[Viewpoint]True artists can touch the soulLast September, I was honored to to be a juror for the 21st Clara Haskil International Piano Competition held in Vevey, Switzerland.
Over 80 musicians performed, all displaying outstanding talent. But the musical prodigies who had already proven themselves in the preliminary rounds had differing fates.
The prestigious Concours Clara Haskil competition is known for its strict screening. But the biannual competition produces only a single winner, setting participating musicians’ nerves on edge.
With the hurdle set so high, the winner walks off with all the honors while the others sit disappointed that their two years of hard work went unrewarded.
But winning hard-fought competitions early in a musical career does not guarantee later success.
Nor does losing guarantee failure. We have seen in the lives of countless artists that frustration and disappointment often open the door to great careers.
Romanian-born Clara Haskil is revered as the greatest pianist in the 20th century, and her life tells us how early trials can shape a true artist.
Soviet pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva once went to a concert to watch maestro Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg. There she heard Haskil performing Mozart.
She was stunned.
“Her body was distorted and her gray hair was disheveled,” Nikolayeve said of her first impression. “She looked like a witch to me.”
“However, once the concert started, Karajan’s presence was no match to hers.”
Haskil was a great artist. Her performances were praised as celestial and she was known for her unparalleled interpretation of Mozart.
However, at age 18, she suffered sclerosis, a condition affecting the muscles. She eventually became a hunchback.
During World War II, she lived in hiding because she was a Jew. She even suffered a stroke brought on by extreme anxiety and high blood pressure. But despite the hardships, she never gave up the piano and would modestly play before small audiences.
When greeted with applause, the ever shy Haskil would say she should have been better. If she had ever been arrogant for a moment, she would never have reached such heights that she did as an artist.
The efforts of young artists who shed tears during the course of their early careers often bear fruits as they age. Many become concert artists.
As a teacher, I am overwhelmed when I see my students standing on stage with a great responsibility to perform. Often there is more tension than in a competition.
However, when young artists pass the test and begin professional careers, it is regretful that society often does not celebrate their art as much as it exploits it for commercial purposes. Sometimes promoters select something that sounds good, without attention to true art.
Teachers train the students to produce that true art on stage, while the world asks them to sell tickets.
The Piano is a tool through which the life of the pianist is expressed. It is nothing standing alone.
Clara Haskil’s poignant performances unveil her soul. They are not merely a matter of piano playing technique. Such music can truly move an audience.
I hope that the aspiring pianists coming to me for lessons, and those who have graduated from my classes, go the way of an artist, not a pianist pursuing a flashy appearance on stage.
The fruits of true art are not just the music that pleases the ears of the audience but also the music that enriches their souls and can change their lives.
In a few days, I will leave for Moscow to sit as a juror for the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition.
My heart already races just thinking of the pianists from all over the world who are spending their days and nights at the piano, fighting to win with a passion for music. Among them might be the next Rachmaninoff or Clara Haskil.
Yet, no matter how talented you are, you cannot create art if you use your talent as a means.
And if concert planners exploit the glory of prodigies without true regard to artistic expression and a sense of mission, picking unripe fruits that sound good but lacks depth, true art cannot survive.
The young artists sitting in front of the piano with pure passion should be cherished as the seeds that will later bear larger fruit.
*The writer is a professor at the Korean National University of Arts. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Dae-jin