Music competitions have proved an inexorable step on a young musician’s journey toward building their career as a soloist. Here we look at ten hugely successful soloists who kick-started their careers in competitions.

10. Martha Argerich

© Casa Rosada / Library of Congress

Today, the Argentine pianist is known across the world for her powerful yet sensitive interpretations of Rachmaninov, Ravel and Prokofiev. Yet at the beginning of her now-65-year-long career, competitions proved instrumental in providing the exposure that Argerich needed. She took to the piano aged 3, but it wasn’t until she was 16, when she won both the Geneva International Music Competition and Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition within the space of 3 weeks, that she really began to make a name for herself. It was at the latter that she met the famed pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who went on to give her lessons in her early 20s. A first prize win at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1965 preceded a concert in the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, by which time she was well on her way to building her current reputation as one of the best pianists in the world. 

 9. Bryn Terfel

© Nigel Hughes

Now known for his powerful Wagnerian roles, Terfel’s early life initially seems rather idiosyncratic in the world of opera, having been born in rural North Wales to a farming family, whose first language was Welsh. Nevertheless, he developed a passion for singing and eventually studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It wasn’t until 1989 and his entry into the BBC Singer of the World competition, however, that the bass-baritone really put his name on the map. Not that he won first prize, however – he lost out to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who has also found huge success for his roles in Verdi operas (Terfel did win the Lieder prize, however). The following year, Terfel made his debut as Guglielmo in the Welsh National Opera’s Così fan tutte, playing the titular character in The Marriage of Figaro that same year. International performances in Brussels and Santa Fe followed his 1991 performance in the English National Opera’s Figaro, and since then he’s rarely been out of the operatic limelight, having been awarded Grammys, Gramophone awards and even a CBE in 2003.

8. Mischa Maisky

© Hideki Shiozawa

Latvian-born Israeli cellist Mischa Maisky’s performance at the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 18 was highly fortuitous – though it might not have immediately seemed so much at the time. He placed sixth in the contest, but it was there that he met the famed Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who went on to become a close mentor (indeed, he even supported Maisky financially when his father died). Interestingly, it transpired that Rostropovich had lobbied for Maisky to place lower in the competition. Not that he thought that Maisky was undeserving – he wanted him to compete for first prize next time, something he couldn’t do if he’d already placed in the top eight. Not even an 18-month stint in a labour camp and 2 months in a psychiatric hospital could stop Maisky’s career development from then on. He won the Gaspar Cassado International Cello Competition in Florence in 1973, and made his debut at Carnegie Hall the same year. There, an audience member gave him the 18th-century Montagnana cello plays on his international tours to this day.

7. Mitsuko Uchida

© Richard Avedon

Acclaimed the world over for her interpretations of Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the more oblique works of the Second Viennese School, Mitsuko Uchida is widely thought of as one of the most distinguished pianists in the world. Born in Atami, Japan, she moved to Austria at the age of 12. The move, as it turned out, would be nothing short of life-changing. In Vienna, she went on to study at the famous Academy of Music, giving her first performance at the Musikverein aged just 14. Not even when her parents left for Japan a few years later did she shift her focus from her piano studies. Competitions were instrumental in the early part of her career: she won the Ludwig van Beethoven International Piano Competition in 1969 and came second in the Leeds Piano Competition the following year. These engagements put her name on the map, and led to her move to London where she has lived ever since. More recently her contribution to music was recognised when she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2009.

6. Gautier Capuçon

© Gregory Batardon

Known for his fierce virtuosity, Gautier Capuçon is credited with bringing a touch of genuine star quality to the cello. With a slew of recordings on Warner Classics’ Erato imprint and a number of ECHO Klassik awards to his name, as well as regular performances alongside world-class conductors like Semyon Bychkov and Charles Dutoit, his is the kind of career that many young musicians dream of. But everyone has to start somewhere. Capuçon took up the cello aged four, going on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. During his last year there, he won both the André Mavarra International Cello competition and the Adam International Cello Festival and Competition. After graduating in 2000, he went on to study under the famed cellist Heinrich Shiff at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, and in 2001 he was awarded the “New Talent of the Year” prize at the French Ministry of Culture’s Victoires de la Musique ceremony.

