BBC Music Magazine
In safe hands
The World Federation of International Music Competitions ensures fair play and high quality and provides an arena for discussion and mutual support amongst its members
High aims and timely advice belong to the objectives of the World Federation of International
Music Competitions (WFIMC). Since its foundation in 1957, the Federation has served the cause of an ever-expanding network of members and associate organisations. It also exists to promote outstanding young musicians, to place them before the public and impart momentum to their early careers. The deal demands excellence from competitions and competitors alike. Small wonder that prospective members must conform to a strict set of entry criteria and agree to abide by the Federation’s statutory rules.
Benjamin Woodroffe, the Federation’s Secretary General, says that members old and new are united by a determination to nurture the next generation of performers. Above all, young musicians should always be at a competition’s heart, supported by a strong administrative structure and protected by exemplary ethical standards. ‘The Federation was created by competitions for competitions, and is run by the directors of competitions,’ he observes. The WFIMC’S secretariat remains alert to grapevine reports of declining standards and is equally ready to offer members support and advice when problems arise. ‘We excluded two competitions this year, but that’s rare. It’s tough to get into the Federation and once you’re in, you’re likely to stay in!’
The matter of WFIMC membership is decided by the votes of existing members, cast during the Federation’s annual General Assembly. It’s a process designed to guarantee quality and uphold standards. ‘This is a not-for-profit industry body that, over the past 60 years, has codified and refined a set of binding Statutes and advisory Recommendations,’ Woodroffe notes. ‘Those have been built primarily to ensure that the competitions are fair to their competitors, that they give adequate rehearsal time, for instance, and engage the majority of their jurors from outside the host country. Any competition wishing to join must meet criteria that relate to artistic and operational excellence. Our governing documents are public, available on our
website for any prospective members and competition candidates to read. It’s a transparent and democratic organisation.’
The Federation’s rules and guidelines cover everything from competitor agelimits to the prompt payment of prize money and fees, but they do not prescribe repertoire or musical disciplines. ‘We don’t want to see “cookie-cutter” competitions – all the same wherever you go,’ says Woodroffe. ‘We’re looking for each one to have a different character, to have its own artistic personality.’ The Federation’s 122 members comprise competitions from the classical mainstream – with pianists, violinists and singers well served by them – together with events for conductors, composers, percussionists and brass. It presently has expressions of interest from competitions devoted to choral music and Baroque opera, and recently received an inquiry from a Chinese Opera competition.
Today’s WFIMC offers a blend of venerable institutions (its 13 founder members among them), relative newcomers to the competition scene and others still in their infancy. Two brandnew competitions have approached the Federation within the past few months, following an upward trend in awareness of the benefits of membership. ‘They want the stamp of WFIMC quality, to show prospective competitors that they’re serious,’ Benjamin Woodroffe explains. ‘They see that the Federation is the reference point for music competitions worldwide.’ Those seeking membership must follow a formal process, complete with a fixed annual application deadline. ‘We want to be sure of their quality and that they’re in it for the long haul, that they have a vision for their competition and its place within their city or region. We’re open to new competitions and different disciplines. But we always put quality first.’
Quality assurance was among the propositions that appealed to the Association Européenne des Conservatoires (AEC), the latest addition to the Federation’s list of associate organisations. Deborah Kelleher, AEC
‘The Federation gave me confidence to connect with my peers and share ideas’
vice president, says that the importance of competitions is not lost on its 300plus members. ‘Competitions give young musicians a sense of performance standards among their peers and offer invaluable experience,’ she says. ‘From the AEC’S viewpoint, the mentoring and professional opportunities that many competitions now provide are equally invaluable.’
Kelleher notes how the conservatoire sector helps students to treat competitions as stages in their artistic development, rather than make-or-break career definers. ‘It doesn’t have to be about success or failure; it’s about the learning process.
That’s where the conservatoires can kick in. At the Royal Irish Academy of
Music we have performance psychology, career counselling, professional mentoring and so on. Conservatoires must respect how important competitions are as a learning curve, but to be able to help students if they’ve had a bad day in a competition or think that a jury decision has been unfair.’
Federation members are encouraged to shape the future of competitions as part of a dialogue with WFIMC peers, associate organisations and other industry partners. Benjamin Woodroffe highlights the Federation’s function as a forum for the exchange of best practice and a space where colleagues can discuss challenges and opportunities. Recent analysis of the WFIMC membership has deepened the Federation’s knowledge. It has also helped the organisation’s secretariat form a strategic view of the geographic spread of competitions, the range of disciplines they cover, and their reach among musicians.
Before arriving at the WFIMC’S Geneva headquarters in 2015, Woodroffe ran the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition for a decade. He recalls seeking guidance from the Federation and tapping the collective experience of its membership. ‘I used to lean on the Federation for contacts, advice and connections with media in different parts of the world. It gave me a great deal of confidence to connect with my peers and share ideas. This sharing of knowledge is becoming increasingly valuable, especially as the established European competitions learn from newer competitions in Asia and the Americas, and vice versa.’
Globalisation may be under heavy fire from right and left. But the ideal of international cooperation and cultural exchange continues to burn bright among those born over the past quarter century. The World Federation of International Music Competitions understands the value of uniting young people from different countries, of bringing together the next generation of musicians under conditions that test their talents and build lifelong friendships.
