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Competitions expose musicians to the brutal truths of concert life

Competitions are the Marmite of the music world, applauded by the public for their bloodsports element but loathed by plenty of musicians for exactly the same reason: putting tender talent under too much pressure.

Sitting on the fence, I’d say they were a necessary evil to get young performers noticed, and a timely introduction to the brutal truths of concert life. As a professional musician, you’re perpetually under pressure, so you might as well get used to it from the beginning or you won’t survive.

That said, most competitions these days try to function with humanity and give contestants the best possible experience. And they got it with a vengeance, not to mention sea air, last weekend in Hastings – which, unlikely as it sounds, is home to one of the main piano competitions on the circuit.

Not so long ago this was a modest venture, but it’s grown. And 46 competitors from all around the world (11 from the US) made it to the final heats in Hastings’s White Rock Theatre: a venue more commonly given over to Deep Purple tribute bands and Elvis impersonators but accommodating itself quite comfortably to two nights of concertos with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The standard was good. But, as is the case with almost every competition nowadays, it was telling that most of the qualifying contestants were, either by nationality or family background, Asian. Including five of the six finalists.

I’m not complaining about this: given the degree to which classical music gets sidelined as irrelevant in contemporary British culture, it’s gratifying to know that the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans can’t get enough of it. And unsurprisingly they win the competitions – as they did here.

First prize went to the 23-year-old Fumiya Koido from Japan, who dazzled in a bright, athletic and perfectly paced account of Ravel’s G Major Concerto. Second prize went to a 25-year-old Russian, Maxim Kinasov, playing Tchaikovsky. And third went to the precocious talent of a 16-year-old Chinese-Canadian, Eric Guo, playing Chopin.

Were the outcomes fair and just? I think so, on the whole, although had it been up to me I’d have wanted more recognition for Yuanfan Yang (pictured), a British-Chinese player who struck me as the most musically intelligent and technically accomplished in the finals. Had he only delivered Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto with a fuller, more dynamic sound (it’s a piece that needs to come from the gut, not just the fingers) I suspect he would have won. Instead, he wasn’t even placed. But then he’s 22 and gifted: he has time. And though he didn’t win, a lot of people saw what he can do, and will remember. So the competition did its job.