5. Maxim Vengerov

© Benjamin Ealovega

The term “musical prodigy” is worn out with overuse, but it still rings true in the case of the Russian-born Israeli violinist Maxim Vengerov. Though his parents were both active musicians, who knows if they could have expected to have a child that would make his first recordings and undertake his first international tour at the age of 10. In that year he also topped the Karol Lipiński and Henryk Wieniawski Young Violin Player Competition, and at 15 he won the Carl Flesch Competition, too. Rostropovich and Daniel Barenboim were early champions of his work, and since then he has built a glittering career boasting acclaimed recordings on EMI and Melodia, as well as a number of Grammy and Gramophone artist of the year awards. Perhaps mindful of the key role that competitions played in his early development, Vengerov now acts as chairman of the jury at the Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Poznań, for which he foots the bill for an extra cash prize and provides 12 individual lessons for a selected participant.

4. Joshua Bell

© Eric Kabik

Having contributed to film soundtracks with the likes of Hans Zimmer and put out over 40 recordings, Joshua Bell’s position as a world-renowned violinist seems unassailable. His first experience of a competition wasn’t exactly auspicious, but it did provide him with a useful life lesson. At 12, he entered the Stulberg International String Competition and completely fluffed the beginning of his first piece. Instead of soldiering on, however, he stopped playing and asked if he could simply start again. Liberated by the knowledge that he had already kissed goodbye to first prize, he then gave a knockout performance. “I played the best I had ever played in my life”, he told Newsweek. In the end, he actually won first prize. Two years later, he won The Seventeen Magazine and General Motors Concerto Competition, playing with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra as a result. It was arguably this that first brought him to national attention. At 17 he made his Carnegie Hall debut with the Saint Louis Symphony, and by then he was well on his way to becoming one of the most recognisable violinists in the U.S.

3. Anne Sofie von Otter

© Mats Bäcker

Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter’s reputation is such that she’s impressed both in and outside the world of opera. She’s fêted for her performances in Baroque and Classical opera, a speciality that can be traced to her frequent collaboration with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, as well as for her interpretations of Nordic masters like Sibelius and Stenhammar. Yet she has also branched out successfully into rock and jazz. She started off by studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the beginning of her professional career was heralded by a second prize win in the voice category at Munich’s ARD International Music competition. The following year she made her professional debut at Basel Opera, singing the role of Alcina in Orlando Paladino.  

2. Emmanuel Pahud

© Denis Felix

If you’re an aspiring musician from a non-musical family, never fear: superstar flautist Emmanuel Pahud’s family didn’t play either. But with his extensive discography on EMI and a touring schedule of around 160 concerts a year, it appears a non-musical background is no obstacle to becoming one of the top players in your field. He picked up the instrument after hearing a neighbour play the flute in his family’s apartment building, and he eventually went on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. In 1985, at the age of 15, he won the National Competition of Belgium, leading to his first concert with the country’s National Orchestra. In 1988 he grabbed first prize at the Duino International Music Competition, and a second prize win the International Scheveningen Music Competition in the same year led to a gig as principal flautist in the Basel Radio Symphony. The following year he claimed first prize in the Kobe International Flute Competition, but 1992 seems to be the year when his star truly went into the ascendent. He took an intensive 10-day rehearsal with the Swiss flautist Aurèle Nicole, who prepared him both for his performances at the Geneva International Music Competition and his audition for principal flute at the Berlin Philharmonic. Winning the former and succeeding in the latter, he became the youngest musician in the orchestra.

1. Gidon Kremer

© Paolo Pellegrin | Magnum Photos

Nowadays the Latvian violin master Gidon Kremer is known as the founder of the pan-Baltic ensemble Kremerata Baltica and the acclaimed Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival. But as a young performer in what was then the Soviet Union, competitions proved a key stepping stone in the development of his career. Under the tutelage of the legendary David Oistrakh, he snapped up third prize at Brussels’ Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in 1967, followed by second prize at the Montreal International Violin Competition two years later. That same year he claimed first prize at the Paganini Competition in Genoa, and another first-prize win at Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Music Competition in 1970 saw his star go firmly into the ascendant. From then on, despite the Soviet regime’s attempts to curb his travel, he toured increasingly further afield throughout the 1970s, performing in Germany, Britain, the United States and Japan.