Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line




If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


© Basil Tschaikov 2006
Index page

Back to previous page

The musicians who had recently joined the orchestra, from the US, Britain and the Philippines were finding that the cost of housing was so high that they suffered financial hardship and this had led to various ‘deals’ having been arranged creating conflict within the orchestra itself, some musicians feeling that they were not being treated as well as others.

Coming from outside Hong Kong and with some reputation as a trouble-shooter the Committee allowed me to give them rather a hard time. The first thing they had to do was to recognise that they could not manage the orchestra themselves. Their task was to appoint the right people within the management structure, try out a number of guest conductors before appointing a principal conductor, or if the right person could be found – they are very rare – a musical director. He should not be involved in the management of the orchestra, as at present, and only be concerned with musical matters. I persuaded the Committee that for the next nine months they should give John Duffus the chance to do his job without interference (I was confident that he could), engage a librarian and an orchestral manager and regularise the pay structure on a much fairer basis.

In most countries the members of orchestras belong to a Union or Association of some kind that conducts negotiations on fees, conditions and complaints on their behalf. This was impractical in Hong Kong as virtually all the professional musicians were in the HKPO or those used to supplement the orchestra. I suggested that a proper orchestral committee be formed. There had been a committee of sorts but no defined pathway between it and the management. This had led as always to the situation getting out of hand and turning into a public wrangle. A small committee should be elected by the members of the orchestra to meet the General Committee on a regular basis, at least three times a year and these meetings should not be seen only as an opportunity for expressing discontent. Rather, they should be the way in which players and management could learn more about each other’s problems, aspirations and intentions. The orchestra should be encouraged to make recommendations and feel that they and their employers were engaged in a joint enterprise to make the orchestra and its performances as good as possible.

Finally, and essential for the future, better opportunities for local players must be created. Much improved instrumental teaching was needed – they should use the best players in the orchestra (mainly American) – and they should give as many Hong Kong musicians as possible encouragement to join the orchestra. Because the salaries for Chinese players was so low the best local players were leaving for better-paid employment elsewhere.

For the next few years I was retained in a rather informal way as a consultant. I was surprised (and delighted because it is so infrequent) that nearly all the recommendations I made in my report were implemented.

The Chinese Orchestra

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was not the only orchestra in Hong Kong. For the Urban Council the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra was probably more important. The first large folk instrument ensemble, The Broadcasting Company of China Chinese Folk Orchestra (now the China Broadcasting Chinese Orchestra), was created in China in 1935 and emulated the Western symphony orchestra.

By the time the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra was established in 1977 the instruments included both traditional and modernised Chinese instruments that could now play a chromatic scale, as well as a few suitable western instruments. As well as arrangements of folk melodies the repertoire consisted of many new compositions, overtures, symphonies and concertos, often based on traditional melodies but increasingly using western harmonic and rhythmic techniques.

The orchestra is extremely popular and an important part of the musical life of Hong Kong. Some idea of the interest in traditional Chinese instruments is illustrated by two remarkable events. In 2001 there was a mass performance by 1000 erhu players of Music for a Thousand Strings and then in 2003 three thousand Hong Kong citizens came together to play a drum piece The Earth shall Move.

The instruments in a Chinese orchestra are divided into four sections: bowed strings, plucked strings, wind and percussion. Until the Chinese orchestra was created music in China was normally played by small groups or by solo instrumentalists following an oral tradition and using the pentatonic scale. Unlike the usual folk groups the members of a Chinese orchestra sit in a semi-circle and follow a conductor and play from written music. Whereas the normal ensembles would have only one of each instrument, the orchestra has numbers of each of the string bowed and plucked instruments.

In China with its many regional music traditions, thousands of years old, there are hundreds of different instruments made from a great variety of materials: metal, stone, clay, skin, silk, wood, gourd and bamboo. The instruments mainly used in the Chinese orchestra include several two-stringed bowed instruments of various sizes: the erhu and banhu (both roughly violin pitch), zhonghu (viola pitch), gehu and digehu (cello and bass); the plucked strings are the beautiful pipa (or piba), a lute and the ruan, another lute, round like a banjo, but beautifully crafted and with a delicate tone; there are also two dulcimers, the yangqin, played with two bamboo sticks and the zheng.