The Federation’s campaign to reach potential competitors has been repaid by steep increases in competition entrants. This year’s Honens Piano Competition, for example, snared almost a third more applications than its last edition. The WFIMC’S new smartphone-friendly website, meanwhile, attracts its largest share of visits from the key 18-24 age group, self-motivated members of Generation Z, the most coveted constituency among competition candidates.
With its networking opportunities and deep reach into the talent pool, the WFIMC also proved irresistible to the Bamberg-based Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, San Antonio’s The Gurwitz and the Zhuhai International Mozart Competition. Each were elected to membership in April. During its formative years, the Mahler Competition and its begetters, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, were too busy establishing the event to apply. The matter of membership arose when the orchestra’s chief executive, 1EVGYW 6YHSPJ %\X WTSXXIH XLI SQMWWMSR
‘We had to be there,’ he notes. ‘Membership allows us to connect easily with others. There are few conducting competitions and not so many outstanding
talents to take part in them. The Federation is a very good way for us to share information and coordinate our activities with other competitions.’
News of the Mahler Competition’s first edition in 2004 reached a virtually unknown candidate from Venezuela. Gustavo Dudamel’s winning performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony achieved legendary status and put the Mahler Competition on the map. Subsequent laureates include Ainars Rubikis, who launched his term as music director of Berlin’s Komische Oper at the beginning of this season, and Lahav Shani, successor to Yannick-nézet-séguin as chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
‘They were all judged against that big symphonic repertoire,’ observes Marcus Axt. ‘You have to show personality and charisma in Mahler, beyond technical ability. This is the repertoire where you can really see if someone is gifted or not.’ Competition candidates work only with the Bamberg Symphony. As Axt puts it, they get their hands on the full Ferrari from the first round. ‘You can see they’re thrilled, especially when they’ve been used to working with a student orchestra in the early stages of other competitions. Our players have their own interpretation of Mahler’s music in their genes, so the young conductors must work hard to create a blank sheet on which to project their interpretation. That’s when you can really judge the candidates.’
Marina Mahler, the competition’s honorary jury president, insists that its repertoire must include a new work in addition to the music of her grandfather.
She also plays a role in making competition candidates feel at ease. ‘Bamberg is a friendly place,’ notes Axt. ‘Every candidate stays here until the competition ends. They talk to jury members, get tips for practice, mingle with the players. And the Mahler Competition MW E KSSH 46 STTSVXYRMX] JSV XLI SVGLIWXVE as it’s the only time when key people in the music business come to Bamberg.’
Music industry leaders appear set to add the Chinese coastal city of Zhuhai to their top travel destinations. The biennial Zhuhai International Mozart Competition has achieved remarkable success since its launch in 2015, thanks not least to the biennial event’s partnership with Salzburg’s University Mozarteum and the Salzburg Chamber Soloists.
Lu Yao, the International Mozart Competition’s inspirational founder, says it has been a great help to her Zhuhai enterprise to be accepted by peer organisations. ‘The Federation takes very few new members every year,’ she observes. ‘We’re so pleased to join the WFIMC. It means our competition will be recognised and seen by so many more young musicians. It’s given us the chance to speak to other competitions and discover things that might work for us.’
Lu studied at the Mozarteum and taught there before returning to Beijing to coordinate an educational exchange between Austria and China. She realised that young Chinese musicians could gain from taking part in an international competition on home territory. ‘We have an amazing number of technically accomplished young musicians in China, but they need more experience in the interpretation of classical music.’ Mozart, Lu reasoned, offered the ideal focal point for a competition concerned with cultivating the art of interpretation. Her view was supported by the Mozarteum and found favour with the mayor of Zhuhai.
‘I looked for a small city, without a local conservatoire that could influence the competition,’ recalls Lu. Although she knew nothing of Zhuhai before her first visit, she was captivated by its seaside charms. The city sits within reach of Macau’s airport; it also owns a shoebox-style hall that evokes the Vienna of the Strausses. ‘Zhuhai is perfect – just like Salzburg!
The city government was happy to host the competition and, with help from the Mozarteum, we started at a very high level. Our competition is not just for the elite; we want to share what we do with the local community and reach young people.’
Outreach comes naturally to Anya Grokhovski, founder of Musical Bridges Around the World and artistic director and CEO of The Gurwitz. The latter, formerly known as the San Antonio International Piano Competition, appointed Grokhovski’s organisation to oversee its administration and development. ‘We renamed the competition after Ruth Jean Gurwitz, who spearheaded it as a volunteer for over 20 years. She and other volunteers created something special in San Antonio.
It’s an honour that they chose Musical Bridges and trusted us to take it forward.’
Grokhovski trained as a pianist in
Moscow in Soviet times. She became a professor at the city’s Gnessin State Musical College before settling in the US 30 years ago. Musical Bridges, established in 1998, exists to promote cultural diversity and ‘unite, educate and inspire’ through musical and visual arts. Its influence is reflected in the commission of a new chamber work for piano and world music instruments for the 2020 edition of The Gurwitz. The revamped competition offers significant prize money and a final round concerto date with the San Antonio Symphony.
‘We’re all looking at ways of making classical music more accessible and ensuring that it stays alive for centuries,’ comments Anya Grokhovski. ‘I hope that by becoming a member of the WFIMC, we can attract outstanding pianists from around the world. It’s always good to have contact with like-minded people.’
For more info, visit www.wfimc-fmcim.org
‘We want to share what we do with the local community, and reach young people’