THIS year is the 25th anniversary of the Dublin International Piano Competition, which has promoted Ireland from the outer reaches of the classical world as a renowned producer and host of talent. Today, 12 semi-finalists will be announced from 60 competitors, all under the age of 30.
Artistic director John O’Conor co-founded the festival to stake Ireland’s claim in a burgeoning global music scene. In 1973, O’Conor had been awarded first prize at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna, launching his career.
“I started playing a lot in the States,” O’Conor says. “During one visit I was at a conference. I said to someone I was Irish and he replied ‘Oh, you’re a tenor’. When I told him I was a pianist, he answered, ‘Who’s ever heard of an Irish pianist?’ People had heard of John McCormack and James Galway and that was about it.”
With fellow co-founder Anne Fuller, he changed that, launching the competition in 1987. Now ‘The Dublin’ is one of the five leading competitions in the world. The €15,000 first prize is accompanied by something more significant for the young professionals: 50 concerts around the world, including New York and London debuts.
For New Zealander Jason Bae, who travelled for two days to compete, it is a chance in a lifetime. “I feel very lucky to be chosen as a competitor in the first place. As a Kiwi, it’s amazing to get the chance to perform in this prestigious competition.”
A student, Bae was relaxed during the first round of the competition last week. “It’s just the way I am, I think it’s the Kiwi in me,” he says. He was also feeling calm backstage before his second performance on Wednesday.
“But that was before I walked onstage, a 20-year-old who had never competed in a top piano competition,” he says. “I knew that the other musicians had done lots and had amazing CVs. It was inevitable to think that and I suddenly just felt so humbled and I got nervous.
“Knowing that the all the competitors who didn’t make it to the second round were in the audience was hard, too. I just didn’t want to disappoint them,” Bae says. “I think it showed a little. It felt like I was running a marathon but I got through it.”
Nadene Fiorentini, 23, from Donegal, won the 2012 competition’s Brennan Prize, and the McCullough bursary, which supports her in further studies and funds the recording of a CD. The prize is awarded to the best-placed Irish participant.
“I’m just so proud to represent my country and I’m happy for my teachers,” Fiorentini says. “Being able to perform in front of these prestigious judges. When my name was announced that I’d be going through to the second round, I was over the moon. When I played, I just tried my best to enjoy it.”
For O’Conor, the competition means so much. Asked how the competition has changed over the years, he says, “I think, if anything, the level of playing has gone up. All the major teachers in the world consider putting their star students into it. They know it can make a career.”
From 160 entrants, the list is whittled down to 60 competitors. Entries are in the form of DVDs, CDs and letters of recommendation. “I know most of the recommenders,” O’Conor says, “I can call them up and get an honest answer.”
Doesn’t that make it difficult for a breakthrough performer who might have the makings of a star without the right backing and pedigree? “I’m very careful that if someone sends an amazing DVD, I find out more. I’m always looking out for the underdog, because when I won in Vienna no one expected it from an Irish musician,” he says.
After 16 years as director of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a post from which he retired in 2010, O’Conor is still professor of piano at the conservatory.
“The competition means I can pick up the phone to any academy in the world and get an audition for a student. Of course, they won’t necessarily get in, but they’ll always get a hearing. Our students have done incredibly well internationally,” he says.
AXA gave notice in 2008 that they would discontinue their longstanding sponsorship of the triennial competition in 2012.
Recognising the importance of the festival and impressed by its extensive volunteer support, Carmel Naughton, a recipient of the Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy, made this year’s competition possible. The hunt is on for support for 2015 and with half the funding in place, it may be an opportunity for a headline sponsor to be involved in one of Ireland’s most important arts events.
* The finals will be streamed live at www.dipc.ie