VC INTERVIEW | President of Classic Strings Competition Konstantin Ishkhanov
Following two inaugural editions of the festival, in Riga in 2018 and in Vienna in 2019, this third edition of the Classic Strings Competition will bring together young string players to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Open to applicants of all nationalities younger than 35 years old, the competition consists of three rounds with the final round performed with the orchestra.
The Violin Channel recently spoke with the President of Classic Strings Competition, Konstantin Ishkhanov.
Tell us about the Classic Strings International Violin & Cello Competitions? When were they founded and what was the initial mission of the event?
The first edition of Classic Strings was held in 2018, in Riga, the capital of Latvia. From the very beginning, it always included both violin and cello competitions, and the aim, like that of many other competitions I suppose, has always been to inspire interest in these instruments, to motivate young musicians to pick them up, to practice, to develop their skills further by showing them that there are opportunities available for recognition, for growth, and yes why not, for financial reward as well.
Young musicians represent the future of classical music and its continued existence, and in a world in which it is tougher than ever before to make your mark, we hope to contribute to this in some small way. There are other competitions available of course, but I believe that Classic Strings offers many things which aren’t easy to find in any one competition. There’s our panel of jury members for one thing, on which we work very hard to ensure that it represents the very highest quality of artists and pedagogues in each respective instrument, and then there’s also the prize funds and awards which we offer, which are among the highest in the world.
Equally as important, perhaps, to my eyes at least, is that Classic Strings, unlike some other competitions of its type, is not tied to one city or nation. In the three editions we’ve had so far we’ve been to Latvia, Austria, and now the United Arab Emirates. This global mindset helps to increase both the appeal of the competition, in the sense that it is truly international, in every sense of the word, as well as its availability to young musicians who may find it difficult to travel to a particular country for any variety of reasons.
You are offering your first prize winners some of the highest prize money among the world’s international strings competitions. How were you able to make this possible?
The short answer would be patience and perseverance! The thing is that, in this day and age, we understand that prize money matters. Traveling to competitions is not cheap, and in the busy lives of young musicians who are trying to make it as professionals, a financial incentive can go a long way to add to the motivation to practice, learn new pieces, and make the high level of effort required to compete seriously and professionally.
Apart from all this, we want our award winners to be able to transform victory at a competition into a full-time career at the highest level, because if they’ve won something then it means that they very probably have what it takes to make it, and a substantial prize can go a long way in helping to make this possible of course. With all this in mind, we worked very very hard to convince our international sponsors, whose generosity I would like to thank and applaud from the bottom of my heart, to support us in giving the very best prizes we possibly could. In that sense, we are very lucky to have partners who share our desire to provide the best opportunities possible for young musicians and are ready to help us make that a reality in any way they can.
What are the qualities your jury is looking for in potential winners this year?
This is probably something that the jury members themselves will be able to answer better than I because at the end of the day, we leave those decisions completely in their hands. They are the experts and the professionals, with dozens of years of experience between them, and I would not even dream of interfering or directing them in any way because otherwise there would not be much point in having jury members at all!
However, to answer your question from my own experience and understanding, it is usually a combination of a number of things, including talent, a very high level of technical excellence, which is practically taken for granted at this level of competition nowadays, a strong understanding of the pieces that are being performed, and a unique voice which showcases and reflects the musician’s personality. There are probably many other qualities and nuances that they look out for which may not occur to you and me, but the final winner of each competition will, I am sure, have all these characteristics.
Your past two editions took place in Riga and Vienna and this year you are holding the event in Dubai. How did you decide on Dubai for this year?
The decision to bring Classic Strings to Dubai was part of a wider initiative that we are undertaking along with our international partners to push classical music beyond the limits of its traditional boundaries in a sense, which usually limits it to Europe and North America for the most part. We believe that music is a shared global heritage that doesn’t belong to any one part of the world, and in fact, recent projects in the Middle East have shown that this region too has a high degree of appreciation and hunger for classical music.
