I would really like to know how to solve the problem of the huge surplus of talented musicians over the number of listeners willing to listen to them and thus allow them to earn their living from playing music. Competitions, meant to facilitate the start of a professional career for the most talented young musicians, are gradually losing that function. The number of such competitions and, consequently, the number of laureates is so high that the “art market” cannot accommodate the winners. Competitions turn into games, often very dramatic for their participants and always very tiring and stressful.
One is puzzled first of all by the multitude of the jurors’ wrong verdicts, unfair decisions that favour technically correct mediocrity. Behind each such decision – in addition to betrayal of an ideal – we have disappointments and suffering of young people. There are many winners of prestigious competitions who fail to prove their worth in concert. To put it simply, they are not outstanding artistic personalities. There are just as many charismatic musicians who, not fitting in with academic canons, get rejected at the initial stages of the selection process. Often those who have been rejected eventually find their way to concert halls, but with much more effort and at a tremendous psychological cost. Mediocre laureates, meanwhile, cared for by artistic management companies and record labels, fill the market with their second-ratedness and contribute to the decline of the art of performance. People who make money from art, with their methods of manipulating the audience, with aggressive advertising, turning art into a beautifully packed and carefully advertised “product”, make the confusion complete.
Despite the fact that competitions frequently profess to be looking for originality and be guided by high artistic criteria, in practice they favour other values, such as objectively “measurable” virtuosic skills and aesthetic universalism. The reasons behind it are the very principle of selection on the one hand, and the ethical and artistic stature of the jury on the other. And here we come to the question why I consider competitions a necessary evil – I will try to explain my point of view in a moment. We also have a whirl of the vested interests of jurors, who are also teachers, which results in evaluations that are far from objective, scores that are manipulated and methods that are unfair, enabling jurors to reach a verdict favourable to them…
The fundamental issue here is to think about the circumstances and the mechanism which, I deeply believe, contributes to the downfall or “decline” of the art of performing music. The fact that this decline is actually taking place may not be so obvious. I understand it as a gradual disappearance of powerful interpretative visions, unification of aesthetics, increasing mechanisation in the shaping of the musical material. Interpretations become less and less diverse, less and less personal. Schematism creeps in, as does rigidity in developing music in time. Performances lack character, they display no visionary imagination, it gets more and more difficult to recognise the individual idiom of the various performers or characterise their aesthetics. When I listen to recordings of the great masters from the first decades of the 20th century – masters who are the only point of reference for us – I also begin to doubt the widespread opinion concerning the development of technique, i.e. mastering the instrument. The reasons behind this process are numerous and I would list performance competitions among them.
These competitions are in turn part of a phenomenon consisting in commercialisation of art and growing globalisation of art trade, i.e. a situation whereby in all music shops of the world, from Sumatra to Bergen, we can buy the same records and see posters that advertise the same, often poor, musicians. In other words, a huge increase in the ease of information exchange among performers, and between performers and audiences, as well as the willingness (really so praiseworthy…?) to reach as many potential listeners as possible. Mainly to earn money.
Perhaps there is no other way. Perhaps this is some kind of a transition stage. Perhaps changes are necessary in our reaction to the attempts of make highbrow culture (which has always been addressed to the elite) popular among the masses – and not only for “class” reasons but because, as Stanisław Jerzy Lec remarked, “The world must be cone-shaped – the bottom is the biggest”. Anyway, regardless of the view concerning the height of that cone and the diameter of its base, we have a situation in which certain values of performance are lost and performers differ increasingly in unimportant details. Forced to face direct comparisons, they worry mainly about the correctness of their playing skills, as their “to be or not to be” depends on them. They are also excessively nervous… The fact of preparing for a competition is, in my opinion, a factor that negatively affects their subconscious and influences their aesthetic choices, hindering their individual development.
A jury’s evaluation is basically a “resultant” of tastes and opinions. Extreme points of view cancel each other out or are automatically eliminated by the scoring rules. The effect is often a lack of identification of jurors themselves with the “verdicts” they sign. A most peculiar and puzzling situation! The aesthetic result is conservative renditions that please the so-called majority. A criterion with most unfortunate consequences for musical performance.
Sadly, I must admit that there is no simple solution to this problem, no easy way to stop the process that is driven by greed and that involves many people and big money. Those who speed up the process waive banners with seemingly lofty slogans, not noticing how much harm they do to the delicate and intangible matter of music and the sensitive psyche of talented young artists. Perhaps the time has come to devise new forms of looking for young talent, forms that would stimulate the art of performing music rather than contribute to its trivialisation. After all, the term “competition type” has a fairly pejorative tinge….