Can a piano competition launch a young musician's career? Now viewers all over the world can impact the ranking at a prestigious contest held in Beethoven's birth city.
Ludwig van Beethoven, considered an icon in the city where he was born, is one of the greatest composers in history, and countless pianists have performed and reinterpreted his works for the instrument.
In their variety and complexity, energy and emotional content, Beethoven's compositions have proven an effective touchstone for many pianists to demonstrate their prowess - and to measure themselves against others. One instance is the "International Telekom Beethoven Competition Bonn" (ITBCB) for piano, which has taken place every two years since 2005 and marks its tenth anniversary this season.
And the winner is ...
The downbeat falls on Thursday (03.12.2015) with a welcome concert at the Deutsche Telekom headquarters in Bonn, performed by onetime ITBCB prizewinner Jingge Yan from China. The following day, 22 pianists from 11 countries enter round one, lured by the prospect of prestige, recognition and a 30,000- euro ($31,800) cash prize.
The seven female and 15 male contenders aged 18-32 come from Austria, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Canada, US, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and China.
The contestants were selected by jury chair Pavel Gililov, a Russian-born German pianist, in tandem with jury members Andreas Frölich and Jacob Leuschner, professors at Cologne's Academy of Music and Dance.
In four rounds, the pianists are called on to play a variety of works by Beethoven, some obligatory. But at one point they may choose freely from a list of composers including Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, Béla Bartók, and Arnold Schönberg. Another specification is "free choice of a contemporary work composed after 1980."
Three finalists vie for the top honor on December 12.
All performances streamed
The ITBCB's international dimension is seen not only in the artists' countries of origin but also in its worldwide reach in real time, every round relayed online in live-streamed video.
Success is co-determined by audience vote, both in the hall and online. In the first two rounds, real and virtual audiences may vote on whom they want to proceed to the next stage, but after the semi-finale, the jury makes its choice alone.
Before the finale, the audience also chooses who will win the Beethoven House Prize, with a 1,000-euro cash award, a bronze bust of Beethoven, and a recital date at Bonn's Beethoven House. The auditorium audience also chooses the "best performance of a piano concerto at the finale."
Getting a foot in the door
In the first five seasons, musicians from Asian countries were in the majority among the winners. In 2005, the top prize went to Finnish pianist Henri Sigfridsson, in 2007 Ian Yungwook Yoo from South Korea placed first, the 2009 edition was won by Germany's Hinrich Alpers, in 2011 China's Jingge Yan came out on top, and Soo-Jung Ann of South Korea won the most recent edition. Most had earned notable distinctions prior to entering the ITBCB.
According to German cellist Johannes Moser, winner of Moscow's famous Tchaikovsky Competition in 2002, competitions are an indispensable part of a music career. Interviewed by Deutschlandradio Kultur, he said, "Getting into the circle of concertizing musicians is very difficult without a competition prize. But in the final analysis, a competition only opens the door. The real work begins after you've won. The prize is just a point of departure."
Just how many of these "points of departure" there actually are is suggested by a map on the home page of the World Federation of International Music Competitions, incorporating 120 of the most renowned. On it, the dense epicenter of competition is clearly in Europe, with comparatively few events in other parts of the world.
Organized by the Beethovenfest Bonn since 2012, the International Telekom Beethoven Competition includes Deutsche Welle among its media partners.