Friday, 23 March 2018 21:08

Classical Music's Stealthiest Award: Behind the Scenes of Winning a Non-Competition

Written by  Marin Heinritz
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2018 Gilmore Artist Igor Levit 2018 Gilmore Artist Igor Levit photo: Robbie Lawrence

Winning the Gilmore Artist Award is lifechanging, and yet no one sees it coming. There’s no competition to enter — it can only be earned by being one of the greatest young pianists in the world.

The $300,000 award is purposefully shrouded in mystery so no one can tip the scales. Then, when one artist is chosen to receive it every four years, his or her life can suddenly shift course in a major way.

Shortly after Igor Levit was announced as this year’s Gilmore Artist Award winner, the New York Times ran a 2000-word profile on him that took up an entire page of newsprint in the paper’s massively circulated Sunday edition. The kind of exposure Levit has already received is exactly what the award was designed to do: shine a spotlight on emerging, promising talent.

“It’s a major boost to a young artist,” said Dan Gustin, director emeritus of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based nonprofit that administers the quadrennial award.

Gustin said the design of the award is to “recognize somebody who has the potential to create a major career in music as a performing artist.”

The Gilmore Award remains unique among the approximately 800 piano competitions the world over—not just for the enormity of the prize money, but because no one actually competes for it.

Even as the number of traditional piano competitions continues to grow, one criticism that’s often leveled against them is that they fail to launch careers because judges value homogeneity rather than individual style. Not surprisingly, many artists find this stifling. In 2009, Italian virtuoso Roberto Prosseda told The New York Times he had quit the competition game because juries want a “standard” performance, adding, “The public doesn’t want us to play the standard way perfectly. The public wants us to make them cry.”

The Gilmore, however, celebrates and seeks out that individual style. Somewhat akin to the so-called “genius grants” awarded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Gilmore Award winners have no idea they’ve been contenders.

“This is an award, it’s not a prize. It’s not something you compete for and win,” Gustin said. “That’s very important to the whole psychology of the process itself. There are no losers. I mean, any pianist worth his salt hopes that he or she is being looked at, but nobody knows.”

Every four years, The Gilmore appoints an anonymous group of five people from the international music community to elicit nominations of pianists from around the globe. For the past 15 years, the committee has included artistic directors from places such as Carnegie Hall and the Boston Symphony as well as Grammy Award-winning producers of classical music and musicologists, among others.

“They’ve come from all over,” Gustin said. “I have people who are musical generalists on it, who are involved in the international music scene in significant ways. They’re not academics. They’re not piano teachers. And they’re not, for the most part, pianists. So they have a certain independent point of view.”

The group of five, along with Gustin, consider the nominations as well as finalists from previous years, and then spends two years traveling the globe, attending concerts, sometimes even surreptitiously arranging performances. They listen to and watch recordings of live performances, conferring with one another on what they’ve observed.

This is much the way it’s been done since the award was designed 30 years ago by David Pocock, the Gilmore Festival’s first artistic director. However, now the committee also has the benefit and ease of technology, including a private website through which they communicate and exchange information such as live performance recordings.

“We used to exchange CDs,” Gustin said. “Now it’s all done electronically, and we’ll reference and talk to one another on the website, or when we meet, about this performance compared to that performance, and we can reference it right away — immediately — and demonstrate the thing that we wanted to point out.”

However, overall it’s still an expensive and timeconsuming process, and the committee members are not compensated for participating, but it’s the only way to thoroughly evaluate a more complete picture of each musician’s potential.

“Not based on the snapshot of a competition where there’s one or two performances playing a certain kind of repertoire that’s told to them in advance, but rather, in the natural setting for a performer, that is the concert hall, playing different repertoire to different audiences on different instruments,” Gustin said. “You’re able to get a much broader sense of who the artist is if you hear them in a number of different circumstances over time.”

“It’s the total musician,” said Zaide Pixley, a musicologist and Kalamazoo College Professor Emerita on the board of The Gilmore Festival. “Not just the way they do it, but the range of things they can do.”

The painstakingly thorough process also leads to the discovery of well-rounded musicians who might otherwise be overlooked.

“They’ve tried to find people who were extremely promising, but were on the cusp of their careers. So in some ways, they were taking a chance or kind of sensing that this person really has something special,” she said. “You’re not competing for it, so people can really see you.”

Gustin said the winner always emerges by consensus and the committee has never taken a vote.

“We just come to consensus, and I’m very proud of that because we don’t have a set of criteria where we give somebody 75 percent or an A there and a B there. Nothing like that,” he said.

The award serves as the center of the hub of the overall festival, which has more than doubled in size since it began, with more than 35,000 attendees in 2016, and an estimated economic impact to Kalamazoo County of more than $4 million. “It’s fun, it’s a secret, who is it? People want to know,” Pixley said. “It’s a focal point. It helps put the rest of it in a context.”

Once a winner is chosen, the prize money is carefully dispersed in keeping with the award’s desire to help deliberately guide and further promising pianists’ careers. Or, as Gustin quipped, “so they don’t just go out and buy a Maserati.” After an initial sum of approximately $50,000 is given, the rest of the $300,000 is spent in collaboration with the Gilmore organization “on projects and aspects of their career development, or their education, that will help them advance their career,” Gustin said.

And the impact for the recipient in terms of exposure is undoubtable. Ingrid Fliter, who won the award in 2006, described it in an email as “life-changing.”

“Before it, everything was more of a lonely fight. After the Gilmore, the doors of the world opened to me. I got everything I dreamt of professionally,” she said.

That has included an important recording contract with EMI Classics, and new agents in the United States and Europe who have helped book a greater number and quality of concerts for her.

The first female to be awarded the Gilmore, Fliter will be returning to this year’s festival as a performer.

“It was a very challenging moment in my life, but deeply enriching,” she said. “And very importantly, I felt supported and trusted by an incredible group of people which became a sort of an extended family for me!”

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