A continuation of Anna Iwanicka's interview with prof. Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń after the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (‘Chopin 2010 Celebrations Office’)

  • This year the Competition was very special - not only because of the Year of Chopin, but also because of the exceptionally high level of participants and changes in the Regulations. Was it therefore more difficult to evaluate the pianists? How did the voting and discussions over the assessment go? Were there any controversial issues?
  • It was the first time I was a juror of the Competition, so I have no comparison. Voting took place in the formula of ‘every man for himself’ and afterwards the results (anonymous) were self-explanatory, so discussions were not necessary. Of course, between the individual performances of participants the jurors discussed their opinions. However, I do not think the exchange of views had any impact on their personal assessment; at least in my case there was no such thing.
  • What criteria did the members of the jury have in assessing pianists? Did you have any defined patterns of interpretation of Chopin's music?
  • I think that, in assessing the value of an artistic work, which is to perform a piece of music (and I would like to emphasize that this is a work of art, not a craft product), it is impossible to establish any rigid criteria. The technical quality may be defined by some standards, although not entirely. For example, we may define the number of mistakes or false sounds but not the sound quality, which should also be attributed to technical issues, but which is perceived subjectively. It is not fixed in absolute terms how many decibels or non-resonating sound components (i.e. the knocking and noises of the mechanism and fingers) determine its beauty. For me, personally, a performance is beautiful when it fully reflects the expressive content of the passage. One cannot use a nice, gentle, kind, or even a smiling tone to inform the mother about the death of her child; a similar role is played by the sound of music. Sometimes it can be scary or barely audible ... It must correspond to the content. And how we understand the content in musical matters is a very personal issue. Hence different interpretations and the individual contribution of the performer who, processing a piece of music through his own sensibility, not only reads the score, but interprets it in an artistic or creative way. I find the discussion about patterns incomprehensible when it comes to art. A true artist does not use patterns, but his knowledge, experience and sensitivity. Only copyists need patterns; I do not think this is the purpose of the Chopin Piano Competition. Of course, the interpretation of winners may be considered something of a model for those who desire to take a similar position in future. But such people only dream of laurels, and are not truly concerned about expressing their own voice in art.
  • Were the choices made in the early stages confirmed in the final?
  • I can only speak for myself. Some choices were confirmed, the other ones modified up or down.
  • Who did you most miss in the final? Who were your favorites in the Competition? How far was the Competition Jury's verdict consistent with your individual opinions?
  • Overall, the verdict coincided with my choices. However, in most cases I assigned a different order of the top six. The pianist I missed most in the final was Leonora Armellini. My opinion and my scoring of her play grew from stage to stage and her performance of the Polonaise-Fantaisie moved me deeply. Besides, her talent, which was already manifested at the age of 18, is not a fact to be ignored. Throughout the whole competition I was looking forward to hearing Trifonov, Bozhanov and Wunder, who were my favourites - each one for different reasons. Each one was different, innovative and had something individual to offer.
  • Who, in your opinion, was the winner (not necessarily in the sense of the first prize), and who was the greatest loser?
  • Life will tell.
  • Has this year's Chopin Competition proved to be a competition for pianists, artists, or for ‘competitors’?
  • I think this Competition was mainly for artists, that is for people who are creative and hence so many misunderstandings. People always have problems with accepting something new; they love what they know. Performances of Bozhanov (except for the last round), Trifonov, and even Tyson, who was the object of numerous jokes, bore all the hallmarks of a new understanding of Chopin. What I find fascinating is that the work of Chopin is still so valid that it can be passed through the sensitivity of a 21st century man. It cannot be treated like a museum object; young people love his work and respond to it through the world of their own emotions.
  • What is the idea of the Chopin Competition in the present world? What is its purpose in a world of ubiquitous media?
