More than 20 million people attended the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. Most of them never went near the Texas venues where the competition took place - they watched it online, where every round by every competitor was streamed to cliburn.tv.
The Cliburn's big virtual audience has changed the game for major music competitions, which are now mad keen to get their proceedings on the Web. The International Tchaikovsky Competition, currently under way in Moscow and St. Petersburg, is streaming live and archived video of most of the 121 competitors' performances in four divisions (piano, violin, cello and voice) through its site at tchaikovsky-competition.com/en.
The Tchaikovsky is the granddaddy of modern music competitions. Van Cliburn's win at the first contest in 1958 made him, and it, headline news around the world. Newspapers, especially The New York Times, made the it an international event during the Cold War. In the 21st century, however, the place to prove the size and importance of your contest is the Web.
"We're all guessing the price tag of the Tchaikovsky's elaborate and impressive videostreaming project," says Stephen McHolm, executive director of Calgary's Honens International Piano Competition, which ran a complete audio stream of its 2009 competition and hopes to add more video next year. Honens has tried to keep level with its own competitors by tripling its first-prize purse, to $100,000. First-prize winners at the Tchaikovsky get 20,000 euros (about $27,800), though the total prize outlay through four divisions is more than 300,000 euros (about $417,000).
Three Canadians made this year's preliminary selection at the Tchaikovsky: cellists David Eggert and Stéphane Tétreault and soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah. Eggert, who is from Edmonton, was eliminated after the first phase of round two (his performance is here: pitch.paraclassics.com/#/archive/concert/195). Tétreault, from Montreal, did not get past the first round and doesn't seem to have any music on the site. Noah sang her first round on June 24, though at time of writing the vocal competition was mysteriously absent from the web transmission.
The Tchaikovsky live site isn't the easiest to navigate, and once you get to the music, there are no on-screen reminders as to what you're hearing or who's playing it. When in doubt, you have to go back to the menu to discover the order of competitors and their programs, which may or not be in performance order. You'll need a very fast Web connection for high-quality video.
Each round unfolds like a recital, with fairly good, unobtrusive camera work. Between pieces, there's often a shot of the competitor mopping his or her brow backstage, and between competitors, commentators talk about what's to come in Russian and English. The whole thing feels a bit homemade, compared with the broadcast standards of North American TV. But North American TV is never going to show you unedited performances by more than 100 of the world's best young musicians.
Some of the site's extras are charming. When I clicked at random on the competitor entry for German cellist Janina Ruh, I saw a short video of the cellist speaking about her love of ballroom dancing and opera singing, followed by clips of her doing those things. Noah's video shows her talking and playing with her two daughters at the water's edge near her home in Toronto's Beaches area.
The finals in the piano, violin and cello divisions in the International Tchaikovsky Competition begin simultaneously on June 27 at 7 p.m. Moscow time. The vocal finals take place on June 29, followed by winners' gala concerts on July 1 and 2.
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