The first time I entered an international music competition I was 17. My entire future as a pianist seemed to hinge upon its outcome - and by extension, according to the equation I then lived by, so did my right to exist.
The competition was held in an ancient hall in the Italian seaside town of Senigallia; competitors practised in a nearby music school. As I wandered the school’s corridors in search of a piano, the practice of the other contestants snowballed into the most terrifying white noise I had ever heard: part Mephisto Waltz, part Paganini Variations. It was a fearful avalanche of sound, and it threatened to consume me.
On the plane on the way home a woman casually asked my mother where we had been. “My daughter took part in an international piano competition in Italy,” she said, “but she was eliminated after the first round.”
I sank down in my seat. “You don’t need to tell her that,” I hissed.
“What do you want me to say, then?”
“Just say I didn’t win.” I thought I might never recover from the shame.
I recovered sufficiently to enter further competitions, first as a soloist and then with my trio, and after a time it became clear that they were a numbers game. Sometimes they went well; more frequently they did not. Most musicians have a public CV of successes. We also have an alternative CV of failures that we keep tucked away in our back pockets, not to be shared with strangers on aeroplanes.
“Competitions are terrible,” says Stefan Heinemeyer, the diminutive, twinkling cellist of the Atos Trio, from Germany. “You go in with certain expectations. It’s a lottery. That’s why you have to go in a lot.”
“Competitions are a necessary evil,” adds the group’s pianist, Thomas Hoppe.
Formed in 2003, the Atos Trio has an impressive CV of competition triumphs, such as first prize at the Schubert Competition in Graz and at the Deutscher Musikwettbewerb. Its CV doesn’t mention the trio’s most recent competition appearance - at the Premio Trio di Trieste, in May - where it was eliminated before the finals.
In the second week of July the trio comes to Australia for the Fifth Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. The night before its first competition appearance it performs at Labassa House, in suburban Caulfield, for the German consulate.
Unlike the perfect medium of a string quartet, the piano trio is a flawed instrumental combination in which a true homogeneity of sound is impossible. It is this flaw that lends the genre its friction, its drama. Because there can never be a perfect melding of sound, the piano trio operates as a conversation between three individuals.
In Labassa’s ornate drawing room, as the Atos Trio plays, this friction could not be clearer. Even physically the group’s members are entirely different. Pianist Thomas Hoppe is tall and broad, and looks even taller when sitting at the piano. “I am what we call in Germany a sit-giant,” he explains. Heinemeyer is scarcely larger than his cello, and seems as he plays to be drawing its sounds out of his own body. Violinist Annette von Hehn is of aristocratic descent, and has the austere beauty of a Princess Leia. Her violin sound is unassailable, noble, and yet merges perfectly with Heinemeyer’s exuberant cello. It is a combustible combination, and in the Brahms C Major Trio it takes the roof off the drawing room.
The German consul quickly stands up and normalises things: “What an exquisite music. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is the end of it.”
At the reception, a waitress brings the trio some champagne. “Hot dang!” Hoppe exclaims.
“You are very kind, thank you,” says von Hehn.
“We are very different,” Heinemeyer explains. “There is a German saying, nie intim im Team, or ‘don’t be intimate with the team’. We each have our own lives.”
Hoppe reaches for another glass of champagne. “We will not rehearse tomorrow,” he says. “If we are not already prepared, we have a problem.”
Music and competition is an odd coupling, though not a recent one. History abounds in legendary musical duels - Handel and Scarlatti, Mozart and Clementi, Liszt and Thalberg - that were frequently declared draws. Modern competitions tend to be less diplomatic, and their failings are well documented. There is the curse of the first-prize-winner, who rarely goes on to the expected great career; the compromising nature of juries, which can reward everyone’s second favourite over the artist who thrills someone and offends another; the veneration of accuracy over artistry; the inevitable political corruptions.
But perhaps competitions also acknowledge a Darwinian reality about artistic careers. They encourage young musicians to work, and expose them to new audiences. And they can have a trickle-down effect into a larger culture, at least according to the founder of the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, the Dutch-born violist Marco van Pagee. Van Pagee is an unlikely visionary, cherub-faced and overheated. “I wanted to raise the profile of chamber music in Australia,” he explains, blushing with enthusiasm. “And I thought Australians like major events.”
Founded in 1989, the competition is now one of the richest of its kind, with almost $90,000 in prize money. Late last year van Pagee travelled the world for the entrance auditions, selecting eight piano trios and eight string quartets. Most of his choices are European, apart from two Canadian quartets, a Russian trio that calls itself American and Melbourne’s TinAlley String Quartet.
