When you hear the title, The Competition, many folks think of the 1980 potboiler movie with Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving, as dueling finalists. But, come to think of it, that movie – and just about every modern music matchup - IS based on what for millions is THE Competition…the Fryderyk Chopin International Competition, the world’s oldest piano contest, first won by a Russian kid named Lev Oborin in 1927.
The Chopin competition takes place in Warsaw every five years, though wars and Cold War politics have put hiccups in that schedule. And it is as scrutinized as the Olympics for political subtexts. After that first win, Russian artists usually go home empty-handed. There have been more Polish winners than from any other nation. And after Garrick Ohlsson took the top prize in 1970, no American has won again, even to the point that when Californian Kevin Kenner emerged as leader in the 1990 contest, he was pointedly given SECOND place; no First Prize was awarded. And sometimes the Chopin Competition has been distinguished by who DIDN’T win – Ivo Pogorelich’s elimination in 1980 caused a scandal. And It was none other than Mitsuko Uchida who lost out to Garrick Ohlsson in 1970.
But a competition uniquely built around the works of the poet of the piano has ultimately produced a Who’s Who of pianists among the winners: Bella Davidovich. Maurizio Pollini. Martha Argerich. Garrick Ohlsson. Yundi Li. Perhaps more importantly, it’s proved to be a tourist bonanza, psychological boost, and political balm for the host country; Solidarity, even, to Nobel laureate and former Polish president Lech Walesa:
“The Chopin Year should calm our petty disputes, especially during the International Chopin Competition. It should activate us to remind ourselves of our tragic history and to respect the freedom we were fighting for, the freedom that the homesick and seriously ill Chopin had dreamed of in his beautiful works.”