The wind instruments are the suona, made of wood with a metal bell and a double-reed, a loud instrument, and two kinds of bamboo flute, the transverse dizi, and the end-blown xiao. Both these instruments come in several sizes. The sheng, in the West often called the Chinese mouth organ, has been known for more than 3,000 years and is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments. It usually has between 13-17 bamboo pipes of different lengths, each with a free reed made of brass, all mounted on a base which is traditionally a gourd-shaped, wooden wind-chest. Music is produced by blowing and sucking the air through a metal tube connected to the base. By virtue of its construction, this instrument is capable of playing up to six notes simultaneously.. From the base the air is blown through the pipes and the player decides the notes to be played by pressing keys near the base. By covering two or more holes on various pipes, chords can be played, a technique used in most Chinese folk orchestras.

The traditional Chinese percussion instruments include gongs of many sizes, cymbals, bells and chimes made of clay, stone or metal; clappers and temple blocks and many kinds and sizes of drums. The modern Chinese orchestra can now also include as many of the percussion instruments used in a symphony orchestra as the composer wishes.

There are now similar orchestras to those in Hong Kong and China in Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, the USA and Canada; sometimes two orchestras will join together as the Symphonisches Orchester Zürich and the China Broadcasting Orchestra did to perform the East West Symphony. The modernisation of traditional Chinese instruments required by the China Broadcasting Orchestra in 1935 started the process by which Chinese music and Chinese instruments are now used in pop music and are a popular part of World Music. The instruments and style of performance have been westernised and commercialised in the same way as so much folk music has been.

Continuing my visits to conservatoires

It is only a two hour flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, but whereas in Hong Kong the shops were full and the roads frequently traffic-jammed with buses and cars, in Shanghai and Beijing in 1987 there were far fewer shops and very few cars. I remember only a few big Mercedes taxis and when we were in one it was hair-raising. The taxi-drivers threaded their way with astonishing skill within inches of the thousands of bicycles, sometimes with more than one rider. Frequently a small trailer will have been attached, often rather dilapidated, filled with vegetables, or second-hand furniture, pots and pans and other household bits and pieces, and even an elderly relative with their legs hanging over the tailgate.

Though we had booked our flights to and within China and made our own hotel arrangements in Beijing and Shanghai, contrary to what we had been told to expect we were never asked any questions and were able to roam freely in both cities. As soon as the young people serving in the shops and hotels realised we were English they were anxious to practise the English they had studied and, to our surprise, were quite open in their criticism of the current regime. The increasing criticism of the regime we heard in 1987 escalated and finally resulted in the tragic and terrible events in 1989 when the students demonstrated in Tiananmen Square.

On the Sunday we were in Beijing I had no meetings and so we took the opportunity to do some sightseeing. We hired a taxi at the hotel – it was not possible to hail one on the street. If one was visiting several places it was necessary to keep the taxi waiting at each place, perhaps for some time. We first went to an enormous market, even bigger than the Flea market in Paris. There were stalls selling everything – we bought a large tablecloth and twelve napkins all covered in beautifully embroidered strawberries for a fraction of what it would have cost in Britain. We then visited Tiananmen Square, where our very obliging taxi-driver took some photographs of us, one of me standing in front of a large portrait of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and the Forbidden City (now called the Palace Museum). The Forbidden City, where an extraordinary collection of many thousands of wonderful works of art, paintings, ceramics and porcelain of the utmost delicacy, begun in the 10th century, had been housed for five hundred years until the Japanese invaded China in 1931, was now open to the public, though nearly entirely empty. To preserve it the entire collection had first been moved to Nanjing, then to Shanghai and then on to a remote village in the south. In 1949 when it was captured by the army of Chang Kai Shek, all but 700 items out of this enormous collection were packed into ten thousand crates and as Chang’s army was forced to retreat from mainland China it was finally shipped to Taipei in Taiwan.

In the evening we went to a concert of Chinese music to which we had been invited by the Director of the British Council in Beijing. This was the real thing; not a Chinese orchestra, but a number of groups of four or five musicians and individual soloists and singers playing and singing traditional folk music as it had been played for hundreds of years. A delightful end to a wonderful day.

