Each year in Munich, ARD (the association of German public broadcasters) lends its name to one of the world’s major music competitions. The ARD International Music Competition is hosted by the local classical radio station, BR Klassik, with the winners getting to play in concert with one of the very best orchestras in the world: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Oswald Beaujean © Bayerischer Rundfunk / Julia Müller
Oswald Beaujean
© Bayerischer Rundfunk / Julia Müller

By tradition, the competition is led by the head of BR-Klassik, a position that Oswald Beaujean has held since 2012. Last year, he asked Meret Forster to join him as joint Artistic Director: while that makes Forster the beginner, she has been involved with the competition and the radio station since the late 1990s, first as journalist and then producer.

At the Bavarian Radio offices in Munich, Beaujean and Forster explained to me that this really isn’t just one competition…

DK: you’re using a range of venues: what makes a good place to hold a competition?

OB: Actually, we have to do it because we run four competitions at the same time. We have our own studios and of course we use them, but they are not enough. This year, we have Voice, Viola, Trumpet and Piano Trio. So we have to use different halls: the first two rounds are possible within smaller halls because they are just with piano accompaniment, and each instrument stays in the same hall so that all the musicians have the same acoustic circumstances. For the semi-finals and finals with orchestras, we have to go to bigger halls like the Herkulessaal and the Prinzregententheater.

Meret Forster © Bayerischer Rundfunk / Ralf Wilschewski
Meret Forster
© Bayerischer Rundfunk / Ralf Wilschewski

MF: It takes a lot of logistics and organisation to bring all these categories together. We need a good and quite big team to organise it all.

When we asked past competition winners to comment on their experience, one described competitions as “an environment which can be described as unnatural for musical freedom and expression”. Is it more important for an artist to be individual and show a strong personality, or to show technical achievement?

MF: It's both, of course. A high technical standard in essential, but it’s important that individuality is part of the performance. For the juries, the best way to find a prizewinner is if there's someone who really performed in a very individual and musical way so that you can forget all the technical aspects – that's the perfect situation.

OB: There shouldn't be too many wrong notes, of course, but if it happens, it happens: it’s just a concert. We two are not those who vote, but when we’re choosing jurors, we are trying to find people who are not just counting wrong notes, we prefer artists who are still really playing on the stage and not only teaching. It's sometimes not easy to find these people, because they are really busy in their concert life, but I think they need to understand how it looks and feels to be on stage and give a concert.

The other thing that is quite important in Munich is that there is a large audience, from the first round on – there are about 17,000 to 19,000 visiting the competition each year as audience members. Sometimes, we have the big studio, that’s 350 people, and it’s full, in the first or second round – it’s just great! And that changes the situation for the musicians: a lot of them say “yes, we like playing in Munich because it's not a situation where you stand alone playing for the jury, who are sitting in the dark and counting your wrong notes”.

MF: The jury members are in the hall, of course, but they’re part of a real audience. There are people who are really enthusiastic about being part of the competition. If you’re in the hall in the intermissions or after the concerts, you can hear plenty of discussions. The first few weeks of September here in Munich, classical music is still asleep because the concert and opera seasons open later, so it’s quite a festival atmosphere.

That means that the jurors can feel how the audience reacts...

OB: That’s true, but of course they have to vote for themselves. And there are times when the audience does not agree with the decisions of the jury, and they make that very clear!

MF: There are some audiences who are real fans, who come to Munich every year and come to all the rounds. They get real sympathy with some of the musicians and they get really disappointed if they only get a second or third prize. There was one time when Menahem Pressler was judging the Piano Trio category and he announced the results on stage and there was a big confrontation: there was loud booing!

OB: But I think that’s OK! It’s very important for us that the public really takes part in the competition. And that’s why we made sure that there’s also an audience prize. Very often the result is the same, but not always.

Prizewinner's concert at the Herkulessaal in 2015 © Daniel Delang
Prizewinner's concert at the Herkulessaal in 2015
© Daniel Delang

Do you think the juries are they looking for musical accomplishment, or for people who they think have the potential to be the best in the future?

OB: Both. There are several prizes and maybe you won't give the first prize to somebody who might be a great talent but isn't ready at all, but you can give them a second prize or a third prize.

MF: For example, last year we had a double bass player who was 18-years old, very young and very talented, but of course he's not ready now. He has potential and he demonstrated with no question that he is a special musician, but nevertheless the jury was right to give him not the first prize, but give him some motivation – he won the third prize.

OB: Sol Gabetta was 17-years old when she won the third prize, it was in 1998 or 1999. She was one example of someone who got a prize for being a big talent. She was not ready; she played on an instrument that sounded like a cigar box!

In each semi-final, the performer has to play a newly commissioned piece and also a standard piece, usually Mozart or Haydn. Can you explain the thinking?