  • I consider the Chopin Competition to be the most attractive one for pianists because of the spirit of Chopin himself. No other instrument ‘possessed’ a composer who was able to discover such a cosmos of sounds and an enormous range of possibilities. Some people say that the idea of the Chopin Competition is to ‘protect’ the style and that jurors should be ‘custodians’ of his work; I find this kind of interpretation a little strange. The curator works in a museum; we need to protect something that cannot exist independently. I presume that the work of Chopin is very much alive and not worthy of being laid in a museum display case. And it is very fortunate that most promising young pianists wish to try their chance to play Chopin's music. The competition is mainly for them; it helps to pinpoint pianists who are most worth promoting - that is, most worth it at this point, it should be added.
  • Which competition rules are timeless and undisputed and which should be the subject of dispute (among jury members, pianists or the audience)? Do you see a future possibility of modifying the formula of the Competition so that these risks have been eliminated (if there are any)?
  • I think that the principle of the monographic attitude must remain inviolable while it is questionable whether the arrangement of the program should be maintained. Besides, some minor alterations have been introduced with every subsequent competition. I cannot imagine what kind of risk could occur; controversies and disputes have accompanied every edition of the Competition so far. This one is no exception in this respect; due to extraordinary publicity in the media (perhaps there has not been a competition before that would enjoy such great audience and attention) also these controversies were ‘augmented’. Yet this is the result of increasing participation of the media in our lives and nothing else. One must take it as it comes.
  • The last Chopin Competition was covered entirely by TVP Kultura and several websites. Live comments by journalists and music critics were broadcast not only on public television, but also on public radio. How important is the media coverage for the Competition and its participants? Do you find it helpful or, on the contrary, harmful?
  • Frankly, in the present times publicity is needed and even negative comments can ultimately have a positive impact. The difficulty lies in the fact that the participant who reads or hears bad reviews about himself is most often unable to distance himself from them and this may undermine his self-esteem, which is so badly needed on stage. Many listeners are subject to the influence of commentators' opinions and then they are deprived of the blissful feeling of being an omniscient person. I think that commentators, aware of their power, should pass their judgements more carefully, if only because of the large crowd of listeners who are lost in these discrepancies between the opinion of the judges and that of the commentators. After all, it is this distinguished panel of judges who finally pronounce a collective verdict. This is not a group of people who do not know the matter well or who treat their verdict lightly. Each of the jurors felt a little personal disappointment, because no individual list agreed with the final verdict in 100 per cent. Yet nobody refused to sign the papers, no one left a meeting as a sign of protest or raised a vote of dissent. Those were the people who respected one another and, therefore, everyone had the right to retain his different opinion.
  • What is the role of a journalist in informing, commenting and shaping the image of the Chopin Competition? There were some superficial opinions as well as a few expert analyses...
  • In my opinion, there is a fundamental difference between journalists and jurors resulting from a different viewpoint . The former are prepared to respond to a musical performance primarily along the line of their education, experience in listening and theoretical knowledge. Besides their education, the latter have accumulated great practical experience as pianists. What constitutes a problem for journalists, for example false notes, mistakes, is not a decisive factor for pianists in evaluating the technique (I am thinking about the level of the competition after the first round, the main purpose of which is to assess the technical aspect). A journalist reading the musical text while listening to a performance may note an incompatibility with the record and a pianist knows that it is impossible to play a piece of music twice in the same way. Besides, it is difficult to imagine Chopin delivering an identical performance twice, although he left only one version. Musical score is designed for musicians who can read the code and hear the music between the black marks. A journalist probably also hears the music, but it is something he has kept in his memory after listening to other pianists' performances or recordings. He makes comparisons; the text does not seem to be the same, the music does not sound like Rubinstein's or Zimerman's or Blechacz's, so he concludes it is no good. A jury member tries to relieve his internal hearing from his habits and open up to what is happening here and now. This is certainly not easy, but in case of a particularly artistic (read: authentic) performance, where the pianist speaks convincingly in his own voice, it is not difficult. (Sometimes the sound may well fit within a widely understood tradition or even academicism, but the personality of the performer is still clear; Wunder's performances may serve as an example).