My visits to the conservatoires and orchestras in Shanghai and Beijing were extremely interesting and, again, surprising. I was told by the Director of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and several professors that during the Mao regime it was forbidden for them to teach western instruments or play western music. They were not dismissed, nor did they cease to receive their salaries. But they were obliged to come to the conservatory every day to be lectured on the iniquity of their former ways and to be instructed in the basics of the communist philosophy. When I met them they were again teaching their instruments as they had done before Mao’s injunction. The general standard of the students in both conservatoires was technically good, but their performances often seemed to lack any real understanding of the music. In Shanghai I was invited by Chen Xie-Yang, conductor and Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, to a rehearsal and then to a recording session the orchestra was doing that afternoon. The orchestra was not yet up to the standard of professional orchestras in the West. There were some good players, especially in the strings, but too many of the members of the woodwind and brass sections were not really quite good enough. Xie-Yang, who also conducted in Beijing, arranged for me to meet the conductor of the symphony orchestra of the Central Philharmonic Society, Han Zhong-jie, and to attend one of his rehearsals when I was in Beijing. This was a better orchestra, probably comparable with one of the BBC’s less good regional orchestras in the 1950s.

We would have liked to have been able to stay in China for longer. We found the people extremely friendly and though we knew only one word in Chinese, ‘Kne-howe’ (that is how we pronounced it), meaning ‘Hello’ or ‘Good day’, we managed by gesture and in one way or another to communicate with people in what felt like a very relaxed atmosphere in both Shanghai and Beijing. I was invited to listen to some young musicians in their homes and found that the living conditions were, by our standards, quite appalling. A typical flat consisted of two small rooms and a tiny kitchen. The communal bathroom and toilet facilities were shared with perhaps five or six other flats. Each of these very small apartments with such limited space might be shared by three generations; the husband and wife, their children and their own parents.

When we arrived in Japan we were to find that everything was very different. As our taxi hurtled towards Tokyo from the airport, surrounded by large cars – no bicycles here – the meter recording the cost of our journey also hurtled forward. I wondered how long our money would last out. In Beijing the cost of a taxi for a whole morning had cost about £1.50. In Tokyo that amount of money took us less than a mile. I had been to Japan with the Philharmonia in 1970 when the orchestra took part in Expo 70 in Osaka and then went on to Tokyo to do two more concerts. Even then the Japanese were vying with America to be at the cutting-edge of technology; by 1987 it seemed to me that they had achieved their objective, and yet at the same time retained much of the old-world values that had so impressed me when I was there in 1970.

Without doubt the three conservatoires I visited while I was in Tokyo presented the greatest contrast with those in Britain or any I had seen anywhere else. All three, Kunitachi College of Music, the Toho Gakuen School of Music and the Musashino Academia Musicae were privately owned and appeared to be extremely wealthy. Each had its own beautiful concert hall, recording rooms and equipment and excellent facilities for students. The Kunitachi College of Music Library has a remarkable collection of Beethoven scores that includes more than a hundred original editions and a number of manuscripts. A framed copy of a manuscript letter in Beethoven’s hand, which I was given, has a prominent place in my music room. The Musashino Academia has a very large museum of 3000 musical instruments from all over the world. As well as a separate piano museum and collection of European instruments there are collections from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin-America and Japan. The Toho Gakuen School concentrated on inviting outstanding composers and performers such as Aaron Copland, Henri Dutilleux and Heinz Holliger. More recently in 2001 the Maazel/Vilar conducting competition was held at the School, using the college orchestra.

At all three I was treated as a visiting celebrity, fetched from my hotel and returned in the biggest and most luxurious fitted cars I have ever been in, wined and dined and shown the glories of each institution. This was very enjoyable, but it was soon very clear that there was little chance that we would attract any of their students to the NCOS. They sent most of their best students, those destined to become soloists, to the USA and a few to Germany. Those students who would become orchestral musicians received considerable opportunities within their own college orchestras.

My visit to Taipei, in Taiwan was disappointing as far as recruiting students was concerned. When I met Dr Chang, the Director of the Theatre and Concert Hall and President of the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, it did not take me long to realise that there were not yet any young musicians ready to benefit from anything the NCOS had to offer. But while we were in Taipei we had the opportunity to visit the National Palace Museum where the treasures captured by Chang Kai Shek’s army in 1949 were housed. The National Palace Museum had been built as an exact replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing, where the treasures had been captured. There we saw a wonderful display of part of the collection – only a small part because it is so large that there is not sufficient room to display it all at once. It is quite incredible that the delicate Ming porcelain and other beautiful china ornaments, cups, jugs and plates survived undamaged as they were transported so far over land and sea by the retreating army.

