It’s years since I’ve been to the Sydney Piano Competition. I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Competitive classical music is like that first lick of salted caramel ice-cream — all the goodness, with an extra tang. Not something you could adopt as a staple diet — I don’t want get tired of Elvira Madigan and Rach 2, but I would… — but dipping into the this year’s competition has been a pleasure.
Last night three competitors performed their 18th-century concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It was an all-Mozart program, which evened out the field and made comparison odiously easy. I’m not going to pick winners or name names but, to summarise crudely, there was one performance which felt like you were looking through a microscope, a thousand moments of exquisite delicacy, one performance which felt like a grand edifice, grounded, constructed, a perfect whole, and one that just picked me up and rolled me in delight. (Needless to say, I’m a sucker for delight.)
Aside from the music and the fun of post-performance discussions, it also got me thinking about the whole knotty business of competitions and, in particular, wrong notes. Because in amongst all the issues, all the great, unwieldy baggage of the competition circuit, wrong notes are often considered deal-breakers for would-be finalists. After all, the judges have a hard job, and they’re only human. Like a manager sifting through 200 job applications, the judges are going to need to take some short cuts. Bad spelling sends a brilliant applicant straight to the bin. A fistful of wrong notes and, sorry, you’re out.
It’s perhaps an understandable approach in the earlier stages of the competition, when one is trying to separate a large field of competitors who are all quite brilliant in their own right. By the concerto finals, however, I’d like to suggest that wrong notes might sometimes be right. The standard of pianism in international piano competitions assumes perfect technique and bright, shiny fabulousness as a given, but we’ve reached a point where perfect is not good enough. I want more. I want personality, whimsy, risk and reward; I want to be surprised and delighted; I want danger. And if that means that some things don’t work, that’s OK.
I’m so full of admiration for those brave competitors on the international competition circuit. They play their guts out to give us our salted caramel fix, with only the faintest possibility of reward. After last night’s performances I’m looking forward to the romantic concertos with eager anticipation. I’m not on the jury, so my opinion counts for precisely nothing, but as the final six flex their knuckles in preparation, I’d just like to say I hope they have fun out there, and remember wrong can be right and losing can be winning.