Ivory idol: Piers Lane at the helm of Sydney’s pre­mier pi­ano com­pe­ti­tion

The new artis­tic di­rec­tor of Sydney’s in­ter­na­tional pi­ano com­pe­ti­tion is on a mis­sion to dis­cover the in­stru­ment’s next global su­per­star,

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - writes Matthew West­wood

Fol­low­ers of the world’s great pi­ano com­pe­ti­tions know when and where to turn their ears. Ev­ery three years, it’s the Leeds in Eng­land. Ev­ery four, the Van Cliburn comes around in Texas. Mu­sic lovers an­tic­i­pate these tour­na­ments be­cause sev­eral win­ners have gone on to stel­lar ca­reers: the In­ter­na­tional Chopin Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion in War­saw, held ev­ery five years, helped bring to promi­nence stars such as Martha Arg­erich, Krys­tian Zimer­man and Yundi Li.

Aus­tralian pi­anist Piers Lane is not the first to no­tice that our lo­cal con­test, the Sydney In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion of Australia, does not have quite the same ca­chet.

“I’ve won­dered over the years why it is that none of the Sydney win­ners have had re­ally ma­jor in­ter­na­tional ca­reers,” he says. “There aren’t the Radu Lu­pus, or Murray Per­ahias, Martha Arg­eriches or Vladimir Ashke­nazys … Why haven’t our win­ners had that suc­cess? I think one of the rea­sons is that it hasn’t had enough global ex­po­sure. We have had big tal­ents, but they haven’t been able to fol­low through, to show them­selves wider as a re­sult.”

Last year Lane was ap­pointed SIPCA’s artis­tic di­rec­tor and he was de­ter­mined to give the event a shake-out. Held ev­ery four years, re­cent SIPCAs have been col­le­gial, friendly and mu­si­cally stim­u­lat­ing — if lack­ing edge-of-the-seat ex­cite­ment. Mu­sic com­pe­ti­tions should never be blood sports but the stakes should be high and com­mand se­ri­ous at­ten­tion.

This year’s event be­gins on Wed­nes­day, when 32 com­peti­tors from across the world will gather in Sydney for more than two weeks of in­tense mu­sic-mak­ing. It starts with solo recitals by each of the com­peti­tors — this year in the beau­ti­ful acous­tic of Ver­brug­ghen Hall at the Sydney Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic — and ends with the con­certo rounds at the Opera House, with the Sydney Sym­phony Orches­tra.

Lane has up­dated the rules and changed the jury vot­ing pro­ce­dures. He has in­sisted on a greater va­ri­ety of reper­toire and pi­anos: an at­tempt to break out of the rou­tine of Rach­mani­nov and Stein­way. Not least, Lane has se­cured one of the great con­duc­tors, Valery Gergiev, as SIPCA’s artis­tic pa­tron. The top placeget­ters win en­gage­ments with Gergiev at his Mari­in­sky In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Fes­ti­val in St Peters­burg.

“We thought that he would just agree to the lau­re­ates hav­ing a recital in the fes­ti­val,” Lane says. “But he said, ‘No, don’t be stingy. I will give them con­cer­tos.’ He is in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous.”

SIPCA was started in 1977 by Rex Hobcroft, then di­rec­tor of the Sydney Con, with lawyer Robert To­bias and Claire Dan, a Hun­gar­ian mi­grant and mu­sic lover (and ex-wife of trans­port mag­nate Peter Abe­les) who pro­vided the funds.

The com­pe­ti­tion came to be run as a slightly ec­cen­tric dou­ble act by Dan and long-time artis­tic di­rec­tor War­ren Thom­son. No one could ques­tion their ded­i­ca­tion but the event needed fresh ideas. Dan died soon af­ter the last com­pe­ti­tion in 2012 and Thom­son died in 2015.

When Lane was ap­pointed last year, his remit was to re­fresh the com­pe­ti­tion and boost its pro­file. Part of his job as artis­tic di­rec­tor is to se­lect the com­peti­tors: a daunt­ing task, given there were 283 ap­pli­cants. Lane and his as­sis­tants fi­nally set­tled on 32 com­peti­tors plus a re­serve list. They are com­ing from all over: China, Rus­sia and the US, but also Aus­tria, Croatia, Hun­gary, Italy, Ja­pan, Kaza­khstan, South Korea, Swe­den, Thai­land, Ukraine and Viet­nam. Five are Aus­tralian. Lane doesn’t be­lieve in pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion but he’s pleased there is a home team for the au­di­ence to fol­low.

“You are look­ing for peo­ple who are al­ready au­thor­i­ta­tive play­ers and artists in their own right, peo­ple who have some­thing to say,” Lane says. “You take it for granted that they are go­ing to have fan­tas­tic tech­nique these days be­cause so many of them have.”

He has changed the rules with the in­ten­tion of mak­ing the con­test chal­leng­ing for com­peti­tors, interesting for the au­di­ence and more like a real-life con­cert ca­reer. The six rounds re­quire en­trants to pre­pare three solo recitals, a cham­ber recital (they may be asked to per­form a sonata, with English vi­o­lin­ist Tas­min Lit­tle, or a quin­tet with the Gold­ner String Quar­tet) and two con­cer­tos.

