mourning, not of a jogger. When yet another contestant tried to solve the breathing problems by playing way too fast, a fellow juror turned during the two introductory piano measures, tapped his chest and whispered "bypass!".
By far the largest problem, which plagued the competition all the way to and including the final round, was intonation. Is it fair to say that the French School has yet to open its ears all the way to this vital aspect of music making? Since almost all the players in the last three rounds studied in France it does make one wonder. That said, we heard some pretty dreadful intonation from German and Japanese players, too. (The rather few Americans who entered all failed to pass the "elimination" round, so I can't speak to their musicality and flute playing, not having heard them.)
Projection was a widespread problem also: projection of musical ideas and projection of the flute sound and articulation and the like. All too often it wasn't really possible to tell if a passage was articulated or not. Variety of articulation, so life giving to musical interpretation, was terribly absent in many performers. Given a highly reverberant hall with the jury far away, highlighting articulation and phrasing was a must, yet few seemed to realize they had to adapt their playing to the particular environment. I later learned that many had never played in the hall itself before Recital 1 and were surprised by the acoustics. Tip: ALWAYS go to the spaces you'll be playing in and check them out. If all you can do is clap your hands, do so. Do whatever is possible to see what the hall is about. Sit in the last row. Soak in the room's acoustics and get a feeling for how you would have to play onstage to deliver your music to the back row with full expressive detail. When its time to play, you'll feel that you know where you are, what you are doing and why.
In a recent thread on FLUTE about risers, I commented that I can't tell what metal a flute is made of when listening to an individual. I'm not so sure about that now. Almost without exception, players of gold flutes sounded somewhat muffled and unclear compared to those playing silver flutes. Often designed to have less higher harmonics in the sound (I checked with a noted flute maker on this), gold flutes are made to be "darker, richer" (as our discussion seemed to resolve to) by focussing the harmonics lower in the harmonic spectrum and supressing higher overtones. But it is those high overtones that give clarity, color and personality to the sound! Gold flutes may be wonderful for blending in orchestral settings or in the recording studio when close miked. But unless in the hands of a powerful player, powerful in sound and powerful in musical personality, "darkness" equated to less prescence, especially in the big hall. Of the three prizewinners, only the second prize winner played a gold flute, and she is quite the power player.
Then we come to use of energy. While I believe that moving while playing is natural, the extreme choreography of some players reached a level close to parody. Schubert wrote flute and piano music. One does not have to act out the music. Just play it beautifully and naturally. The basic concept of how motion relates to playing is simple. If a motion contributes to musicality by helping the player express, then its good. When motion drains energy from the music, its excessive. I deducted a lot of points when I found that less music reached my ears when I closed my eyes. Eyes open or closed, the MUSIC has to be heard equally vividly to the audience. The jury wasn't swayed by those who overdid it with swaying, bowing, turning to and fro, conducting (!?) and so forth.
One person brought her own accompanist. Always a smart move if it can be afforded.
Those with clear musical ideas stood out; selecting up to eight players for the next round was not a difficult choice and although the jury voted anonymously using a number system, the results were very similar amongst us all. Six players went on the "Recital 2" and the primary reasons they did so were musicality and/or very strong technique.
Recital 2 was in two parts.
Part One: Each of the six players performed a Bach or Handel sonata with harpsichord (a relief to our ears after the overly banging pianist the competition hired) and two movements of Debussy's magical trio for flute, viola and harp. If I may digress to comment as a composer, every performance of Debussy and Bach is a practical education on how to construct a musical work. These composers are incredible for this -- no matter how bad the performance, the strength of the musical design remains virtually unbreakable. There is so much to learn about what to do below the surface, how to make the unseen "gears and levers" so to speak, so that the magic spell can be cast by a musically aware performer.