Before returning to England we went back to Hong Kong so that I could see how things had developed since I was there in 1981 and cement the relationships I had made previously. My first call was to the Music Office to meet the new secretary of the Jockey Club, Mrs Ngai. She told me that the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts, which had only been at the discussion stage in 1981, was now starting to accept students and that she had arranged for me to meet Basil Deane and Angus Watson, the recently appointed Principal, who would show me over the new building that was now nearly finished. The following day I had the opportunity to inspect what looked as if it would soon be ready. It was a fine building and I looked forward in the coming years to a number of their students applying to the NCOS and being supported by Jockey Club scholarships.

The manager of the Hong Kong Philharmonic was now Stephen Crabtree who had been Principal Double Bass in the LPO and an old colleague of mine. The orchestra was now well established and its former troubles were forgotten. John Duffus the previous manager with whom I had remained in contact since I had played a part in helping him through a difficult time, was now a successful agent managing concerts and theatrical tours throughout the region.

To celebrate the end of our travels John Duffus took us for a fabulous Chinese meal on a Junk moored in the bay where not only did we eat and drink well but saw a virtuoso display of hand thrown noodles. The next day we set off on the long flight home.

Back at the National Centre again

Three days after my return in March it was time for the entrance auditions for the 1987/88 NCOS orchestra. We were still unaware that events beyond our control would mean that my travels had been too late to be of any lasting value and that at the end of the 1988/89 course the NCOS would be obliged to cease operating.

From the start it had been very difficult for students who had been at a music college to obtain a grant for a further year’s study at the NCOS. The courses at the music colleges, which had formerly been for three years, had recently been extended to four so that throughout the 1980s, as Local Authorities experienced increasing financial restraint, it became even more difficult. After five or six years the way in which the commercial television companies had been organised changed and they were obliged to substantially reduce the financial assistance they had been providing. A year or so later it stopped altogether. The final blow was the BBC’s decision that they could no longer afford to continue funding the NCOS. In relation to the size of their overall budget the amount they had been providing was minuscule, but its withdrawal was the death of the NCOS. With only the money it was receiving from the Musicians’ Union, some fees from a minority of students and one or two private donations, it was impossible to continue.

There was also the problem that though those musicians in the orchestras, who were also professors at the music colleges, were happy to come and coach and constantly told me how valuable they thought the course was, they were reluctant to recommend their very best students to apply to join the course. I understood their reluctance. After all, some 36 years previously in 1942 aged 17, I had left the Royal College of Music to join the Wessex Orchestra. Now I was myself a professor at the RCM and I was suggesting to my pupils that it would, in 1979, be a good idea to have this ‘one year in protected accommodation’. The standard and conditions that prevailed in 1942 had given me the opportunity to prepare myself so that in 1943 I was capable of holding down the job in the LPO. Before about 1960 this is how most young musicians gained experience in advance of joining one of the major orchestras: by playing in small light orchestras, theatres and by providing the ‘stiffening’ that most amateur orchestras required when they gave a concert.

The reluctance a good many teachers had was caused by their concern that if their pupils were not always available to apply for an orchestral post as soon as it appeared another opening might not come along. Unfortunately it was impossible for students to obtain a grant, or even a partial grant unless the NCOS made it a condition of the course that students must commit themselves for the whole year. Nor would it have been possible to run the orchestra if players were to be leaving – we did not have any funds to replace them.

Between 1980 and 1990 the amount of employment outside the pop industry continued to decline, and has continued to do so since then. Nonetheless, most of those who came to the NCOS did go on into the profession. I rarely go to a concert, to the theatre or anywhere there is music – opera, ballet or a musical – when I do not see a former NCOS student. Some of my own RCM students came to the NCOS and are in various orchestras. Now, in 2006, one is principal in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and one who was Co-Principal Clarinet in the LSO is now Principal in the Royal Opera House Orchestra. Other clarinettists who came to the NCOS are now principals in the Stockholm Radio Orchestra, the Malmo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

This attempt to establish advanced preparation for the orchestra probably failed because many of those who could have made it possible believed that the Youth Orchestras provided sufficient opportunities to gain orchestral experience. Funds were found to enable the Youth Orchestras to go on overseas tours and the National Youth Orchestra and European Youth Orchestra were allowed to take part in the Proms, but the MU would not allow the NCOS Orchestra to do so.

