CMIM 2021: A competition like no other

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“It’s the biggest logistical challenge of my ­career,” Christiane LeBlanc, executive and artistic director of the Concours musical ­international de Montréal, said about the prospect of organizing a competition from the end of April through the middle of May. 
 This statement might seem odd, since none of the contestants or jurors have to be flown to Montreal and suitably housed. Nor is there any need to book the Maison symphonique or the Montreal ­Symphony Orchestra. The ­competition this year, devoted to the piano, is entirely solo and entirely online. And available free to enthusiasts around the world.

The 26 candidates, including some added from the waiting list, were all selected for the 2020 edition of the CMIM, which did not come to pass for the obvious reasons.

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“We could not postpone a second time,” LeBlanc said. “I think it was our responsibility to try to be innovative and break out of our ­comfort zone.”

The distance from the comfort zone is ­considerable. For every ­convenience created by the online format there is a corresponding complication.

Finding appropriate performance venues was one. Rather than ­settle for a handful of cities and ask the candidates to travel, the CMIM booked 14 facilities around the world, bringing the competition to them.
“We never know when borders are going to close,” LeBlanc ­explained, alluding to the quixotic nature of government regulations in the COVID-19 era.

Five of the 26 (from 11 countries) will play in New York; four in London, three in Paris; two each in Basel, Berlin and Seoul; and one each in Ann Arbor, Biella (Italy), Kansas City, Montreal, Moscow, Tokyo, Vienna and Warsaw.

In many cases the city reflects where the contestant resides rather than the country he or she represents. Three of the Chinese ­entrants will play in New York. One of the Berlin-based hopefuls is South ­Korean. The other is Japanese.

Resonant concert halls were preferred to soulless studios. “We wanted them to have a feeling, even though there isn’t an audience, of this wonderful space, where they feel comfortable, where the sound is fine,” LeBlanc said.

New York performances take place in Merkin Hall, near the ­Juilliard School. Other locales are the Royal Academy of Music in London, Salle ­Cortot in Paris and the storied Moscow Conservatory, though not the Great Hall of Tchaikovsky Competition fame.

Candidates will be presented in a sequence chosen at random, as they might in a normal CMIM year. All recitals are recorded in ­advance. Differing time zones make en direct livestreaming unfeasible.

Steinway will secure a stable of instruments in good condition. Recording protocols must be uniform. “We have to be sure that the recording teams are working on the same basis, with the same ­number of microphones, angles and cameras,” LeBlanc explained.

No editing is the prime directive. Players must perform by memory in a single take. In this era of universal virtuosity, ­fadeouts and slip-ups are rare, but if something goes awry, there is no ­second chance.

Standards need to be maintained at the receiving end of the ­transmission. The competition is working with judges to make sure they have appropriate playback equipment.

Christiane Leblanc. Photo: Brent Calis

As for the prohibition against communication, this will be less of a concern than usual since judges are working from home. “Is someone going to pick up the phone and ask, ‘What did you think of so and so?’ I can’t control that,” LeBlanc said. “But it is in the rule book and we ­always stress that we hope they will not discuss competitors.” At any rate, Zarin Mehta is back as president of the jury.

While it can be argued that there is nothing quite like hearing a ­candidate in person, there are benefits to the virtual alternative. Judges will be isolated not only from each other but from whatever subtle influence might accrue from an enthusiastic or lacklustre round of applause.

Another potential advantage is the “gap week” that offers judges and fans alike a chance to stretch their legs between the semi-final round (26 45-minute recitals from April 26 to 30) and the finals (eight one-hour recitals from May 10 to 13). Winners are announced on the morning of May 14.

Judges Charles Richard-Hamelin and Mari Kodama (both of whom happened to be in Montreal) gave appropriately distanced masterclasses in Bourgie Hall on March 12. These will be presented as ­webcasts in the week of May 3.

There is no mandatory repertoire apart from Bach (an obvious ­prerequisite to the Montreal Bach Festival Prize) and the imposed Canadian piece (ditto the André Bachand Award). The Canadian “work” this year will be three Preludes drawn from the mostly postromantic set of 24 completed in 2015 by the Queen’s University composer John Burge. In this case only, candidates are allowed to read from the music.

The carte-blanche approach reflects a worldwide trend. If a candidate wishes to make a statement with Janáček, Hindemith and Boulez rather than Beethoven, Chopin and Prokofiev, so be it. “With only two rounds we have to give them a chance to express their personality,” LeBlanc said.

Prizes valued at $235,000 include the recent addition of a recording on the Steinway label for the winner of the first prize. All prizes are supported by donations.

“I was very touched by the solidarity and generosity of our ­sponsors,” LeBlanc said. “They agreed to support somebody they will probably never meet, somebody who might not ever come to ­Montreal.” The likely exception is the winner of the first prize, whom the MSO has agreed to present in a future season.

A Montreal competition taking place almost entirely outside ­Montreal? Such are the paradoxes of the post-COVID era. Another oddity is the absence of live listeners cheering for their favourites, an archetypal element of the competitive format.

“For sure it will be different,” LeBlanc said. “But we will know how the candidates rose to the occasion of connecting without having an audience in front of them. We realize it is a big challenge.”

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. From 2019-2021, Arthur was co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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