The weakest playing of the competition was in the baroque. All six chose Bach rather than Handel. It seemed that the contestants fell into the trap of thinking that the Bach sonatas were easy and required less preparation. More memory slips happened in Bach than any other music. And the interpretations also were on the half-baked side. What a pity, considering that this was some of the best music to be played. Even the prizewinners were at their weakest in the baroque repertoire. There were a very few nice adventures in ornamentation; more common were some very dated performances practices with trills played as they were in the 1950's. Intonation problems plagued the baroque performances, often to the "ouch!" level. The lesson to be learned for future competitions and recitals: the best music deserves the deepest study! Don't assume that its not as hard technically as other repertoire. Its just as hard in its own way and needs a full allotment of practise time and listening time to develop interpretation. Otherwise a student level performace will occur, and that was the overriding character of the baroque playing we heard.
The Debussy was different. This was the only piece in which music was allowed. Two of the six stood out by making the magic happen. The reason? They were LISTENING to the viola and harp, both beautifully and sensitively played. We of the jury could clearly hear who was striving to participate in a trio creation and who was playing a flute solo with two other instruments.
Part Two: THE FREE PROGRAM
Here we got to find out who the players were as individual musicians. YOU ARE WHAT YOU PLAY, MORE THAN HOW WELL YOU PLAY IT. Programs ranged from:
"standard" -- relatively unimaginative, seemingly "safe" choices based on showing off various aspects of flute playing. Perhaps other juries would go for more of the 19th century canon, but we had already heard that in full measure in Recital 1. And may the world please, PLEASE, PLEASE lay the Carmen Fantasy to rest? Its day has come and gone. R.I.P. To do what the Carmen Fantasy did so well when it was new, the present day player needs to create her own fantasy based on present day pop music. Now that would have been daring and special!
"torture" -- An Andersen virtuoso salon piece that simply never ended. Its terrible music and its programming reflects immature musicianship. By the time one gets to third round in a competition like Geneva, the jury is already fully aware that one can play the chromatic scale and does not need to hear it and other hollow bravura nonsense for over twenty minutes. Advice to future contestants: stay away from nonensical "bladder-busters" in which the listener can only focus on "when will the end come so I can go?".
"imaginative" -- In many ways Silvia Careddu won the competition in this round. She played unaccompanied and used the Marin Marais Les Folies de Espange as a way to tie together a group of 20th century standards. She started the Marais, then dived into Berio's Sequenza, then continued the Marais for a few variations and played Density 21.5. She continued in this manner, embracing Takemitsu and Syrinx as well. Even if I had qualms about how some of the works were played, the overall concept and performance was truly compelling.
We also heard a gutsy rendition of some of Heinz Holliger's music in this round. Whether one likes this composer or not, (I'm not a huge fan, but do like some of his pieces) it was a refreshing change to hear something different that made sense as an artistic challenge and showed some serious contemporary chops (technique) as well. Playing something different is very important -- judges do become jaded when hearing the same things over and over. Making imaginative, creative and gutsy choices is vital! (And dragging forgotten trivia out of the graveyard won't fill this bill.)
"fiery" -- And we heard one competitor, who I thought was about to fall out of the running, dig in her heels and let it all fly blazing out the best performance of the Muczynski Sonata that I've ever heard. Playing at breakneck speed without hesitation or fear, she was just like a boxer behind on points. Knowing it was now or never, she went for the knockout and got it -- and made it into the finals.
Four finalists were selected easily. There was some discussion why a fifth didn't make it. Most of us felt this player was very strong technically but needed to develop as a musician.
On Wednesday evening, November 21, the Finals of the Geneva Competition took place in the Studio Ernst-Ansermet of the Radio Suisse Romande, with the orchestra of the "Suisse Romande" conducted by Emmanuel Plasson. The studio holds several hundred in the audience and has very nice acoustics. Sitting in the first row of the balcony, I looked forward to an evening of clear sound, and that it was. And the house was full, with a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Its fair to say the situation was optimal; everything now lay in the hands of the finalists.
