With such a dizzying array of music competitions out there, it can be very difficult for young musicians to know which ones are worth their time.

Gustav Alink knows this only too well. With an interest sparked by the 1980 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, he began visiting competitions all over Europe, noticing the lack of any guide book or comprehensive source of information on such events. At around the same time he struck up a friendship with the celebrated pianist Martha Argerich after taking her picture backstage at a performance. The beginnings of the Alink-Argerich Foundation were laid out.

Gustav Alink © Alink-Argerich Foundation
Gustav Alink
© Alink-Argerich Foundation

Now, the Foundation monitors music competitions worldwide, with the aim of providing a definitive source of information to not only help fledgling musicians kickstart their careers, but also help the competitions themselves improve their practice. With a particular focus on piano competitions, Alink and his board members attend events almost constantly. “Every minute we are working here,” says Alink of the considerable task his Foundation is dealing with.

DR: There are many young people studying instruments. What do you recommend they look for in a competition?

GA: Everybody should realise the different levels of competitions and also of yourself – where you stand compared to others internationally.

They first should look at the repertoire that needs to be played in competitions, because that already gives great variety. Then, you need to be not only musically and technically prepared, but also mentally prepared. That’s quite important because there are always surprises at competitions, things that you don’t expect.

Also, on the organisational level, you would expect that if a competition lasts for longer than a few days there would be practice facilities, which is really a responsibility of the organisers. We have seen many different examples of how this has – or has not – been organised. So this can be shocking for participants when they travel a long way to a competition in a different country and find out that there are very poor practicing facilities.

What are the pitfalls that competitors need to look out for? Are there ever competition schedules that work against them? Might they have to play on instruments that aren’t very good, or have to work with conductors who don’t speak their language?

(Laughs) It’s very difficult to avoid certain situations! Of course it all depends on how much information you can get before you go, and that’s what I see as one of the main tasks of our Foundation, that we try to provide as much information as possible. If you have looked at our website then you can see that there is some basic information about the competitions, such as prize money, age limits, application fee and repertoire. But we are busy all the time, expanding this almost day and night, and we will also add information about what you just mentioned: for instance, what kind of instruments are available onstage at the competitions. Some competitions have a choice of instruments for the participants. But then the other surprise might be that the time for tryouts (on instruments) onstage is very limited. 

The other things that you mentioned are also very true. Contestants also want to know who might be on the jury. Sometimes the jury members’ names are not published before the competition, so that could be a surprise. 

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman
Competitions have had a bad reputation. Do you think that’s justified?

There are always rumours about competitions, people who complain. There are always surprises and disappointments. Some people can cope with that better than others. Whether complaints are justified: well, there are some situations that are regrettable. To mention just an example, there have been extreme situations when the pianists who were awarded prizes were told by the organisers, “You will get the prizes.” But they had to wait for a really long time before they get their prize, or they never received what had been promised. 

One thing which people might think of is whether the results are fair. From what I have experienced at competitions, there is mostly no bad intention from the jury members or from the organisers. Sometimes things happen as they happen – coincidences.

One example: if you have a competition which allows students of jury members to participate in the same competition – which we do not favour, because it’s really not necessary – I would say that should be blocked. But if this occurs at competitions, it has happened that quite a few times one of those students ended up in the finals or even won the competition. Then many people would give the logical reaction and say, “You see?! He was a student of that juror, and he won the competition.” That implies that it was not fair. The organisers should really try to avoid these situations.

Do you think those situations are a widespread issue?

Well, the fact that students of jury members may still take part in the same competition: it’s still allowed in more than 90% of the competitions, I would say. Mostly it is in the rules that the jury must sign an official statement to let the organisers know who their students are, and then they abstain from voting on those participants. But in my opinion it would be much easier to avoid those situations altogether.

Do you think that there has been a change of attitude in terms of what competitions offer competitors, other than just prize money?

Of course. What pianists mostly want is performances, even more than prize money. And there are certain competitions that have a good reputation and have done a lot for their prize winners, such as the Leeds Piano Competition in England and the Van Cliburn in the United States. Those two and a few others have done very well by offering many engagements to their winners. But for many of the organisers of competitions it’s not easy to arrange all this, because putting on a competition is already a big thing which needs a lot of money, effort, organisational skills and contacts. 

