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It was approaching midnight on a Friday when the winner of the Honens International Piano Competition was finally announced. It was the last evening of the prestigious 10-day event, which had seen 10 semi-finalists from around the world compete, along with other events, including appearances by past competition winners. On the final night, it was down to three finalists.

“This has been the musical and artistic ride of a lifetime,” Honens’s artistic director Jon Kimura Parker had said hours earlier at the start of the night, kicking off what would be a long September evening. After three performances and well into the third intermission, Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall was still buzzing, with keyed-up classical-music diehards awaiting the jury’s decision on the winner.

There was no hint of the behind-the-scenes acrimony that had preceded the finale of the Honens competition, which attracts top emerging pianists every three years, all vying for the $100,000 prize and a wealth of international exposure. The issue leading up to the 2018 competition was not a dispute among the young competitors, or dissatisfaction with the judging. The clashes, rather, involved sponsors and organizers – over which pianos could be used by the musicians.

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Nicolas Namoradze performs on the piano at the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition.Monique de St. Croix

“Our philosophy is that the artist must be free to play on the instrument they like,” says Paolo Fazioli, the founder of Italy’s Fazioli pianos. He and others associated with his high-end brand say that this year, Fazioli was not given the same access to participants as the competition’s other piano sponsor – and Fazioli’s chief competitor – New York-based Steinway.

Michael Lipnicki, a sought-after piano tuner who has been involved with the Honens organization for decades, and now owns Calgary’s Fazioli dealership with his wife Nicole, says Honens’s behaviour in this regard was disappointing and damaging to the competition’s integrity. “If you lose your musical integrity, that’s a problem.”

The Honens board of directors has now received a letter of complaint from someone on the Fazioli side about the way Fazioli was treated, and has been asked to review what happened.

The letter, according to Honens executive director Neil Edwards, expressed “extreme displeasure with me and with Honens.” While he can’t say for certain, he expects the concerns outlined in the letter will be discussed at Honens’s upcoming board meeting in December.

In 1991, Calgary music lover Esther Honens gave $5-million to endow an international classical piano competition in her hometown. Every three years, Honens holds a competition, awarding the winner $100,000 and the equivalent of $500,000 in artist development. A festival is held annually and there are other events year-round, such as masterclasses and performances.

It is a world-class, potentially career-making competition, attracting international pianists; its impact is global, offering debuts in leading concert halls around the world for the winner – Carnegie Hall, for instance, this February.

Both Steinway and Fazioli were official sponsors of this year’s Honens competition, as they have been for the previous two competitions. Steinway, which has been making fine pianos for more than 160 years, is the clear market leader. Fazioli is the upscale upstart, an Italian manufacturer that introduced its first hand-made grand piano in 1981. Prices for a Fazioli grand start at $140,000.

Choosing one brand over the other can prove prickly and political – as was the case at this year’s Honens event, where the Fazioli camp is claiming an unlevel playing field.

They say competitors were not offered equal access to their pianos. Each of the 10 homes where the finalists were staying was provided with a new Steinway for practising. Steinway pianos were used at non-competition festival events. There were Steinway pianos in rehearsal, warm-up and green rooms, and three Steinways on stage at the concert hall compared with two Faziolis for semi-finalists to choose from on selection day, when competitors determine which piano they would like to play in the various rounds.

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Nicolas Namoradze performs Brahms Piano Concert No. 2 with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and guest conductor Karina Canellakis.Monique de St. Croix

“When we showed up at the concert hall, they had positioned the Steinways front and centre and the Faziolis in both corners. It was so obvious; you almost couldn’t see the Faziolis from the auditorium,” Vancouver Fazioli dealer Manuel Bernaschek says.

Further, two previous international piano competition winners, Luca Buratto and Szymon Nehring, who performed with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra during the festival – including a Mozart concerto for two pianos – were told they would have to play on the Steinways; that Fazioli pianos were not an option for them, even though both are Fazioli fans (although neither has committed to Fazioli exclusively).

