I am very excited about the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis because I will have the opportunity to go to Indianapolis to hear the final round of the competition and write about it for Strings and the American Record Guide. The competition begins on September 3, and all the rounds will be broadcast in real time over the web through the competition website.
Though I don't like "competition" as a rule when it comes to music, some of my most interesting experiences, musical and otherwise, happened at an international flute competition in Budapest, Hungary. I went to Budapest to play in the competition in September of 1980, between a summer orchestral job in Graz, Austria, and a job that I was going to begin at the end of September in Schladming, Austria.
Hungary was still a communist country in 1980, and its currency was "soft," meaning you could convert currency from Western Europe into forins, but you couldn't convert forins back into Western European currency. I didn't know anything about this at the time, so I converted nearly all my cash (it wasn't much) into forins, and had a blast in Budapest buying music (it was really cheap) and eating in restaurants. When it was time to leave Budapest I had what amounted to $35.00 tucked in a hiding place in my wallet, and that was the only way I could take the train from the Hungarian border to my destination in Austria.
All the flutists who played in the competition stayed in the same dormitory. There were people from all over the world, and I found that the people from Eastern Europe were particularly friendly. German was the common language then, but there were a bunch of people who were excited to speak in English. I remember one flutist from Budapest invited me to her house, which was palatial. Her father was some kind of party official, and she lived a rather charmed life. I also visited with a violinist friend named Maria Vermus who taught at the music academy in Budapest and was not connected with the party. She was a great violinist, one of finest I have ever heard, but even with a teaching position at a fine school she lived in near poverty.
The first round of the competition consisted of one of the Bach Sonatas for flute and continuo (the C major, E minor, or E major--I chose the E major). I remember reading through the piece with the harpsichordist who played for everyone in the competition, and then meeting another harpsichordist, a student at the Academy named Geza, who was very eager to talk (in English) about my rather funky (now it would be considered historically-informed performance practice) way of playing Bach. He also wanted to talk about Western philosophy and play some sonatas together. Geza brought up all kinds of things that I had never thought about like the different national styles in Bach's writing for flute.
When I heard the Italian flutist Massimo Merceli play the C major Bach Sonata, I understood exactly what the Italian style, as explained to me by Geza, was all about. Massimo played beautifully, but he didn't make it past the preliminary round. When it was time for me to play I completely re-thought my E major Sonata, and I played it in the Italian style. I had a wonderful time pIaying, and was really happy to have gotten new musical insights from Geza, the Hungarian harpsichordist, and from hearing one of my fellow competitors play in a way that was truly beautiful. I didn't make it into the semi-final round either. Maybe the judges, who I believe were mostly French, didn't particularly like the Italian style of playing Bach. Who knows.
I had a great time in Budapest after the prelimary round was over. I can't remember who won the competition, but I do know that Massimo, who played in a way that really meant something, has a career as a soloist now.