When Nikolaj Znaider was asked to be president of the Carl Nielsen International Competition, he didn’t hesitate for a moment. He refused. The Danish-Israeli violinist – who won the prestigious competition in 1992 – swiftly reconsidered when he realised he could effect changes, as he explained when we met in a swanky hotel close to Sloane Square the day before a Cadogan Hall concert. Good-natured, disarmingly honest and quick to crack a joke at his own expense, Znaider reflected on the place of competitions, the difficulties facing young winners and the aims of the Nielsen Competition.

Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

Znaider was 16 when he won the Nielsen. “It was a sense of elation,” he recalls. “Any competition brings a lot of pressure. I remember it was summer and Denmark had won the European football championship so there was this great sense of euphoria, a kind of Coming of Age feeling.” He maintains that winning the competition did not immediately change his life. “Not too much happened to me, which was annoying at the time, I confess. From the age of seven you walk around with this dream. Imagine you’re a young kid who wants to be a footballer and all of a sudden you get the chance to play in the Premier League. You’re dying for this opportunity, but people tell you “it’s too soon” and it kills you! That’s where you need wise parents and wise agents who know the value of patience, to shield you from attention and ensure you’re not playing too much.

“When you’re 16, you’re not by any stretch of the imagination equipped to handle an international career,” Znaider maintains, “nor should you be. Should you be gifted a few concerts a year to gain experience? Sure. But an actual career with 60, 70, 80 concerts a year? Forget it! It’s incredibly dangerous, just as it’s the same for child actors to be exposed to too much too soon. When you lavish a lot of attention on a young person who is still in his or her transformative years, what happens is you freeze this transformation and they become paralysed.”

For Znaider, the years following a competition win are crucial. “From 16 to 21, those are the years when this person has to become a mature artist. You have to be healthy, you have to be strong, you have to be able to sustain the pressure, to be technically sound with a large enough repertoire – that is what you need to learn in those years and you cannot learn that if you’ve had huge attention thrust upon you at an early age.” The Nielsen Competition is open to players up to the age of 30, though, by which age Znaider accepts that participants are more than ready to take on a big career.  

After his initial refusal to accept the offer of competition president, Znaider had second thoughts. “I hung up the phone and thought about it for a day or so and wondered if it couldn’t be done slightly differently. I tried to identify what I don’t like about competitions and what things a competition could do that would actually be beneficial to the young people taking part. If there was a willingness from the organisers who had approached me to go in that direction, maybe it could be interesting, so I called them back.”

Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

The biggest change Znaider wished to initiate was in the panel of jurors. “It’s not so much about the voting system or even about transparency, but it’s about who you have on the jury. Teachers have a vested interest, even if they don’t have a pupil in the actual competition. We know how fickle the human mind is. This was my whole thing. It’s not enough to say that you can’t vote for your own student. It’s not enough to say you can’t have any of your own students in the competition. If you are on the circuit as a teacher, you will by definition be able to benefit from this or that teacher’s student winning or not winning, because this teacher may be able to influence you getting a position at his Hochschule or he has a masterclass that he can invite you to. There’s all this kind of stuff going on that’s very human. It’s not corrupt, it’s just human nature. I thought, let’s try and eliminate that.”

Znaider soon discovered there is no perfect voting system. “You’re always going to be weighing apples and oranges, even though they might be playing the same piece. How do you weigh this person’s qualities and challenges against this person’s? One might be very expressive but a bit technically unstable; this one might have a greater technique, but have less imagination.”

If the objective of the Nielsen Competition is to discover and support young talent, what are the benefits of taking part?  “Competitions provide a goal for someone to work towards but they can provide a platform. You give them the chance to get up and be heard by people who have influence and who can tell others. My vision is that this platform should extend beyond the competition. It already does to an extent – the winner gets a recording with Orchid Classics and they get some concerts – but I would like to see them get a real chance at presenting themselves to the world. The next competition will be the first time where we take all three categories – violin, flute, clarinet – and put them together. There are a lot of competitions out there and you have to do something to distinguish yourself. One of the things we have in common with the International Tchaikovsky Competition is we have a great composer who wrote three great concertos so we want to showcase those works. Part of the motivation of the city of Odense and its orchestra is to promote the music of Nielsen, so there were very worthy reasons to try and get involved and to help make this competition one that attracts great talent.”

Should competitors expect to get feedback on their performances? “I think it’s quite usual if you don’t progress in a competition that you get to talk to the jury. But usually that means you run into other teachers, which isn’t necessarily what you need!” Znaider quickly discovered that it’s very hard to build a jury with no teachers at all, particularly when the competition falls smack in the middle of the concert season. A mix of performers, orchestral and artist managers were assembled and in 2019 Emmanuel Pahud and Martin Fröst are joining the flute and clarinet pre-juries as Artistic Advisers. The Violin jury will fulfill Znaider’s desire to be free of teachers on the panel, although that hasn’t proved possible for the flute and clarinet juries where musicians of both instruments nearly always have dual roles as both performers and teachers.

I wonder what qualities Znaider and his jury members are seeking in competitors. Is he listening out for the finished product or for potential? “Both!” he replies. “At the end of the day, we’d love to find a ready made Heifetz, but there are not so many of those! We’d like to find someone who – ideally – we’d like to pay to go and hear, somebody who has some kind of artistic presence. As you point out, sometimes you have to make hard choices because there may be someone who is technically quite accomplished but who might never become a compelling performer – perhaps a very good musician in other ways – but not compelling as a narrator in that solo function.”  

Carl Nielsen (1908)
© Wikicommons

A familiar retort against competitions is that music isn’t a sport. So why hold them? Znaider considers his answer carefully. “To find talent and nurture it. To provide a platform. And also because it’s very hard to be a student and work with the zealousness you need unless there’s something to work towards. I always say to the competitors that whatever decision the jury arrives at, it’s not a final verdict. It’s not “the truth”. It’s whatever consensus we could reach at the end of all the voting. It’s not the end of your lives. The result doesn’t define you. If you see a competition in that light, it can be quite healthy.”  

Znaider is building a dual career as a conductor – he’s been Principal Guest Conductor at the Mariinsky since 2010 – and last time round, he conducted the Nielsen Competition final himself. “It gives me a lovely opportunity to work up close with them,” he explains, “and to see how they work in rehearsals, how they listen, how they respond.”  

The finalists each have to play the Nielsen concerto. I remark that compared with the flute and clarinet concertos, the Nielsen Violin Concerto is pretty straightforward. “I think so. The problem is if you’ve never learnt it before, because it’s a big piece. Like the Sibelius, it’s a long concerto and technically demanding so it’s about learning a great concerto that a lot of them won’t know. But that’s also a point of the competition, to advance the works of Carl Nielsen. You want them to explore this music, its peculiarities. Once you can play the instrument well enough, you have to consider what the music is about.

“I almost feel you have to be like a detective. We’re presented with this imperfect book of evidence – black dots on the white paper – and we have to figure out what it all means, the nature of the piece, its essence. There’s a wildness, an impetuosity, an awkwardness about Nielsen’s music, an angularity which is not polished. There’s an originality, both harmonically and melodically; there’s a relationship with the local folk music which is infectious. In Danish culture, there is also this kind of underplayed humour as well which is not overtly funny but you have to discover the essence of that too.”

Discovering the essence of Nielsen will be a whole host of instrumentalists when the next competition gets under way in March 2018 and Znaider and his jury will be watching, listening.


This interview was sponsored by the Odense Symphony Orchestra