June 30, 2008
Like many others, I have never been much of a fan of competitive music-making. The whole process and experience of music seems so alien to a winner-loser frame of reference that treating it like either a sport or a game of chance can seem degrading somehow. And the effects on the competitors, usually young and impressionable, have not always been happy.
But along come Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz to create a competition that manages to banish all the most objectionable aspects of the genre. Informed by their own long careers as performers and teachers of young musicians, the New York Piano Competition emphasizes community and mutual interchange, personal musical development, jurors who are as much resource as judges, discussion and performance of new music, and final celebration of what all the young pianists have brought to the week of activities.
In this new, improved version of the piano competition, 22 players between the ages of 14 and 18 committed themselves to what looked as much like a particularly sophisticated music camp as a high-stakes competition. Each of the players knows that he or she will leave with a substantial monetary prize, all have a good chance that their performances will improve during the week, and there will be a number of interesting unknowns. For example, each young player draws the name of a fellow contestant who will be his or her four-hands partner for the week. The pair is then assigned a coach, and they go to work on ensemble playing. If the example I heard was at all representative, they reach a very high level of musical cohesion. Two young women playing a rewarding work by John Corigliano made the listener wish to hear more of such playing.
The Stecher-Horowitz Foundation commissioned a new solo piece from John Musto. It was challenging enough that even the composer/virtuoso suggested that the young people not be required to memorize it. The sprawling and complex fugue of his Improvisation and Fugue was a formidable challenge to their musical understanding and technical execution. In the event, a high proportion of the young people appeared at the competition with the music securely memorized. I heard three quite different performances of the piece (one of them at a revelatory seminar that Mr. Musto gave for the young people), and — as one would hope in a complex and nourishing work — the three found distinct things to explore and emphasize in their performances.
At a gala reception at the Lotus Club, held after the awarding of prizes, the jurors and contestants got to mingle with dignitaries like the founders of the competition, board members of the foundation, the President of the Manhattan School of Music (which hosted the competition), and Mr. Musto again. What was perhaps most impressive was how far the whole experience was from ending with the jury’s decision and the awarding of prizes. The students were still asking questions, discussing musical perceptions, and no doubt learning what it is to contemplate a life of which all this was a sample.
One of the players even asked for a private session with Mr. Musto. Since he had not placed among the top prizes, I had not heard his performance of the Improvisation and Fugue, nor had the composer. So the day after the competition was supposedly finished, I was able to join the young man and his father (for this competition had involved the parents, even holding sessions to advise them on the challenges of having a gifted musician in the family) for a two-and-a-half-hour session of playing, coaching, questioning, mutual sharing of compositions, and a kind of generous intergenerational musical communication that is not growing on trees. This young man is simply one of the most promising musicians I’ve come across in a long time. Already having won a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music for the fall, one feels that his subsequent career as a performer will owe a good deal to Mssrs. Stecker and Horowitz for having the foresight and perseverance to create and maintain the ideals of this competition, which in its next, fifth incarnation, will go international.
(Full disclosure: I must admit, I did once in my early twenties overcome my principles and enter a competition. But I did it because I needed the money, and no red-blooded musician ever objects to playing for money.)