Thursday, March 8, 2012

And the winner is ...

Hallo all, and welcome, finally, to the next edition of the Early Bird Extra! As you may have noticed, I've been out of action for the last few weeks. This was thanks to me getting through to the second round, and subsequently the final, of the Wettbewerb für Interpreten zeitgenössischer Blockflötenmusik (Competition for the interpretation of contemporary recorder music) in Darmstadt, Germany, over the weekend. The preparation really did take all of my energy, particularly as I'm usually a purely early musician. But it was a great experience! And, of course, it provides me with an excellent topic for today's issue.

The competition itself had not been held before; it was being put on in honour of the 80th birthday of Gerhard Braun, an esteemed recorder player and composer. I did not know any of Herr Braun's music, but I had to learn quickly; the first round required submission of a recording of his Drei Epigramme (Three Epigrams) for tenor recorder, a work which showcases many of his signature techniques, particularly the blurring of the barriers between recorder and vocal sounds. I had only one month to learn the piece, which I submitted on December 31, the day of the deadline!

And two weeks later, I was in. Exciting! Except that I suddenly had a lot more music to learn. For the second round, I chose to play Shinohara's 1968 work Fragmente (originally I was going to play Berio's Gesti, but came to the conclusion that I didn't have sufficient time to prepare it) to accompany the set piece, Bass Burner (1994) by Pete Rose. I had played Fragmente before, though it still needed work, but the Rose was not a difficult piece; it's in a kind of fast-swing jazz style, and having played jazz sax in another life, it was pretty straightforward for me.

There were nine of us in the second round (there were supposed to be ten, but one had to drop out due to illness), representing England, France, two from Austria, two from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and of course Australia. The judges were Johannes Fischer, from Darmstadt; Karel van Steenhoven, from Karlsruhe; Dörte Niensted, from Bremen; Nik Tarasov, from Basel; and Gerhard Braun, from Stuttgart. I have to admit, those names meant, and still mean, pretty much nothing to me. But then, like I say, I'm not regularly a contemporary player!

I unfortunately don't really know what the other players were like in that round - I was too nervous, and too focussed on my own pieces, to listen in - but though I didn't think I played superbly, I did play well enough to make it into the final five the next day! I received some positive comments on my interpretation of the Rose, and though nerves got the better of me in the Shinohara, my interpretation must have at least come across enough to impress the judges. I was really not expecting to make it through, and was very surprised when I was the last of the five announced!

The final was the following day (not much preparation time), and I had prepared, more or less, Außer Atem (1996) by Moritz Eggert, Voice of the Crocodile (1988) by Australian composer Benjamin Thorn, and the set piece by Braun, Wegmarken (2009). The others in the final were Marion Fermé (France), Caroline Mayrhofer (Austria), Susanne Fröhlich (Germany), and Cornelis van Dis (Holland). Susanne was the only one I had heard of personally; actually, the fact that she was there somewhat daunted me, as I knew of her as a consummate professional, and as a contemporary specialist.

I was on last, so I spent my day preparing rather than listening to the other performers. As for my performance, I felt that I played well under the circumstances. As is quite typical of me, I played musically, and certainly with every bit of energy I had, but not perfectly. Admittedly, the Braun and the Thorne suffered thanks to spending so much time and energy preparing Außer Atem, so though my nerves were pretty steady on the day, the lack of preparation probably showed. And Außer Atem, by any stretch, though true to its name (Breathless), was far from perfect.

So I wasn't surprised that I didn't win anything, though I did get some lovely comments from people who felt that my performance deserved third place! But interestingly, the jury decided not to pick a winner, instead awarding two second places and a third; the two seconds went to Susanne and Cornelis, the third to Caroline. Having not heard Cornelis, I assumed that he would have to be very good to be considered at the same level as Susanne; indeed, I had heard that he'd been a recent competition winner, which suggested as much.

The winner's concert that evening, though, surprised me. Cornelis performed Wegmarken and Ishii's East-Green-Spring (1991) which, in my opinion, though very exact technically, were incredibly, incredibly dull. His interpretation of the Braun in particular lacked many of the subtleties Braun wrote into the music, with slight changes of timing and mood, and very precise articulation; I actually heard Braun speaking to him about these after the concert. This bothered me in that I thought I could do better, though I admit, I felt that I didn't on the day.

Caroline was a clear place-getter, in my opinion. She played Contour (2001) by Sohrab Uduman in the concert, a piece with a pre-programmed electronics setup providing various effects by stepping on a pedal. The piece sounds amazing, and she played it flawlessly so far as I could tell. But admittedly, the work, while impressive, is not difficult, and it was no doubt the step up to the next level of repertoire in terms of technical requirement that set her apart from the other two. Still, I was impressed, and this was one of the two pieces I enjoyed most that evening.

Susanne played Seascape (1994) by Romitelli, for a Paetzold contrabass with amplification and digitally enhanced acoustic, and Austro (1992/2001) by Tedde. In all honesty, I was blown away by her performance. Austro is all about circular breathing, which I find extremely difficult, but which she pulled off seamlessly. Seascape, my favourite that evening, is just a beautiful work, recreating the sounds of being on a sailboat, and if you closed your eyes, that's exactly what it felt like. Her performance was utterly professional, and perfectly executed.

So that begs the question: why didn't she win a clear first place? Well, I'm not entirely sure, but I can think of two possibilities. First, Susanne tended towards works that created an effect, rather than those based on a musical line, and while brilliant in themselves, this perhaps limited the variety, and may have played against her given Braun himself tends toward more structured musical works. Second, and more likely, she was substantially older and more experienced than the rest of the group, and probably not who the competition was really aimed at; I suspect that the jury thought it was unfair to award a first prize to a professional against a field of students, and that awarding her first prize might discourage less experienced contestants from entering next year.

And yes, there may well be a next year! They are planning to make it an annual competition. So now that I've seen how the whole competition thing works (this was my first competition outside of uni), and know how much work needs to be put in, I will definitely be back for more next time, and searching for other competitions to enter too!

Though, I admit, I would prefer to find some early music ones. When it comes down to it, that's really more my thing.