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      Paul met Debbie

      Today is Halloween, but I am not going into that now, I already did here. However, we have recently been commemorating a soul: the soul of Frederic Chopin (1810 – 1849).

      I have expressed my special relationship with Chopin on this forum before in this post. Chopin was a genius composer with bad lungs. Some even conjecture that he could have had CF, dying young with lung infections and hemoptysis, not having fathered children. In his relatively short earthly life this Polish(/French) composer created all the music a pianist could ever want. There is no composer who meant more for the piano than he did. Although he received much acclaim already while alive, most of this time in Paris where he escaped the Russian occupation of his native country, he would be surprised to see how popular his music still is. Not only with hardcore lovers of classical music, but with a broad selection of people who love music in a broader sense as well, because his beautiful melodies are very pleasing to the ear and very well composed indeed. For all moods there are lots of pieces he composed, even some for piano and orchestra although most of his work are miniatures composed for piano solo.

      As an amateur pianist I played Chopin from a young age, probably I was around 7 when playing his more easy music like the  Waltzes and Mazurka’s. Most of these are small pieces based upon Polish folk songs and very popular. Later I also learned the lovely romantic Nocturnes some of his fierce Polonaises, that are a bit longer and harder to play generally speaking. And I also came to love his set of 24 Preludes. Many composers have made sets of these little pieces that originally were meant to set the mood for a concert, but later became fully grown separate compositions on their own. For instance Bach, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Shostakovich composed Preludes like these, as a set depicting an entire universe of compositional possibilities and human emotions.

      So Chopin is not far away from my fingers usually, but last month was still special. To start with, because of Kaftrio I have considerably raised my energy level and are able to play the piano for hours at a time again, much to my delight and that of Debbie’s. I played through all of the Mazurka’s in two days, rediscovering my favorite hobby because of this and it’s great to experience that my ability has not decayed too much – on the contrary. Secondly, I was very inspired lately because in Warsaw there was the 18th international Chopin Competition, held every five years since 1927, where the best pianists in the world showed their musicality in the hope of winning a prize and international fame. In total 500 pianists applied, of which 150 where selected to play in the preliminary round. Of those, about 80 were selected to perform in the main competition, that spanned three rounds and a finale. In each round about half of the contestants were selected to enter the next, so after three weeks of competing only 12 finalists were chosen.

      Entering the finals of this competition is a big deal for a pianist. It means international acclaim and many more possibilities to play concerts around the world and become well known. To launch an international career as a pianist it is not absolutely necessary to enter into competitions, many have become famous without, for instance Arcadi Volodos who became legendary because of his first CDs with virtuosic arrangements of the most difficult piano pieces known. After establishing his name, he now records and plays what he chooses, and stays far away from his virtuoso youth. And nowadays one can even become world-famous via YouTube, as for instance shown by Hayato Sumino, who runs the popular YouTube channel Cateen. But of course, he would not have arrived at the third round in the Chopin Competition only for this – he is an exceptionally good pianist to start with. But it was surreal to see that, while most YouTube video’s of the other contestants only had a few hundred or perhaps a few thousands viewers, one of Sumino’s performances in the contest had over 1 million viewers.  Still, winning one of the prizes in the Chopin competition is a secure start of a career.

      Only the first six finalists get an official prize which is very prestigious, let alone winning one of the first three of them. Almost all of those pianists that have won a first, second of third prize have become world famous legends, and even some of the “lower” scoring pianists are. Names like Bella Davidovich, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Garrick Ohlsson, Christian Zimmerman, and more recently Rafal Blechacz and Seong-Jin Cho are well established in the world of piano playing. Sometimes a candidate even becomes famous without entering the final, like Ivo Pogorelich who was rejected in the competition of 1980, after the third round, causing an uproar in the jury when Martha Argerich protested this decision of her fellow jurors and quit. Pogorelich was sort of a pirate-pianist, who had very radical thoughts about how Chopin’s music should be played, and not all the jurors could follow his choices. Every competition has musicians like this, who change the paradigm and cause a shock in the ears of the listeners. Some love this, and some hate it. But mostly these pirates become very well loved and known with the general public nevertheless. The pirate of this competition in our view was Georgijs Osokins, who already competed in the previous competition of 2015, reaching the finals. But apparently, he aspired for a higher place and tried again, like some other contestants as well. That mission did not succeed, because he was not allowed into the third round, but he played a very original Chopin and he looked like Glenn Gould doing it, sitting on a low table chair.

      We listened to a lot of contestants these last three weeks. Not all of them, because there were too many to follow all of the recitals all those long days. But we will be listening to the recordings that are on YouTube and will be available for quite some time. So the circus is not over yet, fortunately. We enjoyed all of the recitals very much, although of course one has certain favorites and it is more or less a gamble to predict which of the candidates will be allowed to the next round. So some of our favorites were rejected after round two, one of them Evren Ozel, and some did not make it into the finals to our dismay, like Piotr Alexewicz, Szymon Nehring and Nikolay Khozyainov. We are sure however that these pianists also will find their way to the concert stages in the world in the time to come. Most of them already have, since pianists like these are mostly playing from a very young age, having done many concerts and won many other competitions as well.

      The finalists were all great. I will mention some of our favorites whose musical personality we found attractive. The complete list is on the website of the Frederic Chopin competition. We loved the musical perfection of the winner, Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu. We admired the deep philosophical musicality of Alexander Gadjiev (shared second prize), the honest vulnerability of Eva Gevorgian and the warm cordiality of Leonora Armellini (fifth prize). Our favorite pianist however is the winner of the third prize, Martin Garcia Garcia. The sheer joy he conveys when playing Chopin’s music was very enticing and he seemed such an honest and cheerful human being as well.

      What we most enjoyed however was not the competition itself, because it is always a shame that so many great musicians who all deserve a prize, could not be awarded one in this system of counting points and subjective taste of the jurors. We were most moved by the dedication of all these young people, who had put in so much talent, sheer determination and love for music in the 17 to 29 years of their lives to bring alive the wonderful music of Chopin. And to see human beings from all over the world, from all nationalities and beliefs, both the pianists, the public and the jurors, ignoring all those differences and finding each other in this one love for art and beauty – that was a most inspiring example of going beyond the personal layer of ego and mind, and joining in the one Wholeness we all share. A fountain of music directly from the fountain of aliveness.

      Now, back to my piano!

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