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19 June 2023

Celebrating Australian piano music: Sydney International Piano Competition

Piers Lane Image: Piers Lane  

Piers Lane is undoubtedly one of Australia's most celebrated pianists. Now based in London, he holds a worldwide reputation as a versatile performer, at home in solo, chamber, and concerto repertoire. To date, he has appeared with many of the world's great orchestras, has an extensive discography of over 50 albums, and has presented over 100 programmes for BBC Radio 3, including the 54-part series, The Piano. He has premiered works by Brett Dean, Carl Vine, Malcolm Williamson, among others, and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Birthday Honours for distinguished services to the arts.

Since 2015, Piers has been the Artistic Director of the Sydney International Piano Competition - one of the major international events of its kind in the world. The Sydney 2023 will take place in July - its first live competition since 2016. Ahead of the preliminary heats, we caught up with Piers to find out more about his experiences with competitions, how The Sydney promotes contemporary Australian works and composers, and some advice for instrumentalists preparing for a competition stage.

You've held the Artistic Director role at the Sydney International Piano Competition since 2015, but you've had a much longer connection to the competition before that. Can you tell us about your early experiences as a competitor?

I competed in the Liszt-Bartok International Piano Competition in Budapest when I was 18 and had the most fascinating and educative time, meeting extraordinary musicians like Ani Fischer, attending my first Wagner opera, hearing others of my generation from around the world, receiving invitations to play six concerts in and around Budapest. I went on to visit Vienna, Paris and London and returned to Brisbane a changed person and musician six weeks later. I couldn't believe it when an international piano competition was announced for the following year in Sydney!

The Australians had to compete alongside each other in Sydney for acceptance into the event. I was one of six chosen for an overall list of forty international competitors, and I ended up winning the prize for the Best Australian Pianist. It was a massive learning curve in many ways, including the repertoire list, which involved not only solo recitals and two concertos, but a piano quintet and a dozen lieder. I loved experiencing the huge variety of works performed and heard pieces like the Prokofiev second concerto for the first time. I still remember vividly certain performances, such as the winner Irina Plotnikova's Ondine and Prokofiev Toccata and Tchaikovsky second Concerto. It's lovely that one of the competitors this year is a Plotnikova student (Sergei Tanin). Little did I realise as a teenager that fellow competitors would remain lifelong colleagues.

Meeting others in the business being just one of the many benefits of attending competitions. Even if you don't win a prize, your whole outlook can change through hearing and talking to others, you aim constantly for higher artistic goals and learn how to work to deadlines. You learn about yourself and others in all sorts of important ways.

And you later joined as a juror of the competition. What brought you back?

I was invited by the then Artistic Director Warren Thompson to be on the 2004 jury and to give the Opening Recital. That's not a comfortable job I can tell you, playing to all those young geniuses and fellow jurors and a knowledgeable audience!

How would you describe the experience of a juror and a competitor, and how do you listen differently in these roles?

As a juror, one wants the same as any educated listener: to be excited, moved, impressed, carried away, inspired, struck by new ways of thinking the music. I haven't been a competitor for many decades, but I suppose they listen for the same things, while considering how they can achieve something they may be taken by in others' playing.

There are 32 pianists competing this year. What qualities do you listen for in an outstanding piano performance?

All of the competitors for The Sydney will have masterly techniques. One almost takes the ability to meet technical challenges for granted these days, but one wants to find musicians who are both true to the composers' wishes and simultaneously original in their thinking, communicative with an audience, at home on the stage, as happy playing a concerto in a huge hall like the Opera House as accompanying a salon piece for a violinist. The range of requirements for The Sydney is huge, one of the reasons it is considered one of the handful of master competitions in the world. I think every single contestant has won or had major prizes in other competitions, but they still want the kudos of winning a competition as demanding and famous as The Sydney. Our winner will need tremendous stamina, aside from extraordinary natural talent, musical depth and understanding and sophisticated pianistic equipment.

Are there any avoidable mishaps that you tend to see on the competition stage?

It sometimes amazes me that, even when given totally free choice of solo repertoire, some competitors choose works which don't particularly suit them. I guess it takes time to know what does or doesn't suit one and also not to worry about what one imagines others expect. It's also a tricky balance for younger players: to compete with pieces you've really played in for years and yet to keep adding to your repertoire. 'Be true to yourself' is such a good maxim!

Competitors are encouraged to perform works by Australian composers. Can you tell us more about how this initiative began?

There was always a requirement for competitors to perform an Australian work in an early round. In 1977 it was a free choice - I played Dorian le Gallienne's Sonata - but at some point the Competition began to commission two or three Australian composers to write works from which competitors would select. There is an impressive catalogue of those pieces.

When I took over the directorship of the competition in 2015, I decided I wanted competitors to have to research Australian piano music and to select something any length or period which they wanted to present. I felt the main aim of including an Australian work was to have international pianists play Aussie music and to continue to play it for the rest of their lives. There was more chance of that happening if they were allowed to choose something they were truly attracted to in the first place. When I was a young competitor, I sometimes had to learn a specific new work for a competition and after the event was over, never touched the piece again! That's not what I wanted with The Sydney.

This year it's different again. After the debacle of COVID, Creative Partnerships Australia launched an initiative whereby not-for-profits could submit a project which, if selected, would attract matched funding up to 25k for donations raised. I came up with the idea of 'Composing the Future'. Australian composers, at home or abroad, were invited to compose works of any duration, for consideration by a panel of five pianists, who would choose a winning piece to be premiered by the winner of the 2021 Sydney International Online Piano Competition (Alexander Gadjiev) on his first national tour and which would win a $20k First Prize. Colin Spiers won with his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The five juror pianists (Tamara Anna Cislowska, Bernadette Harvey, Kristian Chong, Daniel de Borah and Ian Munro) were also to choose pieces they would themselves premiere during the following year. They and their chosen composers (all judged anonymously) received prizes and payments as well. I decided for the 2023 competition that competitors should choose a work written since January 1st 2000. Too many piano competitions seem to feel that composing stopped with Prokofiev! It's important that we contemporary performers support contemporary composers. It's a joy that many of the works to be played in July are from the 94 written specially for the Composing the Future competition - though other works too are being presented.

Some of the pieces will receive their world premieres during The Sydney and many performances will take place in front of the composer.

The Sydney International Piano Competition is about to kick off for the first live competition since 2016! What are you most looking forward to this year?

The thrill of a live competition! Online events are useful, but live performance is another thing entirely. In the last couple of months I have judged the Horowitz Competition in Geneva and the Michael Hill International Violin Competition in Queenstown and Auckland and there's just nothing like the excitement of hearing so many huge young talents doing their utmost to achieve something truthful and profound and world-beating in front of a crowd of appreciative music lovers.

Finally, is there any performance advice you've been given that you would like to share with others?

I would just say to have something special you want to reveal about the music right from the first line - a harmonic nuance or shape to a phrase that immediately immerses you deeply in the music, avoiding unhelpful nerves and distractions. Play as if it's a concert, not a competition. Just be you - you've already proved you have something special by getting into the competition from 250 applications. Don't try to imitate anybody, even yourself, just aim to create something beautiful right now!

The Sydney International Piano Competition will take place 5-22 July 2023 at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Sydney Opera House. More info.

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