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The Chopin Competition

Seong-Jin Cho © Wojciech Grzedzinski

The Chopin Competition

By: Eric Guo

During the month of October, the Warsaw Philharmonic filled with competition. 78 young pianists from 20 countries participated in the Chopin Competition, which is held every five years. Over the course of three weeks, as pianists were eliminated, six winners came out on top. 21-year-old Seong-Jin Cho from South Korea won first prize, followed by Charles Richard-Hamelin of Canada and Kate Liu of the United States in second and third, respectively.

The outcome of the Chopin Competition, however, isn’t as straightforward as it appears to be. Unlike an athletic competition, where there is a definite winner, musical contests are often based on a matter of taste. Once competitors have bypassed the technical difficulties of getting the notes down, their goals are to develop unique artistry that appeases the judges. However, since this is often a matter of taste, competition victories can be quite arbitrary.

The 1980 International Chopin Competition is an example of this. The elimination of the pianist Ivo Pogorelić caused one of the adjudicators, Martha Argerich, to leave the jury in protest after calling Pogorelić a genius. Another instance is the 2010 competition, where Yulianna Avdeeva’s victory was greeted with disdain. Throughout the 2010 competition, the audience favorite was Ingolf Wunder. Avdeeva’s victory over Wunder was met with comments such as “politics sealed the deal.”

Nonetheless, the Chopin Competition still remains popular and important to young pianists. The main benefit of this competition is exposure. A competition as prestigious as the Chopin Competition is bound to be great for exposure. Although the stress of competitions can be very daunting, competitors are motivated because of the potential to be discovered. Only one person can win, but competing in the Chopin Competition is also a way for pianists to grow artistically. Musicians must put in massive amounts of preparation because of the intense pressure of a competition, but this preparation only continues to improve their playing.

In addition, the Chopin Competition is important for aspiring professional pianists because interpreting Chopin well means that they can play anything else fairly well. Garrick Ohlsson, winner of the 1970 Chopin Competition, says, “the pianist who can play Chopin well will be able to manage almost anything, because in Chopin’s music, there are many threads present in the music of other composers.” By listening to someone’s interpretation of Chopin, one can tell what kind of pianist he or she is. 

Winning the Chopin Competition is definitely a remarkable feat, if one keeps in mind previous first-prize winners such as Maurizio Pollini, Krystian Zimmerman, and Martha Argerich, all of whom have established themselves as some of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. However, only time will tell whether Seong-Jin Cho will join the pantheon of great pianists.

About Eric Guo

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