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A Better Way of Judging Musicians? The Leopold Mozart Competition

Leopold Mozart Competition, Round 1

Eleven hours of listening to thirteen young violinists giving their utmost – eight net hours of Paganini’s Caprice No.24, Mozart’s Rondo in C major, a Bach solo Sonata excerpt, and a newly composed work by Elzbieta Sikora – may not sound like hard work. It probably isn’t. But about nine hours into it, it certainly feels like it. When you’re on your eleventh Caprice, which comes out to eleven themes and 121 Variations, it demands a call on all resources to resist the new-found familiarity with Paganini from breeding contempt. And contempt, while perfectly acceptable for fueling creative writing as a journalist, wouldn’t be helpful when sitting on a jury. In this case the jury of the tri-annual Leopold Mozart Competition in Augsburg, famous-ish for its inaugural winners Isabelle Faust and, in the following competition, Benjamin Schmid. (The latter also the jury’s president on this occasion.)

Actually, listening to the above basket of works beats listening to the Reger G minor Suite for Solo Viola 18 times in three days (an experiment in self-control I underwent at the 2008 ARD competition) or hearing Chopin’s F minor piano concerto nine times in two nights, as I did at the 2015 Chopin Competition finals. Not having to write about it also makes matters easier; there are only so many ways of describing the performance of the Adagio and Fugue of BWV 1001 before one is bound to repeat oneself. Just listening in, on the other hand, and trying to assess where a player’s at in their life and art: that can be a joy… only occasionally tempered by, let’s call it: “room to grow, artistically and stylistically.”

For anyone not keen on the kind of music-making competitions often foster, there’s good news: Happily, the Leopold Mozart Competition, under the artistic directorship of violinist, violin professor, and Mieczysław Weinberg-maven Linus Roth, is trying something rather novel. The question on the outset was: How to conduct a music competition in a manner that makes the results more musical, less technical, and less musico-political? In Augsburg that starts with getting rid of the perennial bane of competitions: No teacher-student relationships whatsoever. That’s not easy when you have a jury full of violin pedagogues. This is where another element of Roth’s re-thinking of a competition comes in. Don’t jam the jury full with violinists who judge violinists – competently but also very, very narrowly – on sheer technical merit. Bring in all kinds of ears and different ways of listening. Other musicians: Cellists (Christian Poltéra, Danjulo Ishizaka), violists (Nils Mönkemeyer). And, crucially, ears closer to the ground of an artist’s reality: concert hall directors (Wigmore Hall’s fabulous John Gilhooly) and agents (Sabine Frank of Harrison Parrot)… even journalists and music consultants (Anna Picard, Remy Franck et al.). And, because you can’t actually let just violin noobs do the judging of violinists, also some stand-out violin soloists and pedagogues in the form of Marco Rizzi, the aforementioned Benjamin Schmid, Friedemann Eichhorn, Ulf Hölscher, Liza Ferschtman, and Erik Schumann. A diverse bunch that is meant to result in a fuller type of picture of an artist making it through a competition’s round: A system that’s more generous to risk-taking and to personality over a monoculture of technically competent young musicians who play it safe and are more concerned about avoiding stylistic offense than displaying personality.

Lessons – perhaps truisms, rather than new insight – can be taken away from the first two days of playing: Mozart is the hardest to play well. The natural tendency of a competition player, even under the best and most tolerant conditions, is to impress. Impressing is generally done outwardly, not inwardly. Consequently, Mozart gets played like Brahms, with brawn over subtlety… and suffers in the process. Bach isn’t much easier in that regard. If young musicians listened to Bach cantatas more regularly, Bach performances would surely improve across the board, no matter the style of the performer. Paganini suits the situation and ambition of most players better… but the 9th Variation of No.25 is almost always taken too fast as if speed records were more important than clarity. All of these habits come down to a fear to go for less, which yet might be more, so very often. Anything that can tamper that situation in a competition-environment should be welcome. And finally, in the commissioned piece, which every participant has the right to feel was composed especially for her or him, many young musicians fail to take the opportunity by the horns and play boldly and go for broke with wildly imaginative renderings. A shame, because here, going buck-wild (within the scope of the work, obviously) could scarcely harm the musician’s chances (since no one in the jury has fix opinions about how the piece ought to go) while allowing them to display some much-desired individuality. It’s a learning process for candidates and jury alike.

That said, results after the two days of the first round suggest that the approach Linus Roth has taken is working. With more consensus than I might have thought would be the result from such a heterogeneous jury, an interesting batch of very different musicians advanced into the second round. Of course, there are tough or tight decisions. The difference between the 12th candidate to slip into the second round and the 13th who had to book tickets home was infinitesimally small. And then there’s always a candidate (or two) who is wildly talented but still too raw, even under these circumstances that looked more kindly on potential than other competitions, to make it into the next round. Hopefully – and especially as other competitions, too, move towards a more –for lack of a less clichéd word: holistic – approach to judging musicians, they will make their way down the road. Meanwhile it’s onto the second round for the remaining artists and the jury – a second round that is also unusual, innovative and promising, in that the jury will first judge the participants in a rehearsal (!) of chamber music (!) and then the performance of the rehearsed piece: Plenty of opportunity for everyone to show themselves from different sides, all of which are important to any well-rounded musician in their future careers. (See the Leopold Mozart Competition website for details.) More of which in the coming days.

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