Com­peti­tors ha­bit­u­ally choose bravura Rus­sian con­cer­tos for the fi­nal round with or­ches- tra. Lane has at­tempted to steer them to­wards greater va­ri­ety and has of­fered 20 con­cer­tos from which to choose, in­clud­ing lesser-per­formed works by Hum­mel, Medt­ner and Aus­tralian com­poser Mal­colm Wil­liamson. Still, Lane says many have opted for the more fa­mil­iar show stop­pers — Prokofiev 3 and Rach­mani­nov 2 — if they make it through to the fi­nals.

He also has in­tro­duced a new pi­ano to the usual ar­ray of Kawai, Stein­way and Yamaha con­cert grands. Fazi­oli is an Ital­ian make played by artists such as Niko­lai Demi­denko and An­gela He­witt. Lane has de­ter­mined that each com­peti­tor will play on at least two dif­fer­ent pi­anos in the early rounds, and fi­nal­ists will have played on all four by the com­pe­ti­tion’s end.

“Of course pi­anists are go­ing to like one brand over an­other … the thing is that we are go­ing to have four top-class in­stru­ments and in the real world pi­anists have to take what they are given,” he says. “You have to do your best, and if you’re an artist you will com­mu­ni­cate through what­ever in­stru­ment you have.”

Lane, who grew up in Brisbane, is uniquely qual­i­fied to be artis­tic di­rec­tor of SIPCA. In 1976, when he was 18, he took part in a com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­ised by the Bar­tok So­ci­ety of Australia that sent him to Bu­dapest. Dan was one of the pa­trons. The next year, he en­tered in the first SIPCA — play­ing Rach­mani­nov 3 — and was named best Aus­tralian pi­anist.

Based in Lon­don, he has an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer as a soloist, spe­cial­is­ing in lesser-known con­cer­tos: he re­cently gave the US pre­miere at Carnegie Hall of an 1826 con­certo by Fer­di­nand Ries. As well as his con­cert en­gage­ments, Lane is a record­ing artist, broad­caster and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Townsville’s Aus­tralian Fes­ti­val of Cham­ber Mu­sic. He also has ap­peared on com­pe­ti­tion ju­ries, in­clud­ing SIPCA in 2004.

Lane has as­sem­bled a nine-mem­ber panel of jurors and has tried to avoid pro­fes­sional judges and teach­ers in favour of work­ing con­cert pi­anists, such as Chi­nese pi­anist Sa Chen, Poland’s Ewa Ku­piec and the Rus­sian Demi­denko. An­other of the judges, Ser­bian pi­anist Mira Yevtich, was Lane’s in­tro­duc­tion to Gergiev. Lane per­formed at the Mari­in­sky pi­ano fes­ti­val and had din­ner with Gergiev, lead­ing to the Rus­sian mae­stro agree­ing to be artis­tic pa­tron of SIPCA.

As well as a con­cert date in St Peters­burg, SIPCA’s top prize in­cludes $50,000 (do­nated by the friends of the com­pe­ti­tion), en­gage­ments in Australia and Europe, a de­but with the Lon­don Phil­har­monic Orches­tra and a record­ing with Hype­r­ion Records. The to­tal prize pool amounts to al­most $200,000 and per­for­mance op­por­tu­ni­ties for other placeget­ters.

“I think I’ve come up with a prize list that is more im­por­tant than ever be­fore in a way,” Lane says. “It’s more in­ter­na­tional and that’s partly to do with Gergiev be­ing the pa­tron, and giv­ing the top three prizewin­ners con­certo en­gage­ments in St Peters­burg and, if he likes them, in Mu­nich and Lon­don. That would be ex­tra­or­di­nary. It is a ma­jor prize to win.”

Ev­ery note of the com­pe­ti­tion will be broad­cast on ABC Clas­sic FM with ex­pert commentary. Lane is es­pe­cially ex­cited that the event will be live-streamed for the first time on the in­ter­net. He says SIPCA needs that real-time, global ex­po­sure if it is to be an in­ter­na­tional player.

Many in the mu­sic pro­fes­sion are dis­mis­sive of com­pe­ti­tions, and re­gard the whole busi­ness of pick­ing win­ners to be an anath­ema to the deep im­pulses of mu­sic and in­di­vid­ual artis­tic expression. In the end, Lane says, a com­pe­ti­tion is about mu­sic and bring­ing tal­ented young mu­si­cians be­fore an au­di­ence.

“You can’t make a ca­reer for some­body but you can give them won­der­ful op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Lane says.

The Sydney In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion of Australia be­gins on Wed­nes­day at the Sydney Con­ser­va­to­rium of Mu­sic and con­cludes on July 23 at the Sydney Opera House.

Piers Lane has ad­justed the rules and broad­ened the reper­toire for the Sydney In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion of Australia

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