Kebra-Seyoun Charles was in their New York City apartment in January when they got the news. Charles, a nonbinary bassist and composer who uses they/them pronouns, had just won the 2022 Sphinx Competition, a national competition for young Black and Latinx string players. “It was a little surreal to have received the first place award and exit the Zoom call and sort of prance about my New York apartment,” Charles recalls. “The surreal nature of it was due to the fact that I’d gone from being on Zoom with hundreds of people watching, to being alone within seconds. It was during the time of the Omicron surge, so I didn’t have the option of being around a large group of people—which is a big part of my life.”
Charles won with a performance of the third movement from Andrés Martin’s 2012 First Double Bass Concerto—played with piano accompaniment in a prerecorded video. The Sphinx competition is typically held in person in Detroit, but took place online this time. Not only did Charles receive $50,000, but they’ve also been connected with other musicians of color and groups that support these musicians, leading to performance opportunities.
Making connections is a core mission of classical music competitions. But that’s hardly their only purpose. They are increasingly adapting to the realities of the industry by offering a wider range of benefits than before, and they are expanding beyond their flagship events to broaden their reach.
Internationally known contests, like the Chopin and Tchaikovsky piano competitions and the Menuhin Competition for violinists, offer substantial support—and visibility. Others, like the Houston Symphony’s Ima Hogg Competition or Canada’s Honens International Piano Competition, provide their own range of benefits. Showcases or competitions run by nonprofits like Young Concert Artists and Concert Artists Guild shine a spotlight on the winner, offer career support, and add them to their rosters of artists. In addition to sometimes eye-popping cash prizes, many competitions provide opportunities for the mentorship, networking, media training, and performances that can lead to a career in music. Orchestras and concert presenters certainly pay attention to the winners.
In interviews, competition executives stress the importance of a holistic approach in supporting up-and-coming musicians. What works for one musician may not work for another. For example, Yunchan Lim, an 18-year-old from South Korea, who won the 2022 Cliburn International Piano Competition in June, has different needs than, say, Vadym Kholodenko, who won the 2013 Cliburn when he was 27. Although Lim already has a robust following, particularly because of his incendiary performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto at the Cliburn, he is performing fewer concerts than previous winners. That’s because he needs time to practice and learn new repertoire, says the Cliburn’s CEO and president, Jacques Marquis. Kholodenko, on the other hand, could tackle a busier concert schedule, right out the gate. “We really try to be a good manager, supporting them along the way,” Marquis says.
In the ongoing pandemic, competitions are having challenges booking performances for their emerging artists. Concert presenters are more apt to pick established soloists to draw audiences back to the concert hall. “If you have a chance to have Yefim Bronfman or Manny Ax to come back to your season, then you will forget about the young artists who are exceptional, but aren’t known,” Marquis explains. He expects this to be a challenge for the next several years.
The Cliburn combats this with a robust online presence, including webcasts of the competition that feature not only the competitors’ performances, but also newscast-style commentary, interviews with competitors and jurors, and behind-the-scenes looks. Launched in 2001 and greatly expanded since then, the webcasts expose competitors to fans, musicians, and concert managers around the globe. The 2022 flagship competition did particularly well online. All performances were livestreamed, and can still be viewed on the Cliburn’s website. From June to August, the performances generated 25 million views, five times more than the previous competition in 2017, with viewers from 177 countries, the Cliburn says.
Much of the attention came from Lim’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, with conductor Marin Alsop and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. It has had over 8 million views on YouTube. “I always say to all the candidates, ‘Don’t underestimate the power of the webcast,’ ” Marquis recalls, “because somewhere, someone is watching.”
The success of Lim’s performance calls to mind the story on which the Cliburn is built. In 1958, at the height of Cold War tensions, Texas-born pianist Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. His performances of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in the finals were enthusiastically received by the audience. Upon his return to the U.S., Cliburn was greeted with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway in New York. He also appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which called him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.” With presenters eager to book him for performances, Cliburn set off on a busy concert schedule around the globe. In 1962, friends in Fort Worth created the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in his honor.
Competitions play a much different role nowadays.
“If you were to win one of the major competitions 30 to 40 years ago, your career was almost automatically launched,” says Glen Kwok, executive director at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. “Today, very few artists can concertize successfully and make careers out of it. So competitions are now playing an even bigger role in bringing visibility to these artists.”
