SIPCA 13 (Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia) Reflections – 1

Perhaps the only reflections which should really give us pause are Reflets dans l’eau. Nevertheless, I’ve been reflecting a bit about competitions in general and this competition in particular.

First, considering the long duree (31 years), SIPCA has not “made” a single career.

That’s not to say that success in the competition wasn’t of some assistance to the competitants, but we are not talking of any moment comparable to Martha Argerich storming out of the jury when Pogorelich got knocked out of the Chopin competition. Those retrospective career-determining competition triumphs in the bios of Famous Pianists do not include a single prize moment at the Sydney competition.

If one needs only a place to stand on from which to move the earth, Sydney, pianistically speaking, is not that place. That is entirely unsurprising. Even famous competitions can go for years without producing any such fame-enhancing moment or momentum.

As a practical matter, this is a question of remoteness. Top-calibre pianists are a bit like eagles – they must roam over a large territory. They feed off audiences. Audience numbers in Australia are small and it is probably fair to say that the best Australian pianists (and certainly most of the best) are not resident in Australia. This is not just true of Australia. Pianistic fame is a creature of the metropolis, not of the provinces.

SIPCA cannot confer such fame upon its participants. The events of the competition are just too far away at the edge of the world and the concert engagements it can offer its participants are, on the whole, even more remote than Sydney.

So what does the competition achieve?

This is a tricky question. For one thing, it comes with a necessary sub-question: achieve for whom?

From the point of view of the pianists, the competition resembles when a new worker is invited to do some “trial” work prior to being offered a job. The new worker wants the job, so does the trial work, but even the worker who actually gets the job (assuming there actually is a job) is only rewarded for that trial work by the “reward” of getting the job. This becomes a full-blown scam when there is no job or where the job is in effect entirely being performed by serial trial workers. Then it is indubitably a scam because the inducement offered to do the work does not in fact exist. That’s not quite the case with SIPCA: there is no illusory prize of a fictional job; the prize is the prize.

But there is an area in between – perhaps a grey one. One simple test would be to consider the total prize money and to compare that to the price which one otherwise might pay the competitors for taking part. Incidentally, with those prizes there are in fact jobs for some, but we can leave them aside for a moment on the assumption that those jobs are genuine.

Tou Liang Chang has made a helpful tally of the prize money, as follows:

3. $ 19,000 RAN DANK
5. $ 9,500 ERIC ZUBER
6. $ 9,000 TAKASHI SATO
7. $ 6,750 HOANG PHAM
9. $ 4,750 YOONSOO RHEE
12. $ 2,000 ALEXEY YEMTSOV
13. $ 1,500 FENG ZHANG
14. $ 750 MIYEON LEE

That’s a total of $154,250.

That works out at about $4,400 for each of the 35 competitors who fronted.

As an average return for being available for about 3 weeks to travel across the world and present or be ready to present 130 minutes of solo recital material, one piano trio and a Mozart and other concerto, that’s nothing much to boast about. On average, competitors would have been better off getting a summer job accompanying at a summer school or even running activities at summer camp – in fact, doing almost anything else, including, to be sensible, giving up music and starting at law school or some other vocational graduate course.

The competitors also get the experience of taking part in the competition. I wonder if for the most part this is so stressful as to be a dubious pleasure. The one part which is probably of value to them is the opportunity for the finalists to perform with the orchestra – something which otherwise cannot readily be had for money or at all. Unfortunately, the advantages of this are somewhat curtailed by the extremely limited rehearsal time available which arises from a combination of the competition’s budget and of course the time budget of having all competitors and jurors available for that time.

The distinctive achievement of the competition for the audience, apart from the blood-sport of watching the competition work itself to an outcome, is not so much the concerti or even the piano trio performances, but the (36 x 40 + 20 x 40 + 12 x 50) 2300 minutes of recital program which is played. This is the rough equivalent of at least 23 piano recitals which, for the most part, are at a high level of at least technical finesse. That must be coming close to equalling the entirety of piano recital activity at that level which takes place in Sydney in the entire four years from one competition to the next. I suspect a similar comparison would hold if you converted that to a (bums on seats x minutes of recital program) measure of recital program consumption.

This is where we are getting closer to the trial work scam – because of the high ratio of free work given to the amount of actual work which is available.

2 Responses to “SIPCA 13 (Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia) Reflections – 1”

  1. Ning Says:

    whoever the blogger is, is absolutely rubbish.

    pianists perform to prepare for a bigger stage, and if that means they can perform in public, to a different audience, with the chance of winning tens of thousands of dollars; yes… they should continue.

    competitions do not really “make” careers (unless they are ones such as Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Leeds) etc. they assist pianists in the steps they take towards the goals they wish to achieve.

    Have you heard of Ayako Uehara?
    She won 2nd prize in the 2000 Sydney International Piano Competition. In 2002 she became the first woman (and first Japanese citizen) to win the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition.
    Now… I’m pretty sure SIPCA has assisted her journey to quite an extent.

    SIPCA has not “made”a single career?
    well.. perhaps the so-called “prizewinners” should practice more and not slack-off after winning. Perhaps consistency will bring them to great heights.
    Just like Miss Ayako Uehara.

    Please dont talk and criticise as if you know everything, when you’re CLEARLY not a performer.
    Stick to your own profession?

  2. marcellous Says:

    I’m still trying to work out the raw nerve I touched off to provoke this comment, and have decided it was the remark about how on average the competitors would be better off getting a job at a summer camp or starting a (non-musical) graduate course.

    In case I need to add emphasis as an indicator of something approaching irony or at least grim reality, the key words were on average. Good luck to Ayako Uehara, I say. She won another, more glorious competition. Too bad for those other unnamed and traduced slackers-off and insufficient practisers (if it really is so simple as that).

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