Would you like to see competitions offering more mentoring and career development?

Yes, that would be appreciated by many. I could give just one more example: the Honens Piano Competition in Calgary, Canada and also the Géza Anda in Zurich. They also try to offer a lot more practical assistance in terms of professional management for the winners. There are also other competitions that do quite well, like the Franz Liszt Competition in Utrecht.

Other competitions that are really famous, like the Queen Elisabeth Competition and the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, might not be that active in offering international engagements to the winners, but they are so famous and have such a great reputation that the engagements will almost come automatically.

Something that could happen a bit more, which I would like to stimulate with the organisers, is cooperation and collaboration between them. If you organise a competition somewhere in your home country, another organiser in a different country knows the performance opportunities and the concert halls in their own country better. And they both want performance opportunities for their own competition winners. So if you cooperate and collaborate with the other organisers in different countries you can try to make some kind of exchange. That seems to me a win-win situation.

This year's Alink-Argerich Foundation catalogue © Alink-Argerich Foundation
This year's Alink-Argerich Foundation catalogue
© Alink-Argerich Foundation
How do you find working with the competitions themselves? How do they react to your organisation?

I will give two different answers to that. In a way they are very cooperative in that they very much appreciate what we do. We provide very practical assistance to them, because some problems may arise during, before and after the competitions that need to be solved.

The other thing is that I’m often still surprised that communication and publicity by the competition organisers is mostly not so professional. We always try to get the results after the competition, and we will almost never get it automatically. We always have to look for it ourselves, which is fine, but even finding the results right after the competition is quite tricky sometimes. It’s understandable because if a competition has a small organisation, sometimes maybe one organiser, they are totally exhausted after the competition. This happens quite often, I’ve found. So I would suggest to organisers that they have to be well-prepared and preferably have a team or a few assistants who would work on the communications, not only before and during, but also shortly after the competition. 

What kind of problems do you step in and help with?

It would be quite strong complaints. Here is one example: there was a competition where they had the rule that students of jury members may not take part in the competition. But during the competition someone was following its webcast on the internet, and this person was writing emails to the organisers and to us, complaining that one of the participants had had lessons with one of the jury members and so should not have been allowed to take part in the competition. That became quite a problem, especially since in the end the person who was attacked actually won the first prize.

So, if the person who was complaining had a good argument it could have been an enormous problem, because if you make a rule of course you have to stick with it. But we looked at this very clearly from every side. From the side of the organisation, the jury member concerned, the participant – we were in touch with all of them in quite intense correspondence for a short time – and the situation was solved.

Do you think there are other valid ways in which performers can rise up the ranks and build careers as soloists?

Yes, but you need to be very lucky. If you look at the careers of pianists, many times it was simply that they could meet with the right person at the right moment. 

You could go to a competition but not take part in it. Just to be around is already quite helpful because it is a meeting place. You have a jury, hopefully with some very good people there, famous pianists or powerful people who are managers, impresarios or conductors. And these people have to stay at the competition for at least one week or longer, and of course to make contacts with them is vital. Mostly, if you try to approach these people they are busy, busy, busy and you cannot reach them. But at a competition they cannot run away!

Also if you take part in a competition and you are eliminated after the first round, I would always advise that you do not leave. In many cases some jury members, and also people in the audience, loved your performance. Many of them want to meet with you and congratulate and talk with you. This can be very valuable for the future, these kind of contacts.

When Martha Argerich was on the jury at the Dino Ciani Competition in Milan, there was a young participant from Korea. He did not get to the finals but he left such a wonderful impression. I was also at that competition, and Argerich spoke with him and simply decided to invite him to her festival.

What are your future ambitions for the foundation?

Next year we’ve planned an international conference in Barcelona. It will be the days between the semi-finals and the finals of the Maria Canals Competition for piano in Barcelona, and will be held at the Palau de Musica. Many organisers have already written to me saying that they intend to be there. At the moment we’re looking at more than 130 people from all over the world who are involved in the organisation of piano competitions who plan to be there. We will have a variety of themes on the agenda and topics that are heavily discussed in the piano world.