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wieder einmal in Wien

December 6, 2014

A good night’s sleep on a long-haul flight is still a novelty for me, and as we start the descent into Zürich I’m grateful to the ingenious flat-bed seats provided by Swiss Air. I can’t say I dreamt of chamber music but there was pleasant, if vapid, in-flight music, and memories of past journeys to Europe, each one having the sense, like this one, of being a point of transition. When I was twenty, I left Australia for the first time, also from Melbourne, also headed for Vienna. Then, it was to study at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien with Professor Zettl; now, Keith and I are the elders, listening out for what the youngsters have to say to us in music. It strikes me now, as always, as as much a privilege as a responsibility. Prompted by conversations recently had at CMA and among playing colleagues, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is we might be ‘listening for’. It’s a question I’ve often been asked, and one to which I never feel I’ve given an adequate answer, perhaps because my thinking has never been fixed, as it still is not. More on this anon.

Continuing this, a few days later in our snug hotel, with the magnificence of the Rathaus between us and the city centre, we have been mulling over our second audition session, which was held yesterday at the Haydn Institute, only three streets over from the Johannesgasse, where I reacquainted myself with the aforementioned Konservatorium. Now that we have heard eight groups — two piano trios and a string quartet played in Melbourne; two quartets and three trios in Vienna — there are indications of what will be on offer in Melbourne next year during the international competition. There is also a strong sense of privilege and responsibility, and an even greater feeling of deeply affecting emotional connection. These are, after all, so very much like the people we were, twenty or thirty years ago — eager, hopeful, nervous, in love with music and wanting more than anything to be a part of it for life. Except that, when I was their age, I was all in for a solo career. There is something specially moving about hearing young people who, already in their early twenties, are devoted to the beauty of musical sharing, which is at the core of chamber music.

At this stage, then, Keith and I are keenly listening, and I am making copious notes in my (I like to think) fashionable little Moleskine notebook, pending more leisurely late-night discussions over a handy Glühwein or two. It’s a hard life.

Three days later:

It’s Sunday afternoon and Keith and I are waiting in the lounge at Vienna airport for our flights to Hannover and the German leg of the tour. Vienna has been utterly delightful, despite the weather gradually closing in, and today’s hint of snow to come is a little tantalising. This is a city that really sparkles under a fresh fall of snow.

However, it’s time to turn to thoughts of what we are to hear ahead, and return to considerations of how most effectively to listen to the young musicians we are meeting. I wrote a blog post that drew a thoughtful and heartfelt response from an old friend, John Garran. Particular mention was made of the question of what happens when a musician is rejected by such as we. This is probably something we all know about, whether we’re musicians or not, and I could expand on my own experiences in that area, but I won’t. There is rejection and rejection, and one’s response can be altogether different, depending on external and, for want of a better phrase, internal circumstances. Our job, in its essence, involves culling, choosing and rejecting, and we should not only be able to justify our decisions, but respond to all of our young colleagues in a way that is at least intended to help their development. Then, what is experienced as rejection at one point can lead on to growth and artistic strength.

Competitions have probably always come in for a lot of stick, from well-meaning people with informed and intelligent points of view, and I have heard mention recently of Bartòk’s famous, and critical, observation, likening music competitions to horse races. Very well, the point is valid, as far as it goes. On the other hand, what are the alternatives? Competitive processes are everywhere, and provide opportunity for many, and rewards for a few, at any given time. I prefer to focus on the opportunity rather than the evils and stresses that sometimes, or often, come hand in hand, but hold to the view that many people who ardently support and follow competitions such as MICMC do so for the best reasons, all to do with their love and admiration of young musicians and for the music they play.

You might think I’m avoiding the issue of criteria; perhaps I am. It’s not that I don’t believe in them, and I do make notes that refer to some, which I find useful as a guide. However, it has always seemed to me that to be too prescriptive about what aspects one hopes to hear, and to be prepared beforehand to reject other aspects of performances that have not yet happened, by people we have not yet met, of music we not yet have heard before, is all a bit premature. The first and overwhelming obligation of the musician is to open one’s ears and listen, and listen again and to continue to listen. Without the discipline of real listening, we can (and I frequently do) fall into the trap of seeking short-cuts, looking for reasons for rejection rather than for inclusion. There is also the truth that all good artists know: technique is not the master of art, but its servant, although it’s much easier to assess technique than art. And, the artist is always greater than the sum of the parts. More on this anon.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. johnofoz permalink
    December 7, 2014 2:16 am

    Auditions. Competitions. How fraught indeed the consideration of such endeavours. Surely the weight of responsibility lies heavy upon the shoulders of the auditioner, even if allowed the scope of selecting sixteen participants, rather than just two MICMC winners. What effect does that eventual “thumbs down”, that rejection slip have? And what criteria is appropriate in the selection ordeal. Respected American opera writer, Fred Plotkin had this to say in a recent blog: “Some judges pick the best performers on the day they are heard while others try to surmise who has the most career potential and name winners as a form of encouragement”. Whichever the approach, there is a balancing always of the subjective with the objective, technical brilliance versus musicianship, interpretation and communication. What role does repertoire selection have, and does excellence in the contemporary outweigh the same in the great romantics? Or vice versa? “Horses for courses” they say, but who knows the predilections of those seemingly pleasant people in whose minds the future of your ensemble lies for such a few minutes.

    Perhaps it doesn’t really matter: quality will have its own rewards (as long as you have enough ability to market yourself well in an increasingly competitive world). Wise heads have said the value in competitions lies not so much in winning as in the developmental value of intense preparation over a long period and pitting oneself against your peers.

    The outcomes of past MICMCs are perhaps salutary. Taking string quartets for example, winners in 2003, the Paizo Quartet disappeared quietly after the competition. Finalists, the Tankstream Quartet went on to become the Australian String Quartet and a longish career together before breaking up. But in a different take, unsuccessful piano trio, the Eimer Trio’s string players,Matthew and Emma Denton went on to form the very successful Carducci String Quartet. In 2007, the winner, the Badke Quartet, still exists but with only two of the original line up (and is now arguably much better for that), while non laureates the Tin Alley Quartet have forged something of a fine reputation in Australia, albeit having replaced their virtuoso first violin. The 2011 big prizes were shared between the Kelemen Qvartett and the Amaryllis Quartet, both of which continue to forge first class careers, while two others, the British Finzi and Barbirolli Quartets have both disappeared without a trace.

    So perhaps successful participation depends on the individuals’ perception. But one thing is certain: forming and maintaining a successful ensemble is the toughest gig of all. You auditioners, as exponents, know this better than any. But all this notwithstanding, whomsoever you metaphorically bring home in your Moleskine notebook will, undoubtedly, bring us all great joy next July in Melbourne.

  2. December 7, 2014 4:43 am

    All keen and valid observations, John. Thank you for your substantial, well-considered reply. I mean to address some notions of what criteria are worthwhile, or even possible, in my next post for CMA.

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