MF: I think it's a very important thing, to give someone motivation to deal with music of our time, and for a soloist it's very important to get a new score and find a way to handle it. For the jury, it’s quite interesting to listen for the first time to a piece which is just a score, to hear very different ways of going through it. You are the first – you can't find some orientation by Sokolov or Oistrakh: you are alone with your score and you have to find a way. That shows lots of things concerning the musicality and the range of different interpretations of one score. It’s also important to be able to do it in a short time: you only have around four months to prepare this new piece. On the opposite side: it’s necessary for each musician to know how to deal with scores by Haydn or Mozart, because you can show a lot, you can demonstrate a certain level of competence.

OB: Actually, there is a second reason why we do these conventional concerts. In the semi-final, they have to play without a conductor, with a chamber orchestra – the Münchener Kammerorchester. They have to put across their ideas of this music to the orchestra, to play with this orchestra without someone standing in front and helping them.

Do they get any contact with the composers of the commissioned pieces?

OB: No, the musicians are being asked to offer their own ideas from a score, not the ideas of the composer. But often, composers come to Munich during the competition: it’s possible for them to give their ideas to the performers, but afterwards.

MF: There's a special prize for the best interpretation of the contemporary music.

What brief do you give to the composers?

MF: First of all, the piece shouldn't be longer than 8-10 minutes, and it should be a solo piece without any technical requirements that we can’t meet, so we can’t permit pieces with complicated live electronics. And of course we try to get the composers to keep in mind that this is a piece for a competition, for a musician who only has a few weeks to find a way through the score.

OB: It should be difficult but it should be playable. I remember one situation when we had a trumpet piece and one of the members of the jury, who had played a lot of contemporary music, just told me “It's not possible to play it – you can't do it”, and that's senseless. So you have to think about whom you ask: not every composer is good for a commissioned piece in a competition.

In any big competition, there’s a high chance that some of the jurors have taught some of the applicants – some musicians have accused jurors of selecting their own pupils as winners. How do you deal with these problems of bias – whether real or perceived?

MF: With us, the jury members are not allowed to vote for anyone who has studied with them in the last three years. We always check: the entrants have to give us their list of teachers and their CV. From the second round, the scoring is done by a sheet of points, secretly, with no discussion, so we can check that also.

OB: It is a problem, of course, it's senseless to say otherwise. But we keep it as small as possible by making a big effort to have as many performing musicians as possible on the jury and as few teachers. If there are only one or two teachers, they are not as influential as when it's the whole jury. And there are, we can say it, jurors who go from one competition to the next one; they are quite well known and it's quite obvious why they do this. You won't find them in Munich.

In any case, a competition is fundamentally a scary thing for the entrants. Is there anything you can do to reduce that stress?

MF: We really try to give all the participants a very comfortable atmosphere. We are working with a young team – the backstage people are nearly all students – and they try to help as far as possible.

OB: And competitors are different. Some don't want you to touch them, some are very open and like to talk, you meet so many different characters. You just try to help as many as possible.

The majority of competitors don't win anything – it’s the nature of the beast. How can you make sure that they get the most out of the competition?

MF: Sometimes, quite important people in the music world are sitting in the front row in the first or second round. It's happened that a performer who was eliminated in the first round has been invited to a concert because there was someone in the audience who liked them.

OB: One thing is that we offer a conversation with the jury: if they go out of the competition, they can talk to the jury, which can be very important. But there is another argument which I've heard from many musicians, which is that the preparation of a competition is very useful to bring a musician forward, to concentrate on a particular repertoire which is quite demanding, around ten pieces. I think that for many musicians, this time of preparation is even more important than the competition itself.

Prizewinners of the 2016 ARD Competition © Daniel Delang
Prizewinners of the 2016 ARD Competition
© Daniel Delang

Turning to the winners: obviously, they're hoping for benefit to their career and visibility. Is there is a big set of important people who will see them?

MF: We have three final concerts. After the final, the prizewinners have the chance to give a presentation of their gifts in a concert, and of course we invite lots of networking people to the competition and these concerts. We are broadcasting them on the radio and on the video live stream and I know that lots of agencies and really important networking people in the music world come to Munich or listen to these broadcasts. We also give them the chance to be part of a chamber music festival with the other prizewinners the following year, and to play not only in Munich but also in several towns in Germany.

And are they getting airtime on BR-Klassik by doing that?

MF: Yes, of course, and not only on BR-Klassik. We are ARD, so the other German broadcasting stations feel a responsibility and interest to broadcast the final concerts and the chamber music events. And sometimes, the other broadcasting stations are inviting the prizewinners as soloists. Last year, for example, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra invited the first prizewinner of the harp for a concert.

OB: Actually, I think this part of the competition, what happens after somebody wins a prize, is much more important than the prize itself. The money you get in Munich – 10,000€ for a first prize – is not that much in comparison to other competitions. I think van Cliburn pay $50,000, the Hannover violin competition pays €50,000. That's not the point of why people come to ARD Competition: there are other reasons, and I think these opportunities after getting a prize are more important.

MF: We also offer all these concerts to the European Broadcasting Union so it's really internationally live on air and in the media world.


This article was sponsored by ARD International Music Competition, whose 67th edition runs from 3rd to 21st September 2018.