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Barry Douglas on the pressures and benefits of competitions

As the Tchaikovsky Competition kicks off, we revisit a 2014 interview with the great Irish pianist Barry Douglas, who won the contest in 1986, and who is on the piano jury this year. He discusses the pleasures, the benefits and the perils of music competitions. Read the original article here.

Benefits vs pressures

‘I was building up my career slowly and steadily, but winning something like the Tchaikovsky Competition is of vast importance. People invite you if they know that they’ll get an audience and you’ll be in the news because you’ve won. But it brings vast pressures. There are certain musicians who can handle it and others who can’t. The problem these days is the lack of repertoire of many of the musicians who get thrown into the limelight. They’re far too young and inexperienced and they’re learning as they go along.

‘A lot of people can handle this and do well but many come apart. It’s sad when their day in the limelight is finished because they were probably very talented. I understand how competitions need to have success to keep their name alive and keep a high level of publicity but musicians are often very fragile beings. They need time to mature and discover, and to make mistakes. You can’t be playing at Carnegie Hall and Berlin’s Philharmonie all the time. You don’t want to make mistakes there. You want to make them in a backwater first, to be really well prepared. The pressure is astronomical.'

Have a little humanity

‘Competitions should take responsibility, and the big ones do. There are many good human faces, people with soul and integrity, but there are some competitions where they cut competitors loose. The young players have all signed contracts in the application form. They have to promise to do the gigs, because the competition is setting these things up and they can’t let the orchestras and festivals down. That’s the way it should be, but if you get a young musician who suddenly has 50 engagements in the first year and they start to feel a little wobbly, they can’t cancel without a really good medical reason. I understand that’s the business side of things, but when they’re starting out it’s tough.

‘I understand why competitions have to exist. They are really interesting for audiences, they are a great way to discover new talent and provide a wonderful opportunity for the winners, if they’re ready for it. I’d like to see much more flexibility with the engagements, so that there’s a strategy. The problem is that the organisers don’t know who is going to win and it could be someone who’s ready to do a hundred engagements in two years or someone who can only handle ten in the first year because they agonise over everything. There should be more flexibility, understanding and humanity.'

Teaching mafias

‘It’s useful to have teachers on competition juries as long as they’re not connected to the applicants. The problem is that there are teaching mafias around the world, and they all go to each others’ competitions. There are many fine, honourable teachers who sit on juries, so I’m not branding them all, but there are teaching mafias who support each others’ students and I think that’s a crime.

‘You need performers, too, because performers know what it’s like to be on stage. The only problem is if they’re inflexible as people they may say, ‘My way is the only way to play that.’ You get that and it’s a bore when you meet someone like that. Life is not like that – everyone’s going to play differently.'

Talent always shines through

‘My advice to students is not to get too het up about competitions, whether you win or lose. Good talent always shines through – the audience always knows real talent. You can’t manufacture that. I know audiences get criticised because they like popular music or romantic melodies, but if someone comes and plays a mean Schoenberg, even if the audience doesn’t warm to the particular music, they know it’s great. Somehow they smell it and that’s what counts. Music is a language that if you communicate to the audience. That’s what we all want – to go out and have a nice evening and listen to great music.'

The future

‘The organising committees have to have a mission statement and a modus operandi. This has been going on for years. We’re all human and people make choices for different reasons. You have to stamp on collusion and make sure the rules are watertight.'

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