Naturally, everyone found the sight and sound of the very young musicians exciting and felt that those who had been at music college for four years should be ready to take their place in the profession. Though the orchestra managements did not think that the young musicians leaving music college were ready, they wanted the best of both worlds – further preparation for their orchestras, while at the same time being able to take anyone they wanted from the course whenever they wanted to. In the first year a few of the orchestra managements unwilling to wait until their chosen player had completed the course tried to induce them to leave. The young musicians, of course, wanted to start earning as soon as they could. It may be that the existence and subsequent demise of the NCOS did lead to the music colleges providing rather more and better orchestral experience than they had previously.

The NCOS would probably be providing the advanced education that many musicians still believe would be valuable for the very best students leaving music colleges if the grants for a further year’s study had been made available and there had been sufficient money to replace students leaving the course. In 1989 there was another attempt to create preparation for the profession, not only in Britain but for young musicians throughout Europe.

The considerable reduction in the amount of free-lance work in broadcasting, recording and casual concerts for orchestral musicians means that there is intense competition for the few openings in the orchestras as well as in the free-lance sector and only the most outstanding instrumentalists can gain a foothold in the profession. Those that do are extremely gifted instrumentalists. They have to learn very quickly how to respond to the demands and pressures of life for an orchestral musician.

Competitions

As well as their concern for improved preparation for orchestral musicians the 1977 Calouste Gulbenkian committee spent a great deal of time considering music education throughout the education system, in particularly the standard of instrumental teaching at all levels. In their opinion there were still not enough top class soloists being produced, even though the 1965 Calouste Gulbenkian report Making Music had resulted in a number of specialist schools being established in the years following the Report – the Purcell, Chetham’s, Menuhin, Wells Cathedral and St. Mary’s (in Scotland) schools. They felt that there should be earlier identification of talent and an increased number of specialist schools at primary and secondary level leading on to the Junior Departments at the music colleges.

Through my involvement in these discussions I became much more informed about music education in general even though I had learned quite a lot as a visiting lecturer at Middlesex University. While at the NCOS I was invited to take part in several forums on music education and to be a visiting speaker at several universities and colleges of education. I was also asked to be a member of the jury of a number of music festivals and competitions. Two of the most important were the BBC Young Musician of the Year and the Royal Overseas League.

The BBC hold preliminary auditions for the Young Musician of the Year all over the country where a great many young musicians are heard. I have only been involved in the final two rounds for both these competitions. For the earlier rounds there are juries for each category, keyboard, strings, woodwind, brass, and in the BBC competition also for percussion. The winners of each category then go on to the final, where they are pitted against each other to produce an outright winner. At the final the contestants must play a concerto with orchestra before an audience as well as the judges.

By the mid-1980s the number and variety of competitions had increased and has continued to do so. There were competitions for composers, conductors, quartets and for ensembles of all kinds – some for young performers, sometimes very young, others for already established, or hoping to become, established performers. The rewards varied considerably from relatively small money prizes and trophies to awards that not only offered much larger financial inducements but opportunities to perform in major national and international venues. Whenever the question of the value of competitions arose, as it increasingly did, it could generate a good deal of heated discussion. As competitions continued to proliferate an increasing rumble of discontent became apparent. Not, as might have been expected, from the unsuccessful or disappointed, but from distinguished performers and composers of national and international renown.

The competition that attracted the most critical attention at that time was the BBC Young Musician of Year. The finals of this competition were shown on TV, and continue to be. As a music programme they were undoubtedly popular with the public, as they still are. For some years they attracted a viewing audience second only to the Last Night of the Proms. It was the size of the audience and the extent of the exposure to which these very young musicians were (and still are) subjected that worried many concerned musicians and teachers. The degree of publicity experienced in the final rounds is greater than that to which even celebrated artists at the peak of their careers are generally exposed. The pressure to accept engagements subsequently is irresistible. The effect this might have on young artists at a pre-conservatoire stage and the unfortunate consequences this could cause was of most concern.

One of the first groups to complain was the European String Teachers Association (ESTA). In its published report the argument against competitions is put very strongly:

The notion of ‘winning and losing’ implies the possibility of measuring achievement in its most important essentials. To allow the choice of a winner among many losers, it is necessary to set a standard against which they can be judged. Such a standard can only exist for simple, concrete attributes. There is no problem about finding an acceptable standard for comparing and making a judgement on the height of an object. If, however, instead of height, we wish to judge relative grandeur, no form of measurement is conceivable since too many intangible qualities are involved.