  • Well, should we then pay any attention to reviews in the media and comments on a discussion forum? Many of them proved to have a negative attitude of the author to almost any ‘element’ of the Competition - starting with the jury and finishing with the pianists' appearance. Is this just a typical Polish criticism or rather a symptom of human envy, professional failure or ignorance of Chopin's music?
  • You have replied to that question yourself! Basing your opinion on minute fragments, selected to match with the opinion of commentators is a kind of manipulation and every enlightened listener should be aware of it. And all the criticizing on television or the Internet ... My God, is it possible for us to instantly become someone else? “It's great to witness someone's failure...”
  • How did you evaluate the performance of Paweł Wakarecy during the contest - as a professor and as a member of the jury? What were his strengths, and what would require further improvement (change)?
  • It is difficult for me to speak about Paweł; fortunately, I did not have the opportunity to evaluate him. The thing is that he has been my disciple for 8 years and I have got accustomed to his assets as an artist. I am no longer impressed by the fact that he is an extremely emotional artist who always has a personal attitude to what he is playing. He often plays on the spur of the moment and, indeed, he sometimes pays a great price for that. Yet those were the very qualities the jury most prized in his performances; they helped him to ‘seduce’ the jurors as early as the first round. Nowadays to be ‘predictable’ as an artist is considered to be something wrong. What I found most difficult was when I heard him go over the top and completely mess up or even ‘fall flat on his face’ as they say in the youth language. The thing is that the flaws you can easily fix, like those resulting from stage fright, did not constitute a great problem for the jury. Knowing myself, I can only be glad that the rules forbade me to score Paweł. I think that more stage experience will automatically help stabilize his play. He is not only an extremely musical and creative pianist, but also a very intelligent boy.
  • Was it difficult to assess your student's performance and - in a sense - also your own choices and concepts that Paweł Wakarecy realized in the Competition? Was the need for objective and reliable evaluation troublesome from the point of view of other members of the jury?
  • This jury did no favour to anyone. Other jurors' students left the ‘battlefield’ at different points. Paweł did not realize my ideas or choices. I could sooner say that about the play of Rafał [Blechacz], whose sensibility was very similar to mine and who immediately understood what I wanted. I did not even dream about ‘tailoring’ Paweł after Rafał's fashion. It would have ended in a complete fiasco. I tried to ‘harmonize’ him with his own sensitivity, temperament and pianism on the ground of Chopin's texts.
  • Do you agree with the opinion of Paweł Wakarecy himself, who said that “this Competition is for pianists, and he is ONLY a student”? Is he, in your opinion, ONLY a student?
  • It is just his extraordinary modesty and lack of ability to communicate with the media.
  • How long did Paweł prepare for the Chopin Competition? What was your main concern while working with him on achieving a desirable interpretation of Chopin's works?
  • I can hardly bear replying to this question; the answer might bring about a suspicion that I'm not honest. But well, I will reveal the truth about it. We started working on the program for the 3rd round of the Competition in June 2010. My role was more to tell him what he should NOT do rather than what he should do. His case was a typical embarras de richesse; his musical ‘eloquence’ and the number of new ideas per minute made a record when it comes to my teaching experience. So I tried to ‘filter’ excessive threads just to achieve a deeper current and to make the message more bearing.
  • Now, after the Competition has ended, are you planning to make any alterations regarding the methods in preparing pianists to participation in future editions?
  • I keep saying that I have no method. It all depends on who I am working with. Maybe none of my students will be willing to take part in the next Chopin Competition or none will be admitted? There are five years to go.
  • What did your participation in the Competition in the role of a juror mean for you personally and subjectively? What memories will you cherish?
  • This whole period, starting on October 2, was a great celebration of Chopin for me. I found myself in the company of people whom I had worshiped as musicians for years. Martha Argerich has been my favourite pianist since I can remember. During the last Competition I got to know Martha as a person; she is a fantastic person, subtle, extremely kind for young pianists and unaffected. I met Fou Ts'oung, whose passion for music I find amazing; Ms. Bella Davidovich - a great lady. I will not name all although I keep them in my fond memory.
  • Thank you very much for the interview.