Mention the concept of “contests” or “competitions” around composers and the reactions can range from muted enthusiasm to indifference to disgust. The costs of entering and enduring such events can be both emotionally and financially high. Balancing the risk of those costs with the potential gains of winning a contest (or tangential benefits that can occur separate from winning) is an exercise that most composers agonize over often, especially when those gains are impossible to resist. Yesterday a competition was announced that not only takes this delicate cost/gain balance into account for the composers potentially taking part, but demonstrates a well thought-out holistic concept that could be considered as a model for others to follow.
Hilary Hahn is that rare superstar performer who is very attuned to the current generation of composers born after 1960; while her championing of composers such as Jennifer Higdon has been widely covered, her YouTube videos interviewing composers caught the attention of many in the contemporary concert music community as being both genuine and beneficial as well. Hahn is now taking that interest in contemporary works several steps further with her In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores project. Twenty-six composers have already been commissioned to write short encores that Hahn will premiere over the next two years leading up to a CD release of all the encores. The names of the 26 commissioned composers span an immense swath of backgrounds and styles. The entire project so far sounds impressive and important and…and…and so far away from the rest of us mere mortals, which isn’t surprising, since artists of Hahn’s caliber find few opportunities to work outside of the top echelon of the music world for many reasons.
Except for that 27th piece.
In order to find that final work, which she will premiere and record for her project, Hahn has created a contest which, for many reasons, just feels right. The initial details are promising—no age restrictions, simple and direct limitations on instrumentation, duration, and origin of the work (must be written specifically for this project). I’ve judged enough contests myself to have seen many entrants attempt to finesse the rules to shoehorn works that are blatantly beyond the scope of the contest, and after going over the rules of this event I find very little wiggle room. The philosophies the contest has been structured around are clearly stated; as Hahn herself says:
I may have missed terrific composers in the course of my research; there are also many student or amateur composers whose work doesn’t get heard as often as it might deserve. I hope that by encouraging composer initiative in this final encore, I will be pleasantly surprised by some more fantastic encores that I could never have imagined, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of pieces show up.
All of this so far could be considered very positive, but there are several other details that demand attention. First, a “Composer Guide” is included with smart suggestions on length and style as well as a clear, behind-the-scenes description of exactly what will be done with the scores before Hilary looks at them. Second, a message announcing that for every entry submitted, $2 will be donated to the music programs of Dramatic Need—a UK-based organization that sends visual and performing artists to work with underprivileged communities in Rwanda and South Africa. More information is forthcoming on November 15th, which will hopefully let us know whether or not that donation is coming out of an as-yet-unmentioned entry fee or just from the goodwill of the organizers of the contest.
Finally, and most important, up to ten Honorable Mentions will be chosen, publicized, and possibly performed and recorded by Hilary. I really wish more competitions would do this—it doesn’t diminish the winner in any way, but it gives a much larger cross-section of the applicants a chance to be recognized for good work. By limiting the submissions to a ubiquitous chamber instrumentation—violin and piano—Hahn will not only increase the existing encore repertoire for her instrument but give a sizable number of composers who could benefit from the publicity a very public and tangible gift.
Composer contests can be both scary and helpful—my own career choice was made after winning a national competition early on—and if they’re done right, they can serve as a benefit for composers, performers, and the general public. My gut reaction to this particular competition was so visceral this morning that I was driven to write about it, and hopefully it will achieve the lofty goals Ms. Hahn has set forth.