Early Music specialist Krijn Koetsveld has been a member of competition juries for over 30 years. In August, he chaired the main jury for Utrecht's International Van Wassenaar Concours. Bachtrack's David Karlin, who was on the press jury, asked him about the view from a competition jurist's chair.

Krijn Koetsveld © Jip Warmerdam
Krijn Koetsveld
© Jip Warmerdam
How do you prepare for a competition? 

Apart from my basic education and knowledge about the music, if there is any competitor who is specialised in a certain repertoire or a certain period, then I will prepare for it. In our type of music, in the 17th century, sometimes it’s unclear what type of instruments should be used, so if I don’t know the pieces, I will check. But I’m a specialist in this repertoire, so most of this music I know.

How to deal with competitors that you might know of? Does it ever happen that a juror will refuse to judge a particular competitor because they have a relationship with that competitor?

Sometimes you know these ensembles, because some of them are already around or they're students of a conservatory I already know. Some them I actually know quite well, which makes it quite difficult to keep your judgement as neutral as possible. I can even be coaching the ensemble or some of its members. As chairman of the jury, I am always clear that it's neutral and it’s objective and our personal feelings for people must not interfere with our judgement of them as a jury.

In all the 25 or even 30 years that I’ve been at competitions, it’s never happened that a judge refused to judge a particular competitor because he has a relationship with a competitor. Although I do remember once that somebody told me that "I know these people so well that if you want me to not put my comments in, I’m OK". But there can be all kinds of relationships between jurors and competitors. As chairman of the jury, I may have to ask “you know this person so well, are you sure you’re being objective”.

Are jurors prone to bias depending on personal performance preferences? How do you separate out objective criteria from your personal preference on a particular piece?

Now you’re touching on a very important topic, which always crosses my mind on every competition. I’ve been in discussion with teachers about their students about their needs, whether this is the way of singing or playing. And I agree with one thing in my musical life: that absolute truth does not exist. So, for example, I was at a concert of Gunar Letzbor with Musica Antiqua Austria and he played a particular concerto and it was quite different from what the audience had heard before – it was so original an experience, I know there were comments in the audience and in the jury of “you should not play it like that”. I’m always trying to be neutral, in my comments I’m trying to be a bit modest, I try to have an open discussion. If someone on the jury tries to say "it should be done like this", or "the tempo should be like that", I feel that my job is to say "How do you know"?

Of course, we have a lot of knowledge, musicology etc, but as a performer, yesterday I did Monteverdi one way: I can assure you that if I play it tomorrow, I will do it differently. So the absolute truth from yesterday is not the absolute truth for tomorrow because you get influenced by the weather, by the audience, by your mood, by the acoustic, by the situation, by everything in the context.

Is it fair to say, for early music in particular, that many jurors consider  historical accuracy as a basic criterion of goodness? Because the audience won’t necessarily think that…

You should be able to use language to convince people about your theory. How are you going to convince people to accept a piece of music given that these are the notes, this is my historical knowledge, this is what I know about the ornamentation, about instrumentation. Today, when I’m in front of an audience, I’m going to make very clear what is my main point, I’m going to repeat it, I'm going to set the tempo so the effect of this music is going to be the deepest melancholy you can imagine. Tomorrow, I’m going to do something different. The one thing I’m sure is that today is not going to be like tomorrow.

Of course, if you have a situation where an instrument is not used in this period, say, the difference between a Flemish and an Italian harpsichord, you can say that this shouldn't be done – that’s just knowledge. Or if, say, there is too much vibrato, you can say that the correct way of doing it for the period was different. But there is so much after the knowledge: it comes down to how are you going to speak in front of an audience.

Are you looking for accomplishment or talent?

It's always a question. I’m always wondering in which part of the development am I interfering. Are they already at the top? At this last competition, for example, there was one ensemble, brought up in a certain history, a certain way of playing, you could see it in all of them. I thought the violinist was of a huge standard. But then, the question was, how open minded is she to realise, say, that Tchaikovsky playing is different from Telemann playing? Is she curious, is she keen to learn more about the specific elements of playing continuo? The main thing is – are they open to criticism? Are they open to studying from sources? Are they open to see how other people do it?

Of course, you have to say "they played like this". Last year, all the ensembles played far worse in the final than they did in the semi-final. For some, the standard was simply not good enough. This year, the ensembles played better in the final. So I think it has to be a balance between how they will develop, and how they played on the day.

Is it important for jurors to consider a competitor's age?

We don’t say in our regulations that people should be a certain age. Some people stop developing, and some people keep developing every day, and some people develop a lot later than others.