Chamber music competitions. They’re two a penny now, all over North America and Europe. Do they really mean anything? Is there really any point in subjecting relatively young people to the pressures? Well, it seems the answer is yes. We live in a society now where the consumer needs reassurance all the time. That is why designer labels have to put their logo on the outside of the clothing, so your friends (and enemies) know you’re wearing Donna Karen. (The fact logos are also put on underwear is taking it to extremes: remember the daughter of Yves St. Laurent’s comment about it being unnerving to see her father’s initials on her boyfriend’s underpants. But your correspondent digresses. This blog really is about a chamber music competition. Please be patient.)
So, when you pick up a CD of the late lamented Beaux Arts Trio, do you check the liner, whether they won any competitions? Better put it back on the rack. I suspect they never did. Amadeus Quartet? Guarneri Quartet? I think not. They were just bloody good. No argument. Trouble is we the audiences, the listeners, no longer have the courage of our convictions. Got to be led by the nose. No worries: they won the West Woopwoop competition in 2001. Must be good, musn’t they? Sadly, your correspondent has heard many a dodgy group who’s bio confirms the award of a prize here or a laurel there. (Ensemble bios are a whole new subject. Who writes this stuff? “Played in Carnegie Hall”. Yes, at the age of twelve in the school concert.) Enough already.
Anyway, if you must compete, here is what the logistics are like, courtesy of your correspondent’s overview of the 6th Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition.
First, fly half-way around the world. Forget the jetlag, you could well be playing two days after arrival, and the jury is not going to forgive that shaky start just because you’re still on Moscow time. Then you arrive in Melbourne. Emirates gets you in about an hour early. Great. Or is it? The gate is not available so you wait around on the tarmac. At last you get to the gate and through customs. No problems with: “What’s in that case?” “An eighteenth century Rugeri cello.” “What the hell is a cello? Please step over here.” Phew!
So, into the arrivals hall. Where is the Chamber Music Australia rep? Nowhere to be found. There is a cameraman taking candid shots as you arrive. That’s great. You’ve just travelled twenty-four hours with little sleep and look like crap. “Who are you?” “Oh, I’m making a film for the organisers.” “Do you know where the organiser’s rep is?” “No, but I did ring to check the coach is on its way. It is.” “Ah, well, maybe the meeter/greeter is stuck in traffic.” “What, at 5.30am?” (Later the story comes out. There was a problem with a group on another flight. Lost baggage or something. Organiser’s rep is sorting it. Memo for wrap up review: need a chief and a gopher in the welcome party.) The twenty-eight or so competitors eventually got away from the airport at about 9.00am. Bummer. (Thankfully the competitors are young and not successful enough to be self important. They take it all in their stride.)
Step back, now, twelve hours Melbourne time. The accommodation is at a Melbourne University residential college which has recently undergone a major renovation. “So, you’ve had a soft opening have you?” “No, this is it.” There is a slightly harried Master, her daughters and another staffer, dashing about doing the last of the fitout. Doonas on beds, mugs on each floor. All that stuff. Workmen all over the place. Toilets running. Why don’t they get it right first time? Plumbers cost enough. “Any coat hangers?” Mrs Oz asks politely.” The response was most polite, but being translated could have been: “Bugger it. Another trip to bloody K-mart, and it’s already 6pm”. It reminded your correspondent of the night before a trade show opening. Total chaos reigns, until you turn up after a few hours sleep with the hall respectable for the VIP arrivals.
Now the competitors arrive, grab a shower or a quick kip. Got to be up at 11.00am for a meet and greet. Then the competitors get shown their rehearsal rooms. Just a short tram ride, and there’s a convenience store on the short walk to the tram stop where tram tickets can be purchased. “Four City Saver Tens, please.” “Sorry, only got two.” “When will you get more?” “Next week, maybe week after”. Not to worry. The ensemble host, luckily, has small change for the ticket machine. OK. Now any tram will take you to the university. The first stops and disgorges passengers. Not going. The second likewise. And the third. At last the fourth takes passengers. What is the overall impression so far? They’re good kids. They’re forgiving. The ensemble host is thinking: “We’re presenting like the developing country we seem to be becoming”. (A little earlier, at the official Metlink shop, there are no time tables nor route maps for the tram routes to the South Melbourne Town Hall where the performances are to take place. Ah, well. It’s a wired world.)
Later that afternoon there is the official welcome reception at Government House. Nice to see some colonial architecture and be greeted by the Queen of Australia’s representative. But the Union Jack on the flagpole? “She’s the Queen of England too.” A quick briefing on Oz history sorts that out. Lovely reception hall with fires burning, excellent view to a well lit fountain outside, beautiful canapés and a glass of Australian wine. Just the thing before getting to bed. Speeches. Of course there are speeches, thankfully brief, but why is there a piano and two music stands? Just as well they’re getting their second wind. A young Melbourne trio is to play. And what, pray? Beethoven’s “Ghost”. The whole work. While the guests stand, passive, wondering whether it is polite to take a swig while the musos are at it. Why not an Australian work? Hindson, Westlake or Stanhope? No one has an answer, it seems. Can’t ask the CEO. He doesn’t seem to be around. That’s strange for a welcome reception. (Actually the CEO takes a rather low profile throughout, not even appearing at the players formal briefing the next day.)
Next morning someone wakes at 4.30am. That’s the jet lag. Wide awake he thinks: “I’ll put on a mute and have a bit of a practice.” Oh, dear. Wrong call. “No practising before 8.00am please.” Later it’s off to the formal briefing at the South Melbourne Town Hall. “What’s that flag flying above the venue?” It’s the Aboriginal flag. Another quick briefing ensues: Invasions, reconciliation, Batman, beads. You know the story. They don’t.
Later it’s just rehearse, prepare, sound checks and then the day of performance arrives. All looks good and smooth from here. Running pretty much like clockwork now. It’s been done before. Oh, just a couple more questions: “There are no mirrors in the rooms, and where can we find an iron?” No, worries. That’s all easily sorted. By the Ensemble Host that is.
So now they’re all out there, playing their hearts out. For the money? For the kudos? For the experience? For the chance of post competition tour? Probably all, or some, of the above. Good on them for giving their all. You guys out there in the ether are missing some great live performances.
Your correspondent is tweeting about things at hashtag #micmc6 . Talking to himself as usual, a bit like at the Adelaide International Cello Festival. There was no MICMC 6 internet communications strategy except for an App that delivered no timely information. A pity, that, but what the hell. It’s addictive, like these youngsters.