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Winners get chance to cash in on piano competitions

LAST Thursday I bumped into composer Rory Boyle in the cafe bar of the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland.

It was a chance meeting: I was in the building simply to pay fees for my lads' music lessons. But, as is the way of these things, it turned out to be a timely meeting for a number of reasons. Boyle commented that we had not seen each other for ages, and that he had heard I had been ill again over the summer.

Over the years, I have interviewed Boyle on many occasions, in his role as composition teacher in the RCS, as a composer in his own right, and in a period when he was acting head of the composition department, standing in for an absent Gordon McPherson. So we have got to know each other a bit, and I reckoned I was up to speed on his career.

How wrong can you be? That period of illness, from early May until recently, was long enough for me to slip right out of the Rory Boyle loop, as I discovered during our brief chat when he informed me of recent performances of his music, recordings of his music, projects undertaken, new commissions received and completed, and so on. I was quite shocked to realise how much catching up I have to do: and that is just on one prominent figure on the Scottish music scene.

But the catching up can wait until another weekend, because one of Boyle's en passant comments was that he has been asked to write the mandatory set piece for the next Scottish International Piano Competition in 2014. This is the piece that all competitors who survive into the semi finals must play in the triennial competition.

Every three years that strand has spawned a new piece from a leading Scottish composer. But it was not so much that news which made me sit up as the fact that, by complete coincidence, various issues concerning piano competitions have been whizzing around my brain in the past fortnight or so. What happens to all the fearsome young virtuoso pianists we watch parading their talents through the various stages of these gladiatorial keyboard contests? Where do they go to once the dust has settled? Very few of them actually make it in significant career terms.

Many of them, I suspect, must disappear into some relatively minor touring circuit of music clubs. Some pop up occasionally in unexpected places: years ago I visited the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during Yuri Temirkanov's reign as chief conductor, before Marin Alsop made history by becoming the first woman to preside over a major American orchestra. I have long forgotten Temirkanov's full programme, but I was astounded to see on that programme a Russian pianist playing a Bach keyboard concerto: he had been a competitor in one of the early Scottish competitions, if not the first.

Oxana Shevchenko, winner of the last competition, got a decent launch from it, with recitals and a recording on the Delphian label. Tom Poster, from an earlier competition, has done all right for himself, as has Katya Apekisheva. And Scottish-born pianist Susan Tomes, who was in the very first SIPC, already had a strong reputation and went on to forge a golden career as a highly respected chamber music pianist (and author).

By and large, however, there seems to be a chasm of oblivion awaiting many of these bright young hopefuls in a mercilessly competitive industry.

So it is worth pointing out that one of these triennial competitions, held in Calgary, Canada, and called the Honens International Piano Competition, has taken steps to cultivate a sustainable development programme to support and nurture its winning stars, or Prize Laureates, as it calls them. It is already hugely successful, with last year's winner, Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, sweeping up $100,000 in cash and a half million dollar career development programme with a Wigmore Hall debut on January 12. But Honens has also now secured a distribution deal with the global distributor Select Music (Naxos) for its Laureates' CD recordings. That's what I call progress.

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