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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » September 30, 2015
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Celebrating Chopin
September 30, 2015   
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Artur Szklener, director of the National Frederic Chopin Institute, talks to Marcin Mierzejewski about the approaching 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

Your institute has organized two spectacular events this year, the annual Chopin and His Europe festival and the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition, which is held every five years. Would you describe the Chopin competition, which begins Oct. 1 this year, as the crowning achievement of your institute?

Absolutely, especially when you think of its history. The International Chopin Piano Competition is one of the world’s oldest events of this kind and definitely the most important one as far as international pianists are concerned. This is no exaggeration, as when you go through a list of Chopin competition winners and the winners of any other piano competition in the world, you can easily see the rank of our competition. Almost all of its past winners and a very high number of participants who took other prizes in it are piano legends that shaped the way people approach playing Chopin’s music.

I am speaking of the past here, because when it comes to events held at regular intervals, to some extent the past determines the present. You can never be sure that the next time it is held your event will be just as important as it was before. Each time, you have to work hard to make that happen.

The Chopin competition is a large event and this year, there was a record number of around 500 applicants. After a preliminary selection based on video recordings submitted, almost 160 pianists took part in the qualifying auditions in April and there will be a total of 82 entrants in the competition. Even the numbers alone make the Chopin competition a one-of-a-kind event because someone’s ultimate participation in the competition is preceded by an almost year-long verification process. Besides, the competition combines two highly attractive factors from the audience’s point of view. One is Chopin’s music as such. This is recognizable and popular across the globe and its popularity continues to grow, especially in the countries of the Far East. The other factor is sociological in nature and hinges on a sense of rivalry. Looking at the history of musical rivalry, we can go back all the way to [Greek] mythology and the famous contest between [the god] Apollo and [the mortal] Marsyas.

Ever since then all kinds of musical contests and tournaments have usually been spectacular events that appeal to audiences.

The Chopin and His Europe festival plays a slightly different role in that it has a detailed program with music that is not always easy for audiences. In large part, the festival targets music lovers. We do try to hold events as part of the festival that go beyond conventions. The festival formula allows us to promote Polish music by composers other than Chopin, including totally unknown music pieces.

How are the judges selected for the Chopin competition?
This year we wanted to make sure they had as close ties to Chopin and the competition itself as possible. The judges are great virtuosos themselves and some of them are also outstanding educators. In a nod to the competition’s early tradition, we have a musicologist among the judges, the first one in years.

Other than the tradition you have mentioned, what makes Warsaw’s Chopin competition different from other major piano competitions internationally?
This is probably the only piano competition in the world to feature music by one composer only. This is the fundamental difference and a major challenge for the competing pianists. We know from judges at other competitions that when contestants get to play compositions of their own choice, they tend to avoid Chopin. His music is regarded as difficult to perform for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is extremely rich in detail. Second, Chopin synthesized different features of both European and Polish heritage. Some elements in his music reveal inspiration by Baroque, Classicism, the brillante style, and there is also a strong Polish flavor to it all. Consequently, it is hard to come up with a simple playing system. Finally, with so many easily available recordings around, it is very difficult to faithfully recreate the sheet music and still combine it with one’s own interpretation, the personality that every musician has to put in a compelling rendition. All of this makes Chopin’s music particularly hard to perform. All three stages of the Chopin competition are about his music and the difficulty level increases with each stage. Meanwhile, participating pianists feel paralyzed when they realize they are playing in the same place, the same venue in which music giants such as Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Garrick Ohlsson played before them.

One more thing that I would like to mention is the level of engagement of the competition audience. Every five years in October for the past several decades, Warsaw has lived and breathed the Chopin competition. This is like nothing else in the world, a phenomenon that escapes sociological description. There is something truly special about it when you think that during the competition even taxi drivers discuss which pianist should win or at least make it to the next round.

You said that a record number of pianists wanted to enter the competition this year. Where did most of them come from?
Roughly half the applicants were from Asia, while the rest of the world accounted for the other half. The largest group came from Japan, followed by Poland, Korea and China. The proportions are similar after the qualifying auditions and the largest groups in the competition itself are from Poland and China. The interest in Chopin’s music and the Chopin competition has gone through the roof in the Far East and slightly decreased in Western Europe and North America. In South America, in turn, there has been an evident crisis in this department, as there are no South American contestants this year. We need to look into that and decide what to do about it, as we can still remember the great winners of past Chopin competitions from that part of the world. These included Martha Argerich, but also Arturo Moreira Lima, who has been somewhat forgotten recently, as well as other winners such as Gabriela Montero and Ingrid Fliter.

How many Poles have made it through the auditions?
Fifteen, which is a record in itself. When it comes to the Polish team, their represent very high musicianship. Interestingly, they include several totally different piano personalities and that is a good sign. In addition to entertainers who are sure to enrapture audiences, there are some more introverted pianists. I do not want to name any names, but I’m expecting Poles to make it to the finals.

Chopin’s music has a distinctly Polish flavor that is particularly pronounced in his mazurkas. How well can foreigners relate to it?
It’s very hard for them to do so. In the musical sense, they find the mazurka to be absolutely the most difficult genre to understand. In most cultures, the natural stress in triple-meter music falls on the first beat. This is the case with the waltz and most triple-time dances. But the stress in so-called mazurka rhythms—the mazurka, the oberek and the kujawiak—falls on the final beat. What’s more, this basic rhythm is sometimes disrupted: it is lengthened or shortened. It is very hard to understand how to make sure this does not sound like a parody or caricature.

Another thing identified in music literature is that Chopin used what is known as tempo rubato. Different sources disagree whether he made a synchronous use of rubato with both his hands or not. So, these are certain technical elements that we know should be there in a performance, but there are no clear guidelines on how this should be done. For many years, a lot of pianists, especially those from the Far East, had considerable problems understanding the Polish angle to Chopin’s music. Luckily, this is changing, not least because of the hard work of Polish educators in that region of the world.

To what extent can the Chopin competition help launch the career of a pianist? What form of promotion do the organizers offer to the winners?
This year will mark a significant change, as we have arranged an international tour of the most important concert venues in Japan, China, Britain, the Netherlands and France. This is a qualitative change, as so far the organizers were more keen to hold a tour of Poland and let others handle wider promotion for the winners. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of a victory in the Chopin competition when it comes to a pianist’s abilities, but this is just the first step on the difficult road to international fame.

The Chopin competition has been making growing use of new media...
This is one of our main goals this year. Five years ago, we conducted a sort of test when, for the first time ever, we broadcast the entire competition via our website. Even though we never advertised that project in any form, interest in the website exceeded our wildest expectations and we had several million visitors with unique IP addresses. The broadcasts alone were followed by almost 700,000 people. We consequently concluded that audiences around the world were encouraging us to follow that route and leave the confines of the philharmonic. But we need to do this in a more systematic fashion this time, hence the idea to create an online platform accessible from different kinds of devices, including anything from computers and mobile devices to smart television sets. This year’s Chopin competition will be available free around the world on all of them.
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