Apart from that, as I mentioned earlier, moving the competition to Dubai opens it up to a whole new cohort of candidates who are excellent musicians in their own right, and just as deserving of the chances and opportunities to show their skills and be rewarded for it, but who find it difficult or challenging to travel to Europe for instance, so now we are bringing the competition to them because the only thing we care about is finding the best talents in the world, irrespective of nationality or geographical location.
Uniquely, unlike most competitions, you’ve made the decision not to release the names of the candidates partaking in your opening rounds? What were your thoughts behind this decision?
The thought process behind this decision is a dual one. Firstly, the current situation around the world is still highly volatile as a result of the pandemic. We simply were not certain if all the candidates would be able to make it to the competition or not (right up to the opening day in fact) because we had some competitors, especially from China, who were having travel problems.
Secondly, it is a fact that like it or hate it, there is a certain degree of stigma associated with exiting a competition in the first round, and we do not feel that this is necessarily fair. Everyone can have a bad day after all, and in the case of participants who are competing in their first competition, exiting in the first round is not even necessarily a failure in any way. They would still have gained many valuable lessons and do not deserve to have their name tarnished, for want of a better word, with that. So in order to avoid that, and to encourage more young musicians to apply for competitions, since we believe that competitions are absolutely instrumental in helping musicians develop their skill set, we have adopted this policy, across all our competitions, not just Classic Strings. Although unorthodox, we feel it brings more benefits than detriments.
What initiatives do you have in place to ensure transparency and fairness during the voting process?
First and foremost, the selection of the members of the jury was given a lot of weight, to ensure personalities of the highest integrity and whose prime interest is the artistry and talent of the young musicians participating in the competitions.
Secondly, we apply a voting system that ensures minimizing any risk of unfair markings while avoiding the possibilities for preferential treatments. Therefore, the highest and lowest points awarded by individual jury members to each candidate will not be counted in the sum of points awarded. This enables jury members to be as realistic as possible in their voting, since excessive high or low points would result in their contribution being left out.
Thirdly, but not least, we have a very tight and strict daily schedule for all jury members, to ensure that they do not get in any possible contact with participants or the general public. All meals, transportation, and other activities are organized in such a way that the jury is always secluded and in private, duly supervised by the large team running the competition.
Every candidate in the opening round is required to perform a work by a Maltese Composer. Can you tell us more about this?
There were two primary reasons behind this decision. Firstly, from a purely competitive aspect, we wanted to push the competitors out of their comfort zone, so as to more thoroughly test all aspects of their abilities. Maltese compositions, due to the small size and profile of their country of origin, are not that centrally located within the classical music repertoire, despite being of a very high musical quality. By including them in the compulsory repertoire, we obliged the participants to study something which is almost certainly new to them and perform it for the first time.
The second reason is inspired by a point I have already hinted at, which is that Maltese compositions tend to be underrepresented on the international stage, especially when compared to the quality and variety of the work that is produced. Although the main point of a competition is not to explore new works, we jumped at this opportunity to hit two birds with one stone and help to promote some excellent artists and pieces who are truly deserving of it. In this way, Classic Strings can act as an avenue through which young musicians can discover new music and broaden their own knowledge and repertoire.
Besides the prize money, what else do you feel this competition will be able to successfully provide to your laureate’s career success?
Although the prizes for the award winners are substantial, I truly believe they are not the most valuable things that one can get from this competition. Performing in a competition setting allows a musician to discover more about themselves and their musical abilities than ever before, and regardless of whether they win or not, all our participants will have the unique chance to perform in front of some of the biggest names in our industry and receive feedback from these celebrated pedagogues.
Winning such a competition should also give the laureate the confidence and belief to continue working hard and developing their skills, and of course, our eventual winners of both competitions will not merely be getting money, but will also be sent on a 10-concert tour, which to someone in this stage of their career, probably means more than any sum of money. Apart from invaluable concert experience, this tour will allow them to announce their presence to the music world on the international stage and give them a unique chance to begin establishing themselves as recognized artists and soloists.