It is a mystery to me why young pianists, some of whom are already playing in a professional capacity, would want come and spend a week in Worthing on the South Coast of England to duke it out at the keyboard over five days for a cheque for £5K and the dubious honour of being crowned winner of the Sussex International Piano Competition. But come they do, in sufficient numbers to necessitate qualifying rounds in London prior to the main event, which starts with 22 quarter finalists, all of whom must have a concerto up their sleeve should they make the final three. And we are talking serous talent here. All are conservatoire or ex-conservatoire students. They come from all corners of the planet, though many are temporarily based in the UK at the RCM or Royal Academy. Technical mastery is assumed. Liszt, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev feature in many of the programmes.
Reading the contestants’ biographies reveals a situation where there now exists a kind of international competitions ‘circuit’. It’s a crowded profession and many of these young pianists will commit themselves to flitting from one competition to the next as a strategy for breaking through. It doesn’t suit all temperaments, and thankfully it is not the only route into the profession. But the fact remains that unless you are one of the very few overnight sensations, you have to accept years of hard slog, with the real possibility that the breakthrough will never come. At least on the competitions circuit you are getting constant feedback, and learning fast whether or not you even stand a chance.
The Sussex competition is now in its third year and it has a lot going for it. Firstly, there is The Worthing Symphony Orchestra - an occasional aggregation of top class professional players who work regularly with top orchestras – support a full concerto final. The Worthing Assembly Hall has the same shape and dimensions as the Sistine Chapel (although there the comparison ends!) with the result that it has the most perfect acoustic – one of the best in the country. The orchestra is supported by the Worthing Symphony Society, a group of volunteers who do all the donkey work, fund raise and host the competitors. But at the heart of the success of this competition is John Gibbons, conductor of the orchestra and a musician with fingers in many pies and many contacts in the world of classical music. His ‘can-do’ approach kick-started the crazy notion of an international piano competition in Worthing, and his irrepressible enthusiasm and positivity keeps it going.
This year’s great coup was to secure the services of Idel Biret as a member of a very strong jury which included an impresario, an agent and an arts administrator. There is also a tie-in with Champs Hill recording studios, so I guess the answer to my opening question is that Sussex is becoming a competition that offers the winner not just cash but real career enhancing opportunities.
The one big disappointment was the piano. Of course, Steinway is the Rolls-Royce of pianos. But Steinways, like Rolls-Royces, age. Sympathetic storage and a good deal of pampering can prolong the life of an instrument, but I suspect the Worthing instrument gets neither. It is long past its best, and although it produces a powerful and rich sound, it cannot and will not stay in tune despite the attentions of the tuner after very competitor. In the first year of the competition they managed to obtain sponsorship from Blüthner who not only provided two pianos (one for competitors to practice and warm up on), but also, and just as importantly, a technician. For the next competition in 2018, the organizers must either find a similar sponsorship deal or fork out for a hired instrument along with technician.
Vavara Tarasova plays Scriabin Sonata No 2