In musical performance, the only measurable attributes are aesthetically insignificant. In the unlikely event of two listeners agreeing on the accuracy of a performance in respect of pitch, rhythm and dynamic variation, this would still leave out of account all the most important aspects of individual interpretation, and so, in performance (as in music examinations) the greater the accomplishment of the performer the less valid are attempts at ‘grading’. The variety of performance in music is as important as the variety of appearance and character in human beings. Fashion, which plays such a deadening part in standardising appearance, also attempts to lay down laws of the same kind for music, to standardise interpretation. But art, like humanity, is individual and immeasurable and the conclusion must be drawn that, in the sense of ‘winning and losing’, artists cannot compete artistically.

The composer Alexander Goehr put the anti-competition view even more forcefully. When asked what he considered the essential characteristics of an ideal competition he replied, ‘There are only un-ideal competitions. I cannot answer as I am totally opposed to the competitive spirit in performance.’

Lady Evelyn Barbirolli, the conductor Sir John Barbirolli’s widow, formerly an outstanding oboist and then an adjudicator of a wide variety of events, expressed a very different point of view. Though she did express some concern for the effect over-exposure can have on performers of a tender age as a result of winning some prestigious events, she said ‘I am in favour of competitions. They are necessary, and like it or not, they have become part of our musical life.’

Music in Time, published by the Jerusalem Ruben Academy of Music and Dance asked several famous international artists whether they thought there was a need for competitions as a method of introducing artists to the public. The composer and conductor Lucas Foss wrote: In former days the teacher launched the young artist –then the manager. Now a manager only takes you on if you have won a competition. And the cellist Janos Starker, They are commercially important to accelerate the careers of really exceptional talents. Isaac Stern, the virtuoso violinist, felt that, ‘In recent years (he was responding during the 1980s), unlike three or four decades ago, music competitions have, regrettably, become something of a necessity in presenting young talents to the international market. There has been such an explosion of performing possibilities, longer seasons, and general information available through radio and television that it has become much more difficult to capture the attention of the potential public and impresarios necessary to the young performer.’ He was then asked, ‘Can young artists really convey their abilities during competitions?’ ‘The answer depends on comparison with their performances outside the competitions. I personally could hardly have performed in the tense atmosphere of a competition. Certain performers do play well under these circumstances and yet fail to develop later when they are on their own. Perhaps it is because of the enormous concentration that they have given to the specific work demanded by the competition to the exclusion of all else, and what may seem like outstanding ability in general becomes particularised only for a certain series of works that have been carefully prepared.’ The pianist Tamas Vasary was more certain ‘Competitions suit the athletic types, less the more introverted, sensitive types. Not all are able to show their best in competition conditions.’

In an article in Classical Music the production team responsible for the BBC competition responded to the criticism levelled at that competition with considerable vigour accusing their critics of a muddled attitude and having consulted very few people either inside or outside the profession and having consulted nobody who had participated recently in any of the competitions they criticised. (though one of their production team was on the ESTA group that published the report Music Competitions). The BBC production team accused ESTA of having ‘a fundamental flaw – they started with their conclusions already formed and wrote the report to justify them’.

As a member of the National Music Council throughout the 1980s I was involved in several seminars the Council organised. The debate about the value or otherwise of competitions was still raging and in 1987 the Council decided that it should organise a seminar on this topic; a sub-committee was formed and I was elected chairman. My own feelings about competitions have always been somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand I feel very like Tamas Vasary, perhaps because whenever I have been put under that kind of pressure I have been conscious of my father listening and finding my performance inadequate. On the other hand, the force of the practical response from Lady Barbirolli and Isaac Stern seemed to make good sense.

In my opinion competitions for young musicians, up to the age of 18, all playing the same instrument, with the minimum amount of media attention, or competitions for those who have already embarked on a professional career, such as the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, when publicity for those taking part will be valuable, should be encouraged. There are a number of competitions where musicians, still at school, playing a variety of instruments, at times even including singers, are pitted against each other. How does one judge the virtues of a violinist playing a wonderful work such as the Brahms’ Concerto against those of a trombonist playing the attractive, but light-weight, Larssen Concerto, or between the qualities of a pianist offering the Beethoven ‘Emperor’ Concerto and a flautist playing the Ibert Flute Concerto?

