Montreux Jazz Piano Competition

This post is a reflection on my experience as a participant in the 2009 Montreux Solo Jazz Piano Competition in July.

A truth about music competitions: Their objective is to reward excellence; Prizes are given to the most excellent participants.

This truth breaks down when you define excellence. Most people assume it refers to artistic excellence, but they’re often disappointed when they realize that artistic excellence can mean so many different things to different people. They’re especially disappointed when excellence is sought in non-musical forms. Like a participant who is excellent at drawing a crowd, or excellent at creating hype, or excellent at influencing judges! When it comes to music competitions, you can’t rule anything out. What do you expect when things are built on shady principles? No arts competition is immune to this inherent paradox: Presenting excellence objectively.

An interesting thought: Notice that even though we are aware of this absurdity, people rarely question the merits of competitions and competition winners because the language in their presentation compels us to assumeartistic excellence is always achieved. Especially when we are far removed from the actual experience. For example, you may pick up a newspaper and the headline reads ‘Joe wins first place in music competition,’ or you see a two-minute news segment on a local pianist who is awarded first prize in a piano competition. Their presentation and language will always demand that you accept the implied objectivity.

From an extreme viewpoint, one could say that anytime we organize, participate in, or acknowledge the validity of music competitions, we are promoting this absurdity and giving in to the language that’s describing the impossible. It’s the willing suspension of disbelief. It can occur obviously, like being a judge or a participant. But it can also be subtle, like reading ‘Chris Donnelly places 2nd in the 2007 Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition’ and subconsciously validating my name and music.

It’s too bad that competitions are so enticing; there’s something in them for everyone. For artists, it’s a great opportunity to network with other artists and (if lucky), walk away with some money! Judges are paid and held in high esteem. For presenters, they act as great marketing gimmicks. And for the public, they can be engaging, satisfying, dramatic and participatory. Music competitions will demand that everyone form an opinion despite their level of expertise thus they act as a means for the public to participate in the music community (and the absurdity). Everyone only has to sell his/her soul!

Actually, I’d like to believe I’m leasing it…hence this blog.

In regards to Montreux, excellence was at the mercy of these judges:

Chucho Valdés (Cuba) – presiding judge
Al Copley (USA)
Moncef Genoud (Switzerland)
André Manoukian (France)
Denis Matsuev (Russia)
Aziza Mustafa Zadeh (Azerbaijan)
Leo Tardin (Switzerland)

I didn’t speak to the judges about their decisions. I have my opinions, as does everyone else. But I decided that my experience as a participant overrides my experience as an artist, pianist and educator and so, for a number of reasons, it would be inappropriate for me to express them here. But I would encourage you to make your own decisions! The participants:

Zoltan Balogh (Hungary)
Elmar Brass (Germany)
Claude Diallo (Suisse) – Encouragement Prize
Chris Donnelly (Canada)
Thomas Enhco (France)
Beka Gochiashvili (Georgia) — 1st Prize (Shared)
Christian Li (USA)
Regina Litvinova (Russia)
Jorge Luis Pacheco (Cuba)
Peter Pinter (Hungary)
Mathis Picard (France)
Kuba Pluzek (Poland) – Encouragement Prize
Isfar Rzayev-Sarabski (Azerbaijan) — 1st Prize (Shared) & Public Prize
Matthieu Roffe) (France)
Xaview Thollard (France)
Franz Von Chossy (Germany) — 2nd Prize

Did the judges make the right decisions? I’ll let you decide. Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree.

But one thing’s for sure: The winners were excellent!

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