The competition’s first two rounds are held at the Australian National Academy of Music’s headquarters, in the South Melbourne Town Hall. Van Pagee sits alongside the judges in the balcony, surveying the audience like a master puppeteer. Frequently he leans over the railing and addresses a comment to the back row of the stalls or photographs an oblivious head. After every performance he runs backstage and delivers a puffing verdict on ABC Classic FM.
It is clear from the first day that the piano trios are of a higher calibre than the string quartets. Trio Chausson, from France, presents a stylish, enlivening Haydn; the Russian-born Manhattan Piano Trio delivers authoritative interpretations of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.
“I think the Rachmaninov is an absolute waste of time, to be very rude,” van Pagee declares on the radio. “It is a 15-minute indulgence in romantic nonsense.”
The ABC receives a spate of complaints about his commentary. Announcer Emma Ayres jokes that he is earning a reputation as “the Rex Hunt of chamber music”.
Van Pagee pops his head over the balcony. “I don’t understand at all,” he says, perplexed. “Rex Hunt kisses fishes.”
Perhaps the most seductive thing about a competition is that it makes experts out of us all. The audience at the South Melbourne Town Hall is a warm one, but not short of opinion.
“Did you like that?” a woman demands of her companion in the toilets, after the Trio Fridegk, from Germany.
“Oh yes, I did,” says her friend, “the violinist was lovely.”
“No,” the woman corrects her. “No, no, no! The violinist was quite plain.”
“Oh yes, you’re right,” her friend concedes. “She was very plain.”
The plush red seats at the front of the auditorium are given over to Platinum Pass Holders, who have purchased tickets to the whole competition. Society hairdressers sit alongside distinguished conductors. Midway through a performance by Trio Novalis, a woman catwalks to her Platinum Pass seat, extravagantly rearranges her pashmina and turns around to wave at a friend. A group of Melbourne’s young chamber musicians sits in the back row of the hall, concentrating sternly.
It is a diverse audience, but it occasionally thinks as one. Late on Sunday afternoon the Morgenstern Trio, from Germany, walks slowly onto the stage. The three look unprepossessing, but launch into a gripping performance of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ trio. At the reprise in the slow movement, the little boy in front of me turns despairingly to his mother. “I’m bored,” he says. But no one else is. There is an extra hush in the audience, as if an idea has arisen suddenly in the room. Afterwards the trio stands to bow and reels backwards from the applause, that great wind of gratitude. The three of them seem as surprised as we are, as if they have accidentally given the performance of their lives.
Years ago, at the Premio Trio di Trieste competition in Italy, my own trio approached the Russian judge for feedback on our semi-final performance. “Your Beethoven was - how can I say - not bad, not good,” he said, and fixed his canny eye on us. “It was ... normale.”
Hearing these consistently impressive ensembles, it is easy to become careless about excellence. When you have heard so much polished music in one day, its currency becomes devalued. On Monday the Tecchler Trio, from Germany, plays first. It is a technically excellent performance. There is nothing wrong with it at all. It is normale.
Then the Atos Trio takes the stage. After a day of chamber music, you have to wait for the goose-bumps, for your body to decide for you. The Atos Trio begins with Beethoven’s Op. 1 No. 2, and creates a room full of puckered skin. From the first note there is a sense of the music’s drama, its gestural significance. In the Brahms C Major that follows, the trio feeds off the large audience and generates an even greater thrill than the night before. The audience stands as one, in the competition’s first standing ovation; the trio’s CDs are immediately sold out.
“We thought we were a little perverted, bringing ten CDs to Australia,” Hoppe says.
A young girl approaches. “You have such delicate fingers,” she breathes at him.
On the radio, Marco van Pagee does not mince his words. “Suddenly we have this one ensemble that rises above everything else,” he declares.
That evening the trio is lured into a Lygon Street restaurant by the promise of free undrinkable wine. Heinemeyer has changed out of his suit into a smart white leather jacket. “I bought this jacket from an Italian tailor in Berlin,” he announces, proudly.
“I never make fun of your clothes,” Hoppe says, “but I do make fun of your face creams.”
Heinemeyer ignores this and turns to me. “At five, my cello teacher put me on the stage,” he says. “Afterwards a woman came up to me and asked, ‘Do you want to be a cellist?’ And I said to her, ‘I already am!’“
I can see the five-year-old in his grin, pleased as punch.
“My story is different,” says Hoppe, 35, the old man of the competition. “Let me just say that adolescence hit me very hard. I was running around in a leather jacket, with a little plait down to my waist, a blond streak here and a feather earring. At 20 I had never heard an orchestra live, had never been to an opera. But I always knew I loved music like nuts.”
