By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
When attending the 2022 Netherlands Violin Competition in January live in Utrecht turned out to be impossible (due to Covid-related protocols), I covered the livestreamed event from Los Angeles. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the experience, but I found that the up-close look the cameras gave of the performances was deeply intimate and revealing with striking immediacy. The audiophile sound was as virtuosic as the competitors’ performances. The artistic and experiential aspects could hardly have been bettered—it was a celebration of talent, dreams, and, of course, the violin. The two performances of Alban Berg’s Concerto opened up to a striking degree what musicologist Christopher Hailey called the “vistas and the abyss.”
Each round asked more from the competitors than just beautiful playing. In the semi-finals, each was required to play not only the usual major recital piece by Bach or Debussy, but to play during a substantial 12-minute multimedia presentation of their own devising. Iris van Nuland, winner of the Performance Prize, played a piece by Carlos Chávez as she collaborated with an actress dressed as Frida Kahlo. Another played a piece by Australian “anarchist composer” Jon Rose for violin and percussion.
The Netherlands Violin Competition was lucky. It had moved in the direction of alternate programming in 2019 with four concerts curated by multi-genre, multimedia savvy violinists.
But within the competition circuit overall, as put bluntly by Didier Schnorhk, secretary general of the Concours de Genève, “Nobody was prepared for what happened. It happened that I was in China in January 2020, and nobody was talking about this problem. I came back to Switzerland and suddenly two weeks later we heard about something happening in China. We were preparing for the World Federation of International Music Competitions meetings in Japan in May 2020, and until the end of February, we still thought it would be possible. We were absolutely not prepared. But we quickly understood what was facing us.”
Before the pandemic, the story on the evolution of competitions might have been about the additional career resources offered as rewards, in addition to the usual cash prizes and instrument loans. This year, for example, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI) will award—along with the cash prizes and four years with the 1683 “ex-Gingold” Stradivari—a Carnegie Hall debut, website development and maintenance, and, for the three top winners, career mentorship and skills training in financial planning, publicity, fashion consultancy, and media relations.
However, the pandemic changed the story, which is now about how “streaming has completely changed the landscape,” says the IVCI’s executive director Glen Kwok. Kwok admits that the quadrennial competition was “very lucky to have dodged a huge bullet” in terms of timing. The IVCI has had a period to adjust, and has dipped its toes in the water by livestreaming its annual season of recitals by previous winners. “It was something we had not done before, and it created a new audience.”
There were new audiences discovered everywhere as the crisis turned slowly into a transformational inflection point at which classical-music institutions and entities suddenly saw just how wide their reach could become. There were immediate conclusions to be drawn about how much more substantial their cultural and financial ROI could be as they gained experience and expertise in this new medium.
The Queen Elisabeth Competition’s new website garnered two million pageviews for its 2021 piano competition and expects higher numbers for cello in 2022. The Menuhin Competition Richmond 2021 received over six million views across various platforms. The Concours Musical International de Montréal’s Violin 2023 competition will be broadcast live on a conglomerate of platforms and websites. This approach garnered more than 3.3 million views for its piano competition in 2021.
The Queen Elisabeth Competition even experimented in 2021 with the chat possibilities offered on the streaming gaming site Twitch while Belgium’s national radio and television service produced a show with several former laureates commenting throughout the final performance—much like Peyton and Eli Manning do for NFL games on ESPN.
Livestreaming has enabled many competitions to continue without missing a step, avoiding the cancellations that have plagued other industry events. The 11th International Chamber Music Competition: Franz Schubert and Modern Music, scheduled for Graz in July, is offering two categories, lied and piano trios, and will be taking the livestreaming approach. “Of course, we would have preferred a live competition,” the competition’s deputy head Stefanie Nöst tells me, “but the circumstances caused us to rethink.”
The competition used a video round to select the finalists, who were then invited to Graz for the concluding rounds of the competition. “It was very interesting,” Nöst says. “The ensembles had to think about where to put the camera (since only one camera position and one take was allowed) and how to adjust the microphones themselves (something normally done by our technicians). Also interesting, the jurors, obviously, had to take into consideration the different qualities of sound because the videos were recorded in different rooms or halls. It’s much more comparable to judge different ensembles who play in the same hall under the same conditions.”
Cameras and sound are key to this new medium. The Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition Hannover, which has been livestreaming every competition round since 2006, uses three to five cameras, depending on the venue. “No camera is so obvious to the soloists that it’s disturbing them,” managing director Tanja Scheimann tells me.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Stulberg International String Competition held its past two events virtually. “In 2021,” executive director Megan Yankee tells me, “we required all semifinalists to re-record their pieces using a professional recording studio. To make the experience more equitable, each semifinalist was given a recording stipend to be used at their chosen recording studio, with guidelines provided by the competition.”
Several years ago, Pierre van der Westhuizen, director of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival and Awards, said, “If the competition is positioned as part of a festival that is focused on celebration, you can shift the narrative to go beyond winners and losers. More like the celebration of music and instruments competitions were meant to be.”
This seems to be the direction taken by the upcoming Utrecht Liszt Competition, which, executive director Rob Hilberink tells me, has “gradually been moving toward a more ‘festival-like’ structure, where the competitors perform multiple recitals. In 2022, we will no longer present the competition in a structure based on rounds, but rather as a five-day festival with horizontal programming, including chamber-music recitals.”
In fact, the Netherlands Violin Competition itself had already lined up a festival of its own, called Night of the Violin. Curated by improvising violinist Tim Kliphuis, the focus was to be on the instrument’s versatility in styles ranging from Arabic maqam and Indian raga to ragtime. Four laureates were to engage in a Paganini duel, and the finals of the Jonge Makers Prijs, for violinists who play genres other than classical music, were to take place. But while Kliphuis took off for a tour of the States with guitarist Jimmy Grant, and presented his “Grappelli Workshop” at the MacPhail Center in Minneapolis, Night of the Violin in Utrecht had to be postponed.
“We wanted to do this festival,” director Aart-Jan van de Pol tells me, “to see what’s happening in the world and what role models are available for young violinists. Each of us is so individualistic, even as violin players, and we need different sources to get inspired. It’s a way for us to help youngsters discover different styles, different tastes, different ways of approaching music, or even their instrument, the violin.”