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The Agony and the..............well, more agony

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 09:41 UK time, Tuesday, 18 September 2007

You'll probably know that we were doing the Glasgow International Piano Competition last weekend. I won't throw in more verbiage to the debate over the actual value of competitions, suffice it to say that a portfolio of competition wins won't guarantee you a career – but if you can't win a few of them (assuming that you chose to put yourself through the process in the first place) then you are extremely unlikely to have what it takes – especially when you bear in mind that the front runners in this profession are usually well established on the international stage by their early teens.

For the punters, getting involved in the tournament from the first rounds, following the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows of the candidates, can result in a real lather of excitement at the climactic Final Round (maybe Sky Sport would be a suitable broadcaster). I love it all; it's fascinating just seeing how the finalists shape up alongside each other during our short time with them. This grand finale is an event where the mere music, be it by Beethoven or Joe Bloggs, will usually be tumbled senseless into a welter of peripheral agendas and emotions.

I had more than enough of those last Saturday.

From the shop floor, these events can look not quite so glamorous. The band is parachuted in for the final round performance. Four substantial concertos to play, making for a longer than normal concert. The soloists have to be given absolutely equal rehearsal time, regardless of the actual difficulties that might be encountered. The conductor has to prepare a list of about 20 concertos and will get a couple of day's warning what's actually to be played. What if one finalist chooses a really difficult piece that neither the conductor nor the band is familiar with, and another chooses Rach 2 or the Grieg? Yes, there's a whole load of the best concertos that we and the conductor can do on auto pilot – not that we ever would though. From the soloist's point of view, this performance can be the most important day of their life. We all desperately want the best for them, we all want to be present at the birth of a new star, we all want the best possible performance, and we'll be working against the odds ...... the rehearsal and performance process added up to a bash through 12 performances with no chance of sorting out problems. In the nature of things, the finalists will be leading players, already experienced on the concert platform, super-bright talents who have years (decades) of single minded dedication behind them – a breed apart from the rest of us mere mortals. And yet, rather than being seen as important diplomats who can bring kudos to our little backwater, they always seem to be treated patronisingly – "our candidates". (You won't find that tone at the Scottish Open.) This was worse than ever last Saturday evening when the member of the organisation doing the MC bit hadn't even bothered to learn how to say their names – this was cringingly shameful – he'd had no less than three days to do so. There was worse – after the interval another member of the organisation, from the back of the audience, shouted out our leader's nickname, loud and repeatedly over the chit-chat of the audience, to get us to tune to the piano (as if we weren't about to anyway). I have never, in nearly forty years, experienced such boorish insensitivity and seen so many of my colleagues reduced to fuming anger – it was a wonder that we could play at all, and ...... and is it just coincidence that the next finalist ended up placed last? I'm happy to admit that we, the players, have plenty to learn about presentation and deportment, but this sort of village hall amateurishness degrades all of our efforts. I wonder how well we'll manage if we get the 2014 games – I'm cringing already. How good do we want it? Auchenshuggle Enterprises Inc? There's more: we might actually have played like pigs (we didn't), but we played hard and long and might at least have expected a vote of thanks ....... or just a curtain call ...... we got neither.

Having got all that off my chest, the four concertos we played were all wonderful music. The soloists, whatever the outcome, all had their own inspiration to bring us. The 'difficult' one was Prokofiev no. 2, a stunning, picaresque, gargantuan and spectral, fantastically difficult and exciting piece. Not many people know it, so not many people know if we and / or the soloist did it justice. But, guess what? .....the Rach 2 won.

Anthony Sayer

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