Should judges assess candidates only on how they perform on the day or is potential more important? When Ginette Neveu was 16 and David Oistrakh 27 they both took part in the Wieniawski Competition; Oistrakh came 1st and Neveu 2nd. Does it make sense to grade artists of this calibre? Imagine if one had to decide between artists of this standard on different instruments.

By May 1988 a National Music Council seminar titled Good Practice in Competitions had been arranged with a panel of speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds: performers, competition winners, adjudicators, teachers, competition organisers and sponsors. The flyer for the event stated: In the afternoon those attending the seminar will also have the chance to express their views on a subject upon which most musicians and those concerned with music have very determined opinions. Neither the opportunity to hear what Peter Donohoe, John Carol Case, Lady Barbirolli, the organisers of some of the major competitions – including those organised by the BBC and the Royal Overseas League, nor the opportunity for everyone attending to air their own views, proved to be an inducement. Though the event had been widely publicised and was to take place on a Saturday in a central London venue, it had to be cancelled. Only three tickets had been purchased!

Why had there been no response from all those who had been expressing either their hostility or support for competitions so vociferously? I decided to write a letter for publication in the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) journal of a kind that I hoped would stir up some controversy. This time there was absolutely no response at all. Perhaps there are too many vested interests for anything to change very much?

Had the seminar taken place the Council had intended to issue a report that it hoped might become a useful guide to all those interested in this important aspect of contemporary musical life. In 1990 Rhinegold, the publishers of the journal Classical Music decided to enclose a copy of a lecture originally given the previous year by Peter Renshaw, then Gresham Professor of Music, who had previously been the Principal of the Yehudi Menuhin School for nine years. He called his lecture Competitions and Young Musicians; the place of competitions in the personal and musical development of young people. He was strongly opposed to the way competitions were organised and presented two views of these events – a ‘Marketing/Commercial’ model and an ‘Artistic/Educational’ model. The latter as expressed in his lecture is idealistic and full of very good suggestions as to how it might be done, but, sadly, quite unrealistic.

‘The utilitarian marketing model’, he said, ‘reflects the values of a tough entrepreneurial world which sees competitions as a sporting contest in which a potential ‘star’ wins. The form of life which underpins this model contains many of the features associated more with the world of marketing: for example, corporate sponsorship wanting a readily identifiable return on its investment, through which a company can promote a ‘winner’ and raise its public profile by being seen to promote the arts. In its strongest form this model is amenable to media hype and as such it can distort the nature and content of a competition.’ He goes on, ‘It could be argued, perhaps rather cynically, that by mirroring the tough realities of the market place, in which the ‘‘survival of the fittest’’ becomes the central guiding principal, this marketing model performs an invaluable service to the public, the sponsor and the performer alike.’

Renshaw suggested, and my own experience leads me to believe he was correct, that the conservatoires were over-producing professional musicians, so that competitions could be seen as a useful social mechanism controlling entry into the upper echelons of the profession. He said ‘This might appear harsh, but there is no doubt in my mind that some teachers in some institutions are driven by a kind of ‘killer instinct’ which is then caught by the more ruthlessly determined student.’

Now, fifteen years later, in the Classical Music Guide to Music Competitions 2005, there are over 250 music competitions listed. In an environment even more commercially driven than when Renshaw gave his lecture, it is only the ruthless student, soloist, chamber music player or orchestral musician, that will survive. The pressures that so many are now experiencing is felt as keenly by musicians. There are those, and I include myself in their number, who, while recognising that competition can play an important part in increasing technical skills, regret the loss of sensitivity and individuality it so often causes.

Chapter 23

back to previous page

 

Index page

 

 



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

Advertising on
Musicweb


Donate and get a free CD

New Releases

Naxos Classical

Hyperion

Musicweb sells the following labels
Acte Préalable
Alto
Arcodiva
Atoll
CDAccord
Cameo Classics
Centaur
Hallé
Hortus
Lyrita
Nimbus
Northern Flowers
Redcliffe
Sheva
Talent
Toccata Classics


Follow us on Twitter

Subscribe to our free weekly review listing
sample

Return to Index

Untitled Document


Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.