The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: You can lose a music competition and still be a winner.

June 8, 2012

ALERTS: Saturday brings two noteworthy events. First is a FREE Farmers Market concert from noon to 1 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square by Opera Unplugged, an outreach project of Fresco Opera Theatre. The program includes vocal and instrumental music by Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Wagner and others. Also, Marika Fischer Hoyt (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), the violist with the Ancora String Quartet who also plays in the Madison Symphony Orchestra and with the Madison Bach Musicians, is starting a new career as a host for Wisconsin Public Radio. You can tune in to her debut Saturday afternoon from 1 to 4 p.m. on WERN FM 88.7. She is an amiable and knowledgeable musician, and has chosen some great music to air.

By Jacob Stockinger

Earlier this week, I posted two stories that mattered to me personally more than I let on at the time.

One was story about the two young Madison teenagers – pianist Ariela Bohrod and Garrick Olsen – who are competing this weekend in the biennial International Piano Arts Competition in Milwaukee.

I think they are still picking straws to see who performs when today in the solo recital competition. Then come the chamber music performance and then finally the concerto competition.

I wish them well, and I am rooting for them of course. As I find out news, I will pass it along.

The other story was about a recent UW graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below) who played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, with the Middleton Community Orchestra.

Here are links to the two stories:

But competitions leave me feeling nostalgic with some unusual thoughts.

That is because once upon a time I was one of those gifted young teenagers. At 15 I was studying privately with a superb piano teacher at Yale University — his name is Donald Currier (below) — and when he died I wrote about him.  

Here is a link to the past:

Now, I was 16 back then. And against my teacher’s wishes, I entered the young person’s concerto competition with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

He thought I wash;t ready and was correct. But I craved validation that I could go into music in a big way.

So I prepared Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, Op. 15 – which is really the second one composed though the first one published.

It is a great piece, as you can hear at the bottom from pianist Murray Perahia and conductor Sir Georg Solti with the London Symphony Orchestra.

I listened to favorite recordings. I studied and played the score. I found another pianist to play the reduced orchestra part and I practiced it. Even my reluctant teacher allowed me a run-through with him testing me on piano entrances and memorizing.

And then on a Saturday morning I went to Yale University’s Sprague Hall (below) and played for the jury that included conductor Frank Brieff – and lost to a young woman a couple of years younger who played the Mozart concerto I mentioned above.

When I tell people that I lost a concerto competition when I was 16, I invariably get a very sympathetic reaction of “I’m so sorry.”

I was sorry and saddened at the time too.

But in retrospect, I see that I really didn’t lose – though at thar time every aspiring young classical pianist dreamed or conquering a competition in the same glorious way that young Van Cliburn (below) conquered Moscow, America and the world won the first Tchaikovsky Competition and became a national hero and international sensation.

But in fact by losing I found out two important things about myself

First, I found out that although I had talent, I didn’t have THAT kind of great and overwhelming talent that all but assures success is a very competitive career. (Someone recently told me that your chances of making it as a concert pianist these days are less than being a U.S. senator – and there are only two of them from any one state at any one time.

Second, I found out – through the very unpleasant experience of debilitating stage fright – that I did not have the temperament for public performance.

They were tough lessons to learn. But it was better I learned them at 16 rather than at, say, 21, after I had gotten my degree at a conservatory. (And I had been admitted to one of the country’s better conservatories.)

So I went on to a different career in teaching, in French and literature, and in journalism. And I keep my piano playing as an avocation, rather than a vocation, as a hobby that brings me and some others sim,ense satisfaction.

So here is my lesson that young competition entrants may not want to hear:

First, you will learn important lessons about your non-musical self. Losing can, in the long run, make you a winner.

And finally, it is a great lesson – especially for pianist who so often play solo — that music should be cooperative rather than competitive.

I would say I took a great deal out of the piano competition so long ago.

True, I lost. But I too ended up a winner.

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