As in the previous rounds, the contestants task was huge. This time it was to play (in whatever order each wished) the Mozart Andante in C Major, the Ballade by Frank Martin AND the Jolivet Concerto for flute and strings. Yes, all three pieces --- and all by memory.
Before speaking to the flutists performances, let me compliment the orchestra and conductor. Each finalist was given a sympathetic accompaniment and was followed with sensitivity. It was also gratifying to hear, feel and see the support that the orchestral musicians extended to the finalists. It could have been so ho-hum, churning out the same pieces four times, yet the orchestra clearly put forth the energy and commitment to give each an equal chance and for each to interpret the works individually. Emmanuel Plasson deserves high praise for his sense of balance, rhythm and color and for his ability to follow the soloists seamlessly.
The four finalists were:
Sarah Louvion, from France
Silvia Careddu, from Italy
Sabine Morel, from France
A) The level of memorization in this round was amazing. If anyone slipped, I didn't hear it. Considering the pressure, the degree of focus summoned by all four was astonishing.
B) With one easy-to-surmise exception, intonational problems diverted the ear from musical expression. As in previous rounds, this really was annoying. While I am a great believer in the expressive possibilities of intonational shading, such shading is a higher form of LISTENING than merely playing correctly in the tempered scale (which would have been a welcome improvement over out of tune playing). The flat low notes and sharp high notes and sharp loud notes and flat soft notes told a tail of listening habits developed in isolation in practice rooms. The lesson: Music, even for solo instrument, ought always to be conceived of as part of a larger whole. For flutists, a very useful way to work is to spend time with a fixed pitch sustaining instrument like the vibraphone. Avoid tuners that make unpleasant electronic tones whose sonority interferes with developing a sense of timbre, so intimately intertwined with sense of pitch. And avoid tuners that indicate pitch with lights. Developing intonation is a process of learning to hear, not one of making lights stop in the right place.
The Swiss musicians played quite well in tune, so there was constantly a good reference point for the soloists, had they been listening for it. Some of this may have been youth, some may have been nerves. But these were four seasoned competition veterans (more on that later) playing with tremendous confidence and knowing the repertoire extremely well, so I am convinced it is a problem in HOW they learned to hear. Or WHAT they learned to hear. Just listening to the flute part will lead one to dangerous waters.
C) Technique abounded. It was a showdown at Chop City! Which is why Ms. Careddu, who appeared least concerned with the flute while playing it best, won hands down. Music will out over flute every time.
D) Personal rapport with fellow musicians and audience is really important. It can't be faked. The combination of humility and self-confidence (far from mutually exclusive) and above all, an unabashed love of music, leads to a supportive atmosphere where everyone present wants the musician to play her/his best. There really isn't anything to do in this department more than simply being oneself, allowing one's feelings to show without defenses. We did observe contestants who more or less perfunctorily acknowledged the audience and those who understood how to give, and thus receive, energy from the audience. A public performance involves the public! And the members of the public are the performers' greatest friend; they are not enemies to be blocked out!
One of the best descriptions of how to excel under pressure comes from Reggie Jackson, the great American home run hitter in baseball. Since I don't have the exact quote I shall paraphrase: "I never try to isolate myself, to cut off awareness of the crowd or to feel alone as if only I and the pitcher are there", he said. "When I can embrace the energy of EVERYONE in the stadium, feel aware of everything -- then I can hit the home run".
As in previous rounds, it wasn't hard for the jury to decide. Sometimes decisions can be tough, particularly if jury members are oriented towards different values. This particular jury was listening for music, thankfully -- so we had no need to struggle. There was some criticism that the last movement of the Jolivert Concerto was played too fast. Indeed all four took tempi above the marking, and I liked it. Its the home stretch of the Big Concerto in their program -- if their hearts weren't going to beat fast then, when would they?