They toast each other.
“It was always my dream to play in a trio,” says von Hehn softly.
“We work well together because we still can laugh at my jokes,” Heinemeyer suggests.
“We work well because we have the same goal,” says Hoppe, suddenly serious. “To perform any piece as well as possible.”
They are in a triumphant mood and even bad food can’t dent their cheer, nor undrinkable wine. When the waiter brings the bill, Heinemeyer glances over it and then sends it back. The waiter returns with a different bill, which Heinemeyer studies for a moment. He tears it up into confetti and sprinkles it on the table.
“Mate, what is your fuckin’ problem?” the waiter asks.
“It is simple,” says Heinemeyer, with a beatific smile. “You continue to overcharge us.”
The spruiker, who looks like he might sideline as a hit-man, steps up to our table.
“What the fuck is going on here?”
I imagine the Atos Trio in a Lygon Street brawl under my watch. I don’t like its chances.
Hoppe stands up. “Come on, Stefan, it’s not worth it.”
But Heinemeyer remains where he is, arms folded, until the waiter reissues the bill.
“Sometimes Stefan has to fight for something to feel it’s worth it,” Hoppe says later. “I am not in a mood mostly to fight. My role is mediator.”
On Tuesday the second round begins. This year, for the first time, every group must program a work composed after 1985. Some selections are hideous. During one quartet, the four-year-old in front of me turns to his mother and strikes his head with his palm, astonished that such sounds could exist or that people could choose to listen to them. Other groups make better choices. Australia’s TinAlley Quartet gives a compelling performance of Kurtag’s Six Moments Musicaux, which displays its command over a range of techniques.
On Wednesday evening Heinemeyer accompanies me to hear the piano trios. He wears his white leather jacket and a pair of aviator sunglasses that push his hair out of his eyes. “Normally I would never come along to listen to the others,” he says, “but this competition is different. I feel so comfortable here.”
“You’re in one of the trios, aren’t you?” asks a man. “I have a theory about the trios. They’re going to take you all outside and stone you, and the three who are left standing will be the winners!”
Heinemeyer smiles and nods with the graceful forbearance of a celebrity. The highlight of the evening is the Manhattan Piano Trio’s ‘Arensky’, in which the strings give dazzling, solo-like performances. At its conclusion, the pianist jumps from her stool and charges towards the audience, hoping to provoke a standing ovation.
“I loved this performance,” says Heinemeyer.
“Certainly I can’t say that the ‘Arensky’ is a piece that I would play every day,” Marco van Pagee tells the radio audience.
On Friday morning the Atos Trio has a “turbo-rehearsal” of the Schubert B Flat Major Trio, in preparation for its second-round performance that evening. Heinemeyer looks a little puffy. He was out until late the previous night. “We are here too long not to enjoy ourselves,” he explains. Von Hehn requests more flow in the second movement; Heinemeyer asks for more shwing in the third.
At lunch, in Carlton’s Rathdowne Street Food Store, the trio gradually becomes quieter. I show them a review in the Age, which identifies them as the competition’s favourites. “Cool!” say Heinemeyer and Hoppe in unison. Then they look nervous. “After the standing ovation in the first round we thought, Yikes,” says Heinemeyer, “we have to practise now.”
“It is a very nice competition,” von Hehn offers after a while. “I like very much how someone brings you water as soon as you step off stage.”
“What I would like is a whisky or an ice-cold beer,” says Hoppe. “Leonard Bernstein used to get this. Four measures before the end of his performance, someone backstage would light his cigarette. So that after the first applause he could walk off-stage, have a sip of whisky and take a drag at the fag.”
The three of them look thoughtful. Hoppe offers a lame pun on crab and mash; Heinemeyer ripostes half-heartedly on pea soup. No one laughs, and they finish their lunch in silence.
There is a feeling of gravitas at the South Melbourne Town Hall on Friday night. It has been a long week of music, in which the audience has gradually lost tolerance for itself. In the fourth movement of the Tecchler Trio’s prosaic Ravel, a flurry of unchecked coughs spreads through the crowd. Heads swivel; exasperated looks are exchanged.
The Atos Trio begins with a colourful folkloric trio by the Chinese composer Bright Sheng. In the Schubert trio that follows, Hoppe takes a more flowing tempo in the second movement, as promised, and Heinemeyer’s cello entry is so fragile, so inward, that the entire audience seems to huddle into the stage. It shows a sweeter, less muscular side of their playing, which in the last movement expands to joy.
