2.20.2013

The Indy 5: American Pianists Association finalists, Part V



This Sunday, the last of the five finalists in this year's American Pianists Association competition performs with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra as the culmination of his residency week on the APA's Premiere Series.

If you were one of the other four APA finalists, you might be a little nervous about the goings-on in Indianapolis this week, because Eric Zuber has something of a reputation in the world of piano competitions.  

Eric holds an astonishing nine major prizes, won over the last four years from some of the world's most important international piano competitions: Honens, Cleveland, Arthur Rubinstein, Seoul, Sydney, Dublin, Minnesota, Bösendorfer (Gold Medal), and Hilton Head (Gold Medal).  He was also awarded Juilliard's much-coveted Arthur Rubinstein Prize. 

This consistency is unusual, and fascinating to me, as a pianist whose own experience of the competition circuit was less than idyllic. Such a triumphant sweep demands a special combination of unique strengths: tremendous pianism of course, but also some degree of strategic preparation, and a presumably innate sangfroid. It's this combination that can help a young artist navigate safely and surely through deep and hazardous (some might say cold, some might say shark-infested) waters. But, paradoxically, a young artist who is gifted with this combination of strengths has to be wary of too long a run on the competitions, no matter how successful, in order to avoid the weird trap of being branded a "competition pianist", with that stereotype's inherent danger to career potential. In effect, for the young pianist strong and fortunate enough to achieve consistent competition wins, the ultimate win might be knowing when not to win anymore!

But for now, Eric Zuber is riding his wave with both style and substance. He checked in with me from Indy to talk about the week to come.

LD: You're something of a competition veteran at this point, with a very impressive success record. What's your secret? Are there specific methods in your approach to the competition process, or general elements of your musical persona, that have supported you in the competition arena?
EZ: I feel enormously fortunate to have been as successful in competitions as I've been.  It is very difficult, of course, to ask a competition panel of 12 jury members to try and achieve consensus on something that is more or less subjective.  I feel thankful to have achieved a certain level of consistency in these things, at least as much as one can.  I can't say that I could attribute it to one thing, but I think there are some factors that might help.  

For instance, I try to program carefully, being sensitive to what I would like to hear if I was a jury member.  Of course, this is not fool-proof since all jury members are different.  I do feel, however, that certain pieces lend themselves better to a competition situation than others, and that it is risky to program without any regards to the situation.  

Also, players who have more eccentric or unusual musical voices tend to either be eliminated early on, or win the whole competition, depending on the makeup of the jury. They very rarely fall in the middle.  I feel my natural musical voice is perhaps less controversial in some ways than some other pianists who have had more uneven success (meaning several first or top prizes and several early round eliminations) in competitions. That is, of course, not to say that one is better than the other.  It is just the reality of the situation.  

Then, of course, there is the pianist's technical makeup and sound production ability to consider.  I find that as competitions progress, competitors with sounds that are weaker tend to be eliminated, unless they are specialists in certain types of music or are great and sensitive artists.  Even then, pianists who are capable of projection over an orchestra with a big warm sound generally tend to go further and place higher in these events.  

LD: How is APA different from competitions you've experienced previously?
EZ: The setup is quite different.  Generally, one applies to a competition and is asked to submit a bio and resume as well as a DVD or CD.  After the initial screening process, one might be called to audition in person, or sometimes just the initial screening is enough.  After the competitors for the actual competition are selected, there are usually several rounds of playing (within a short 2 or 3 week period) in front of one jury panel to determine the finalists and winners.  In APA, none of us were applicants, we were all nominated and then asked to submit a CD which was judged anonymously.  The cut was very large (from 45 to 5) just based on the CD portion, meaning that round was much more difficult than your typical CD round.  Then the five of us began a long process of playing several times over the course a few months.  This process is still ongoing and will culminate in April when the fellow will be determined.  Also, the type of events that we are performing in, including a high school residency, a song recital, chamber music, and the performance of a work commissioned specially for us helps to differentiate APA from other international competitions. 

LD: Obviously the day is past when one competition win will automatically launch (and sustain) a major career. How do you view the abundance of competitions today? Do you think that the increased number of competitions ends up providing more opportunities for young musicians, or do you think it reduces the impacts and outcomes for the winners?
EZ: I think competitions, certain ones at least, still have the ability to launch a career.  Look at Daniil Trifonov, whose career has exploded after winning Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky this past year.  Of course, only the competitions with the clout to generate publicity have the capacity to do so, and even then, in this controversy-driven society that we're now living, it is not enough to just win and be good.  One must be able to sustain a career after the concerts or management that comes with winning a competition dries out.  In order to do this, it is helpful to have a story or a selling point-- a marketing angle.  Even so, the smaller competitions can provide enough money and opportunities for a young musician to keep going, and keep building contacts which is very important in and of itself.  

LD: What are the most important outcomes you've experienced from your competition wins?
EZ: I would say that the most helpful competitions for me in terms of concerts have been Hilton Head, which provided me with a Carnegie Hall debut concert, and the Rubinstein and Cleveland Competitions, both which have given me a good deal of concerts.  I've heard from a couple of my friends who have been APA fellows that this competition provides the most helpful support of all!  So, I'm hopeful that the jury will look positively on my efforts.  

LD: What are you most looking forward to during your upcoming week in Indianapolis?
EZ: I am looking forward to it all!  I have already had the pleasure of playing with the gifted group of kids from Lawrence Central, our concert is tomorrow evening.  Then, my concert on Sunday is full of the music that I adore the most:  Schumann, Chopin, and Rachmaninov.  I hope that I can communicate my love of this music to the audience on Sunday so they can walk away from the concert feeling uplifted, positive, and emotionally refreshed.  That is my main goal!

Eric Zuber performs solo works and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on Sunday, February 24 at 3:30pm. TICKETS

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