While one very experienced juror proclaimed that the general musical level was quite high, I must respectfully disagree. We heard a lot of technique, but with the exception of Ms. Careddu, who stood out in dramatic relief from all of the other competitors, the general level of music making, in my opinion among others, was not impressively high.
An interesting and valuable part of the competition's structure was that the jury members were available for personal feedback to all contestants after they were eliminated in earlier rounds and to all the finalists after the final round. It amazed me that a large group of contestants did not take advantage of this! Having learned all the repertoire, having paid the expense of travel to Geneva and putting themselves on the line -- why not learn as much as possible about what happened, about what was good and what needs work??????
If I have been harping on the French School previously in this report, I shall now play my loudest ARPEGGIOS OF FRUSTRATION. Not a single French contestant asked for feedback from any but French speaking judges. Not one! What would an American or a German know, even if the German juror just happened to be the solo flutist of the Berlin Philharmonic for over thirty years? I was aghast at this pathetic cultural inbreeding. As the world becomes more aware that the Geneva Competition is back, my prediction is that the future prizewinners will not be so predominantly French. Those with wider musical and cultural inputs will have more to say.
With only one exception (who is studying in Paris) all the Japanese contestants asked all the judges for feedback. To their great credit, they sometimes struggled through huge language problems; they wanted to know -- and we responded by helping as much as we could. In fact, virtually all the contestants from everywhere but France wanted the feedback of all the jurors.
This is what the best aspect of such a competition is all about, to learn and grow and not just to be judged. And to get the broadest possible perspective on one's artistry and one's playing.
I learned that many of the competitors are on a kind of competition tour. Jurors spoke of hearing this one or that one at Kobe or Riva del Guardia, etc. Is this what conservatory students are trained for? Is this what they think the world of classical music offers in the way of opportunity? I spoke with one prizewinner, despite her not asking me for feedback, because she looked so unhappy with not having won first prize. She said that it was the competitions that kept her going and at age 25 (!) she felt that her window of opportunity to win a major competition and have a solo career was closing. I told her that this meant that the true door of music was opening, that the true challenge of finding out who she is as an artist was just beginning, and hoped she would find this lifetime's journey fulfilling. Speaking of hope, I hope she got it, or will someday.
And while her's is but one individual story, it paralleled questions I was asking myself. In the world of classical music, is it true that opportunities are so narrow that it is DO OR DIE in competitions? Or is it an oversimplification that a lot young people buy in to and that perhaps many teachers teach? On the jury were former prizewinners and non-prizewinners both. It is possible to make one's way in the world on an individual path, conventional or unconventional. The keys to success are musicality, creativity and drive. Some luck doesn't hurt either. But the old saying about making one's own luck certainly has a lot of truth in it. Being at the right place at the right time translates into being out there, not staying home passively waiting for the bloodhounds of fate to sniff at one's door.
Certainly a disastrous approach is to think that collecting the scalps of the major competitions will result in a career. Those prizes certainly can help, without doubt, but they only go so far. What happens when one ages out of competitions and is no longer the "new star"? What happens when it is up to the individual to program the music and to make musical statements that take chances and reveal a true and personal depth of passion and of knowledge? Technique will be considered a given then, as will (thankfully) intonation. Playing the flute really well, or even fantastically well, won't be enough if the musician hasn't much to say.
I would strongly advise those believing in, or considering embarking on, the competition route to have a look at the last twenty or twenty five years of the Musical America Annual Yearbook. These are in the Music Library of your school. Check out who was heralded after which competition triumph, and follow their trajectory over the years to see where they are now. This is not to say that I believe that competitions are to be avoided or are without meaning, just to be sure that they are put into perspective. And while checking out the career trajectories of those who started out as prizewinners, why not also check out the career trajectories of your favorite artists? Some will have emerged from the competition route, some will have carved their own paths.
I would gladly be on the jury at other major competitions. As a person, musician and teacher, I learned a lot.