Backstage, the crew has ice-cold beers waiting. Clearly, Hoppe has been doing the rounds with his Bernstein anecdote. The three of them take their beers back into the hall for an ABC interview as the jury makes its decision. “It doesn’t matter how the result will come,” Heinemeyer declares. “We love it here.”
The competition’s jury comprises eight international musicians, with Melbourne QC Julian Burnside as the non-voting head. In a system that van Pagee describes as “suspiciously simple”, the jury members rank the performances in order of preference, with no discussion. “It is a good jury - no mafias,” Hoppe says.
“And it is good to have a lawyer to settle disputes,” Heinemeyer adds hopefully.
Van Pagee gulps at his wine backstage. “It’s difficult when you feel quite passionate about the outcome,” he says. “You hope the judges will make the right decision.”
Soon the audience is asked to return to its seats, and Julian Burnside steps on to the stage. “I will speak for only a moment,” he says, “because I have only one thing to say that is of interest to all of you.” He scans the audience like a startled owl. “Three quartets have been selected for the finals. The Ardeo, Navarra, Badke. The piano trios are the Morgenstern, the Tecchler and the Atos.”
There are six groups with genuine smiles in the room, and ten that are just pretending or not even bothering to do that. This is the brutal mathematics of a competition. Hoppe hugs von Hehn. “Where’s our little man?” he asks, and finds Heinemeyer and embraces him, too. Trio Fridegk starts to weep. “I don’t care at all,” insists the pianist from the Manhattan Piano Trio, a surprise omission. Australia’s TinAlley String Quartet is gracious but a little stunned. They played well and could easily have been in the final.
I have a little first-aid kit for failure, a selection of clichés for topical application. None of them helps, but there is nothing else to say. “What doesn’t break you makes you stronger,” I offer TinAlley’s cellist, Michelle Wood.
“We got out of it what we put into it,” she trades me.
Van Pagee shakes his head grimly. “That’s competitions,” he says, as if he has always known they were the worst things in the world.
There is a drafty, post-apocalyptic feeling in the hall as the ABC crew takes down the microphones and volunteers disassemble the floral arrangements. The losers drift off; the finalists have to stay for a photo shoot. A girl plays a ditty on the violin. “What’s that noise?” asks Hoppe. “Enough music already!”
A competition official steps up to make a speech. “Congratulations,” she says, “you must be very pleased.”
“We are very thirsty,” Hoppe calls out impatiently.
Later that night Hoppe puts his arm around the violinist from the Manhattan Trio. “How are you doing?” he asks.
“Fine,” says the violinist, and shrugs him off.
“The difficult thing is knowing how to act,” Hoppe says afterwards, “around all these disappointed people.”
He organises a subdued celebration in his room and pulls out his laptop to cheer up the disappointed. First he shows a slideshow of photos of funny cats. Then he plays a recording of a disastrous performance of Ravel’s Bolero. The assembled company chuckles, but the pianist from the Manhattan Trio laughs and laughs, and then laughs more, until she is rolled up into a ball on his bed and is suddenly crying.
The competition finals, on Sunday, are held at the Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall. It is an unkind venue for chamber ensembles: its vast spaces destroy nuance and reduce music to a series of loud gestures. Clusters of speakers hang from each side of the large stage; out of the corner of my eye they turn into lynched men.
The Morgenstern Trio begins with a game, committed Brahms C Major, but in the Shostakovich that follows a breeze moves through the hall and worries at the violinist’s music. The audience gasps; the violinist’s face becomes blotchier. At the end of the first movement she turns urgently to the pianist. The page-turner runs backstage for a moment, and the whistle of the air-conditioning descends a tone. In the second movement the violinist gives a thrilling performance, playing like a woman possessed. But the breeze still teases at her music, and in the last two movements she is again unsettled. “Did you see what happened?” she asks afterwards. “My mind was lost; it was too late. How could this happen?”
It happens again during the Teccher Trio’s performance of Frank Martin. The cellist swats at his music with his bow, but then it blows shut completely. He turns to the violinist with a rueful smile and plays on by memory. The Brahms B Major that follows is not as emotionally fraught as the Morgenstern Trio’s performance, but nor is it as interesting.
The final performance is by the Atos Trio, and the zephyr leaves them alone. Von Hehn is beautiful as she steps on to stage, with her hair pulled back in ropes and a diaphanous blue train that billows behind her as she walks. Heinemeyer’s hair is gelled back, gangster-style, but will not remain that way for long.
Earlier, Hoppe had spoken to me about the violinist Ishtak Perlman, for whom he used to work. “Perlman was a big influence on me in the absolute joy in his playing. If you see his face on stage, it is radiant. I know for a fact this is not show. This is inspiration.”
