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What's new at the Honens Piano Competition?

Robert Rowat

We're getting excited for the 2018 Honens Piano Competition, which gets underway on Aug. 30 at Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary. Fans unable to attend in person can follow full video coverage here.

In its quest for the "complete artist," the Honens Piano Competition puts 10 semifinalists to the test: Each will play a 65-minute solo recital (encores are encouraged!) in addition to a collaborative concert with baritone Phillip Addis and violinist Jonathan Crow. The three pianists who'll advance to the final round must perform a chamber music concert and a Romantic concerto with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Karina Canellakis.

Why put oneself through this, you might ask? Because the Honens Prize Laureate chosen by the jury will receive a cash prize of $100,000 and an extensive career development program. It's also just an amazing experience with a festival atmosphere (including a late-night piano pub crawl known as the Bison Noir.)

This year's edition is the Honens Competition's first under the artistic direction of Jon Kimura Parker, himself a highly regarded concert pianist, educator and past competition winner. We caught up with him to find out what's new at Honens.

What's your frame of mind on the eve of your first Honens Competition as artistic director?

I’m incredibly excited!

How do you feel about the field of 10 semifinalists this year?

Our quarter-final jury identified 10 extraordinary young artists. That our 10 semifinalists hail from nine countries speaks both to Honens’ status worldwide and to an exciting global commitment to excellence in pianism.

What are some of the repertoire surprises we'll hear in the semifinal solo recitals?

We’ll be hearing 300 years’ worth of compositions, from Bach and Scarlatti (b. 1685) to Christian Mason (b. 1984). One competitor is playing three of his own etudes! It’s a perfect mix of a major representation of the great canon of piano works, to smaller unusual gems.

We love that Honens encourages the pianists to play encores. Can you give us a scoop about what we might hear?

At the moment, the encores are surprises. However, I would emphasize that some of the programs end with works that perhaps shouldn’t be followed by encores. It’s simply an opportunity to add a little something if it feels right.

Jonathan Crow has got a lot of playing to do. Has he been getting lots of rest?

Jonathan Crow is one of Canada’s biggest over-achievers, musically. And not only has he had a busy Toronto Summer Music Festival season already, it happens that we just performed together on the final concert of the La Jolla Summerfest last Friday, Aug. 24, so I can vouch personally for him not taking any time off!

How does the mentor-in-residence thing work?

All 10 of our semifinalists will receive guidance from our non-voting mentor in residence. I’m personally thrilled that Garrick Ohlsson has agreed to take on this role, which greatly expands the scope of Honens and enriches the experience of all 10 semifinalists. Mr. Ohlsson, who shot to fame as the gold medalist of the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, understands Honens’ role perfectly. We are also honoured that he will perform a recital of Brahms and Chopin during the competition.

At the last Honens Piano Competition, each finalist played two concertos (Mozart and a Romantic one.) What's the format for the finals this time around?

This year the finalists will first perform with the Azahar Ensemble. This gives the jury an opportunity to assess our finalists’ collaborative skills with a larger group, and the emphasis on a wind quintet is not dissimilar to one’s priorities in a Mozart piano concerto, while allowing for a wide range of compositional choices. The finals will comprise piano concertos and from the repertoire choices I can guarantee an incredibly exciting night.

The average age of your seven jury members is 48, which is remarkably young compared to most international music competitions. How will that inform their decisions?

It’s common for international competitions to have a jury of primarily distinguished elders. Honens’ view for many years has been to combine that kind of irreplaceable experience with younger pianists, with conductors, with managers, and other professionals in the arts world, who tend to have more influence on the fate of a young musician’s career.

Speaking of youth, what can we expect from conductor Karina Canellakis?

Karina Canellakis is a rising superstar in the conducting world. Her fall schedule includes Honens, the Hollywood Bowl, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and a tour of Australia. She is also a brilliant violinist with several years’ experience in the Berlin Philharmonic. I cannot imagine a conductor who will more fully embrace and support the challenges of our three finalists when they begin their concerto rehearsals.

For readers who may not know about it, how would you describe the late-night Bison Noir experience?

While I’m passionate about patrons being comfortable attending Honens no matter how they are dressed (my motto is “just come and listen!”), Bison Noir is actually designed to be a more casual experience. It’s also a showcase for Canadian composers and generously supported by New Works Calgary. This year features one of my favorite combinations, piano and percussion, and I plan to coerce a few jury members into joining me for late-night duets of Romantic repertoire as well.

Are there other innovations at this year's Honens Competition we should know about?

We’re always looking for ways to increase audience engagement, and this year I’m delighted that we will have an Audience Award of $5,000 given to any one of the 10 semifinalists who receives the most votes. I like reminding our passionate fans that if you can’t attend every performance live, you can also tune in online, allowing for a highly informed opinion!

As a past competition winner yourself, what advice do you give the 10 Honens semifinalists?

Back in the '80s, when I competed in the E-Gré Competition, the CBC Young Performers' Competition, and the Viña del Mar and Leeds International Piano Competitions, I had one mantra: perform for an audience, not for a jury.

The 2018 Honens Piano Competition takes place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7 at Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary. For the complete schedule and tickets, head over here.

Hear highlights from the 2018 Honens Piano Competition on CBC Music's In Concert with Paolo Pietropaolo on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 11 a.m. (11:30 NT).


Watch pianist Jon Kimura Parker play the theme song from The Simpsons

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