One way that the Indianapolis competition boosts visibility is by giving winners a chance to debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The recital is typically scheduled two years after the competition, so the winner is “really musically and mentally prepared,” Kwok says. Winners can perform the Carnegie recital on a fine instrument on loan from the competition. “You can actually pick your violin and keep it for four years,” Kwok explains, “and we pay for all of the expenses.” Richard Lin, the 2018 winner, performed his Carnegie recital on his own violin made by contemporary luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz, but also had use of another Zygmuntowicz and the 1683 “ex-Gingold” Stradivarius from the competition’s collection.
Competitions can lend support in other ways. Creating and managing websites, giving social media advice, setting up photo shoots, helping with taxes and contracts: these are all offered by some competitions to help musicians. “In the last 10 to 20 years, the market has evolved a lot,” Marquis says. “Playing the piano [well] is great, but you have to be good also with social media, you have to look at recordings, you have to see where you’re playing and how you’re playing and what kind of repertoire you’re choosing.”
Support from competitions can even help musicians find time to rest and regroup. Rest is often overlooked, Kwok says, but is just as important as practicing: “If you’re go, go, go, all the time, and you’re juggling multiple repertoires, suddenly it isn’t so easy. Time to rest really goes out the window, and you don’t realize until you’re in the thick of it.”
Beyond the Winner’s Circle
Competitions are poor predictors of future success. For every Radu Lupu, Olga Kern, or Leonidas Kavakos, there are countless winners whose careers never take off—and sometimes the competitors who lost go on to forge outstanding careers. Juries don’t have crystal balls; they can only base their decisions on a particular moment in time.
Oftentimes, competitions also seem to test endurance more than musicality. The largest competitions have extensive repertoire lists and multiple rounds. Young musicians put themselves on the line in grueling races to the finish.
Yaron Kohlberg, president of Piano Cleveland, knows firsthand about competitions, having won the silver medal at the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2007. It led to performance engagements, he recalls, and even helped him get a work visa in China. Competitions, Kohlberg says, should help musicians find their interests, passions, and long-term missions and goals. “I think a lot of these pianists have been taught to sit at the piano and play the best they can,” he says. “But they don’t necessarily know how to take it from there.”
Because of the fierceness of the classical music market, Kohlberg says, there are fewer and fewer spots for performers, “so we really have to find a way to ensure that they have success the best way they can.” That may mean becoming a teacher or starting a music festival or experimenting with different genres.
Competitions aren’t just focused on the careers of musicians. Many have expanded well beyond their original missions, adding a range of offerings and events. Since 1962, the Cliburn has grown to include concert series, educational programs, and competitions both for amateurs ages 35 and older, and pianists ages 13 to 17. Marquis sees these as equally important as the flagship contest. “Every little thing we do is bringing people to the Cliburn,” he says. Audience members attending a free community concert, for example, may want to come to future Cliburn performances, Marquis points out. “I always believe that in our field, you win people one by one,” he adds, “you don’t win by thousands.”
The flagship event, meanwhile, acts as a “fantastic engine that creates a lot of awareness and visibility,” he says. This was particularly the case at the 2022 Cliburn, which drew a devoted following in person and online.
Broadening Service and Support
Reflecting its expanded mission, the Cleveland International Piano Competition changed its name to Piano Cleveland in 2020. The organization’s goal is to make Cleveland a premier destination for piano and to broaden its role in the city and surrounding areas. “We want to make the community even more excited about what’s happening,” Kohlberg says. The competition aims to raise the level of piano performance in Cleveland, Kohlberg adds, and would like to see more pianists from the area participate in the competition in the future.
The competition is trying to achieve these goals through its education programs. These include performances for students in the area, virtual introductory lessons, and an after-school music academy offering lessons and recital opportunities.
Inspiring future musicians is a goal shared by competition winners. Kebra-Seyoun Charles, the bassist and composer, would like to be a voice for their generation of classical musicians. Charles is particularly passionate about the music of Bach and Mozart, and writes music that they describe as neo-Baroque, taking forms like the concerto grosso and sonata and bringing them into the twenty-first century.
“My approach to music is to bring everyone into the fold,” Charles says, “and make it a universal experience. Because I think everybody can relate to Bach. And my job as a classical soloist and bassist is to be that approachable face of classical music.”