“The Honens team knew I won on Fazioli. So I didn’t understand why they didn’t even want [me] to have the choice,” says Buratto, who won the Honens competition in 2015. “And also Szymon won his [2017 Arthur Rubinstein Competition] prize on Fazioli,” Buratto continued from his home in Milan, Italy.

Buratto was given explanations relating to the contract, which he was unaware of. And in the end, both musicians were happy with the concert.

“It was really a lot of fun,” said Nehring, speaking from the Yale School of Music in Connecticut, where he is studying. “I think we managed to do something interesting, I hope.”

But while there had already been tension over the Fazioli-Steinway issue, it was over this question – whether Buratto and Nehring could choose a Fazioli – that the tone of the discussion became particularly heated.

“Once again I am forced to write to you regarding the Honens International Piano Competition and your ongoing interference,” wrote Edwards in an e-mail to Luca Fazioli, the company’s brand and project manager (and son of founder Paolo Fazioli).

“Please be advised that there will be no Fazioli pianos used for the concert involving Luca Buratto and Szymon Nehring. Please also be advised that any further interference from your company or local dealer will result in the removal of all Fazioli pianos from the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition,” Edwards wrote in the August e-mail, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

“I was really taken aback,” says Bernaschek, the Vancouver Fazioli dealer, about the tenor of the letter. Bernaschek’s Showcase Pianos supplied a Fazioli to Honens, delivered to Calgary from Vancouver. “All it takes is just a friendly message; not a huge tongue-lashing or a beat-down like that. … To tell them that they’re going to be banned because this artist did that? That is just craziness.”

But Edwards explains that he was uncomfortable with how the Fazioli camp was behaving and the potential impact he feared that might have on the competitors.

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Nicolas Namoradze performs on the piano at the 2018 Honens International Piano Competition, just hours before being named 2018 Honens Prize Laureate.Monique de St. Croix

Edwards had been hearing from semi-finalists that they had been contacted independently and offered Fazioli pianos for rehearsal, when arrangements had already been made with Steinway. Edwards says the competitors were put in an uncomfortable position, unsure if this was officially endorsed by Honens.

“In all matters, I act according to the information that I have and the situation that is at hand, to always look out for the best interests of Honens and in the case of the competition, of course, the semi-finalists and their ease and comfort,” Edwards says. “It’s a very stressful time for them.”

But Bernaschek says there is nothing wrong with informing competitors of Fazioli’s presence at the competition and that Fazioli doesn’t manipulate people to choose their pianos. “We did nothing sneaky or underhanded. We just let them know that this was available to them.”

On the last night of the competition, the three finalists each performed with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Karina Canellakis.

Han Chen, 26, of Taiwan chose to play Prokofiev on a Fazioli, as did American Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, who, at 21, was the youngest semi-finalist. With his swaggering, thrilling talent, Sanchez-Werner dazzled the crowd, easily winning the new Audience Award. But the night belonged to Nicolas Namoradze, 26, of Georgia, who ultimately won the competition after playing Brahms on a Steinway.

Luca Fazioli, who was there, was appalled earlier in the evening to hear Honens thank Steinway from the stage, but not Fazioli. “You’re doing it for the music, for art. But of course it costs money, so at least it deserves a mention in the final speech,” Luca Fazioli said later by telephone from Sacile, Italy, where Fazioli has its factory.

Bernaschek, who was also there, says the lack of a mention didn’t bother him, but what did was what he perceived as a bias against Fazioli and preferential treatment given to Steinway, “who already dominate in so many ways. Do they really have to try and squash any little performance along the way?” Bernaschek says. “Fazioli has definitely given them something to worry about.”

(Steinway did not respond to a request for an interview for this story by deadline.)

This will not be an issue next time around. Honens has agreed to an exclusive contract with Steinway beginning in 2019, information that was shared with the Fazioli people in the spring. Edwards explains that it is not uncommon for a festival to be exclusive to one brand, and that this was purely a business decision. “It was just a very good deal for Honens and more specifically for our prize laureate,” he says.

Bernaschek sees it differently. “I feel it’s a huge step back for [Honens]. It takes away the greater selection, the greater choice, for the musician, for the artist.”

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