March 2020: as Austria entered its initial lockdown almost exactly one year ago, the Beethoven Piano Competition was one of those events that had to be postponed indefinitely. 34 young pianists had been expected to compete in April’s main competition in Vienna. But in April, of course, no one was travelling. The competition’s organisers therefore set about contemplating just how an international competition could be retooled in response to a pandemic. And their solution is now in place: this unique piano competition will soon set out for new horizons and perhaps end up serving as a model for other competitions.
The Beethoven Year of 2020 would’ve seen this all-Beethoven competition held for the 16th time, and a 2021 “overtime” edition will now be serving to crown its 16th winner. The applause and congratulations will still involve a live audience—because rather than transfer this competition entirely to the Internet, the organisers decided on an innovative hybrid solution. Part of the competition will be held in the virtual realm while another part is scheduled for later on so that it can still go forward in its irreplaceable live format.
How exactly will this run? The first round, with 34 talents slated to show off their skills, will be conducted remotely. After all, we can still expect travel restrictions to be in effect worldwide through early 2021—and because of this competition’s international character, with the current competitors living in 11 different countries, international restrictions need to be heeded in addition to the Austrian ones.
But the organisers do expect (with some justification) that this autumn, the participants will once again be able to travel physically to Vienna and celebrate the competition’s crowning conclusion before a live audience.
Thanks to painstaking and detailed technical preparations, the initial round will be held as a streamed event with the competitors providing high-quality video contributions as a basis for the jury’s decisions. Support will be provided here in order to have all entries adhere to a high standard of quality and also ensure that they are as easy as possible to compare. Recordings can be made both at the mdw as well as at Bösendorfer dealers worldwide, with recording dates planned in the cultural centres of Seoul, Tokyo, New York City, and (prospectively) Sydney.
The audience will be able to watch all contributions to the first round via the mdwMediathek—independently of one another, multiple times, and whenever they like. All of the videos must be in by 19 April. And at month’s end, the distinguished jury will announce the twelve talents selected to compete in the semi-finals for a place in October’s final round.
While the ongoing pandemic was the impetus for the competition’s decision to go semi-digital, doing so represents a long-term opportunity to conserve resources in light of climate change. International music competitions are very important for career development, emphasises Beethoven Competition Artistic Director Jan Jiracek von Arnim.
He does add, however, that one really should reconsider the practice of flying in 100 young talents simply in order to accomplish a drastic reduction in the number of participants by way of a first round: “Here, I think we do have to look for new ways forward in order to shrink the questionable ecological footprint of these numerous trips. Our approach of holding the first round digitally is quite promising—and it’s a solution that I’m sure will serve as a model for other international competitions.”
The Irreplaceable Live Experience
Despite these obvious pluses, conducting the entire competition digitally was out of the question. After all, “analogue” competitions offer young talents the chance not only to win trophies and prizes but also to network internationally with like-minded people, engage in exchange, compare themselves in a live format, and be inspired.
According to Jiracek von Arnim, the resulting “music festival” atmosphere serves as a platform and also offers a particularly intense audience experience: “Young participants from around the world play one after the other on the same instrument and within a single day. Some sonatas get repeated, but it all sounds different each time. It’s hardly possible to experience Beethoven with more intensity—and, what’s more, in his hometown—than in this way.”
The competition’s semi-final and final rounds will hence be held “as usual”—before a live audience in the Brahms Hall and in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein from 18 to 21 October 2021. The jury will experience the performers onstage with their passion for music and their abilities, observing just how well they deal with the performance situation and whether they succeed in captivating the audience.
Best of Both Worlds
In view of the ongoing pandemic-related uncertainty, the organisers are both optimistic and realistic about the competition’s conclusion in October: with twelve semi-finalists, there will be enough flexibility to play before a reduced audience should any lingering restrictions on cultural events make it necessary.
And with all this, the Beethoven Competition has found a way to unite the best of both worlds: the convenience of the virtual realm and the magic of music played live in concert.