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Sweet and Sour

John Robert Brown

Pianist Antti Siirala's most recent recording was Editor's Choice in The Gramophone. 'Proof that competition winners can also be rounded, thinking musicians too', claimed the headline.

Where does the idea of such a dichotomy arise? Can music competitions permit unthinking musicians to triumph? Is there conflict between the requirements of a competition and a rounded musical development? Do competitions reduce performance to an athletic activity?

No one can answer these questions better than Antti Siirala himself, now that he has won at Dublin, Leeds, London and Vienna. When we met, after a recital in Huddersfield, I asked him whether he recognises a conflict between art and competition.

"I have always tried to go my own way regarding repertoire in competitions," he said. "I rarely play the things that people expect everyone to play. Competition repertoire is pretty much the same thing as normal repertoire. You have to plan your rounds so that they show different sides of you. The jury is just part of the audience.

"People who criticise competitions often forget that the entire profession is made of competing. You are always against someone else who would like to play the same concert." He laughs. "And managers compete against each other to give opportunities to their artists. The world is a big competition. People think that a music competition is a horrible thing, that music should be free of this, but it's an illusion, very naive."

Siirala's ability to go his own way is important. "By the end of the first line of the first movement of the Mozart Sonata, K533, I think the whole jury had decided that this was the first prize winner," says John O'Conor, who chaired the Dublin jury. He is highly enthusiastic about Siirala's ability. "It was just like I'd never heard the sonata before in my life," he says.

O'Conor makes no secret of his resistance to athletic displays for their own sake.

"I wanted to ban certain pieces," he says. "Like, I never want to hear the Mephisto Waltz again in my life. Some people turn up at competitions and think: ' Well, I have to show them that I have fingers.' But at the level of the Dublin, or the Leeds, you don't get in unless you have proved yourself in technique."

He observes that Siirala has an intelligent grasp of this point, but that the pianist can be strong-willed.

"Antti can be pliable until you reach the moment when he doesn't want to do something" says O'Connor. "Then it's like talking to a brick wall. I say: 'My God, you're more stubborn than my wife!'

"Even after he was doing the Dublin Competition, I said: 'You've won the Beethoven Competition in Vienna, you've won the London Competition. Now you've won Dublin. I suppose that's it?' And he said, 'No, I want to do the Leeds Competition.' I said, 'I think you're crazy.' He said he had such a bad experience after the London competition that he would never have a career in England unless he tried Leeds.

I said, 'But if you don't win, that's it.' He said: 'Yes, and if I don't do Leeds, I will always say to myself, 'Why didn't I?' "

The story is that Siirala was hurt by what happened after he failed to reach the final in London in 2000. He was in fourth place. Then one of the finalists didn't have a concerto ready. The organisers had to have three in the final. So Siirala went through, played a stunning concerto, and won first prize.

But one jury member thought that the competitor who came second should have won, that this was cheating. No one knows what happened exactly, but Antti got no concerts. He felt that he was blackballed in England. "Which is why he wanted to do Leeds," says O'Conor. "He didn't feel he would have a world career if he never played in England. That's his stubbornness."

Winning the four competitions has given Siirala many things that he wouldn't have received otherwise. The Dublin competition paid for a debut in New York, for a Wigmore Hall debut, obtained various concerts around the States, and secured representation from agents in Germany and New York.

"I've won four competitions," says Siirala. "This is it, for me, as far as competitions are concerned. I think Leeds is the best 'brand' in the musical world. It's obviously created most interest. I've got many invitations based on that. We'll see.

"Many people have done well in big competitions, and then not even been accepted to others, or kicked off after the first round. It's music; it's impossible to judge objectively. It's not a certainty that after winning a competition you embark on a lifelong solo career. It often happens that people get other ambitions.

"From the competitors' point of view, the attractive thing about a competition is what it is able to produce afterwards for the winner - different kinds of opportunities for performing. So I wouldn't necessarily go to a competition with a huge first prize, but rather for the reputation."

When I observe that henceforward he will play on the very best pianos, Siirala disagrees, saying that he will occasionally choose venues because the people there are appreciative, though the piano might be mediocre.

Such a considerate attitude is as valuable as the ability to win.

This article first appeared in Classical Music Magazine Guide to Music Competitions, January 2005. Used by kind permission of the editor.
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