The Atos Trio is radiant now on stage, and its radiance fills the hall. Perhaps Heinemeyer amps up his gestures a little for the scale of the venue, but the joy of their playing is real. In Beethoven’s Op. 70 No. 2, Heinemeyer and von Hehn lean into each other and smile; I glance around and see an entire audience smiling back at them. Sometimes it is this simple: music is alive in an ensemble or it is not, like love in a marriage. The audience knows it and can only hope that the jury does, too. After its final work, by the Spanish composer Cassadó, the trio is summoned repeatedly back to the stage. Finally, Von Hehn and Hoppe take their leave. Heinemeyer is not yet ready to part with his audience and remains for another bow.
The trio is too nervous to stay for the quartet finals. Instead, the three of them go to a restaurant where they try, unsuccessfully, to eat. They then return to their rooms where they try, unsuccessfully, to sleep. These are difficult hours, filled with portent. During the meal Hoppe fingers a meticulously folded five-dollar bill in his pocket for luck; von Hehn counts the number of sips it takes to finish her wine, as if this might tell her something.
At one competition in Osaka, I invested my own trio’s fate in a giant inflatable elephant on the roof of the skyscraper adjacent to our hotel. On the morning of our first-round appearance, it was proudly inflated, taking up much of the sky. It remained buoyant for the second round, which went well, but became a grey, inauspicious puddle before the announcement of the finalists. “I knew we hadn’t made it,” said Helen, our violinist, as we flew home, “when I saw that they had deflated that elephant.”
We hadn’t spoken once about the elephant. To articulate it would look foolish, as well as destroying its magic. Instead we had achieved something notable as a trio: a perfect ensemble of magical thinking.
That night, after the announcement of prizes, a weary Hoppe calls his family. At the after-party at Cookie, a fashionable city drinking spot, Heinemeyer holds forth to a cluster of groupies. Von Hehn sits at the bar, beaming. She no longer has to count the sips in a glass of wine. “I’m very happy,” she says. “I can’t believe how many prizes we won.”
Perhaps it was van Pagee’s “suspiciously simple” voting system, but for once the jury got it right. The Atos Trio won the Piano Trio Audience Prize, the Piano Trio first prize, the Primus Telecom Grand Prize and the Musica Viva Special Prize. Second prize was awarded to the Morgenstern Trio; the ABC Listeners’ Award went to the Manhattan Trio. As the pianist strode on to the stage to collect it, her defiant, vindicated footsteps echoed through the hall. The string quartets were more disappointing. Second prize went to the artistic, inaccurate Navarra Quartet, and first prize to the English Badke Quartet. “We feel a little strange about winning,” the Badke Quartet’s violinist admits at the after-party, “when we didn’t think we played our best.”
Other ensembles are still wounded, and remain huddled in groups, trading conspiracy theories. This competition has never liked Russians. Is there any chance that breeze might have been engineered? After a few drinks, some of them will summon up the courage to approach the jury members for feedback.
Four years ago, my own trio was one of these wounded groups. The Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition was the last competition we entered as a trio. Two years earlier, we had won the Piano Trio and Audience Choice awards at the national competition, but the international competition had always been our raison d’être. We had spent the previous two months in Germany, rehearsing for eight hours a day. We were eliminated after the first round.
I can’t remember if I wept or not, but I had my driver’s licence renewed the following day and a photo was taken of my astonished face. Each time I present my licence I am reminded what disappointment looks like. It is cadaver-white, unseeing.
“I think it’s hilarious that people come to competitions and expect them to be fair,” says juror Caroline Henbest at the after-party. “I don’t believe in competitions, but I believe in what Marco van Pagee is trying to do with this one, which is to encourage chamber music.”
I thought it might be painful to revisit the site of such disappointment, but this has been a joyous week. Never again do I want to hear that we are all winners, or that music is the winner, but in this competition Van Pagee is creating something profound. There is an intimacy to chamber music that is perhaps as close as humans get. At its best, it expands to include the audience; Van Pagee’s vision is that it might expand to include a country, too.
After the competition, the disappointed and the triumphant return to their homes. Neither winning nor losing changes things as much as expected. Hoppe paints his house; von Hehn visits her parents. What remains in Melbourne is an audience hungry for chamber music, and a legion of young ensembles inspired to work.
After my trio’s disappointment four years ago, the three of us sprang apart and barely spoke to each other for six months. Then we remembered that we loved each other, which is not too strong a way of putting it, and that we loved chamber music. We tucked our CVs of failure into our back pockets, and we kept on playing.
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