Chi Chi Nwanoku - inspired by the word 'No'.

For more than a hundred years, pianists have been doing battle in the seaside town of Hastings on the south coast of England. Originally, the competition featured local players in the context of a general music festival but eventually the keyboard section became dominant and prestigious enough to attract would-be conquerors from all over the world.  Latterly, it focused on the concerto repertoire and from 2019, the competition became biennial, alternating with a piano festival which was staged for the first time in March 2020 just before lockdown. Then to pre-empt the next Concerto Competition in June 2021, the organisers added a virtual event, the Hastings Digital Festival, which took place on Friday 13 November 2020 with great success. 

It was digital in both senses, technological and physiological: the digits of students, past winners and a celebrity performer were on display. The President of the Hastings jury and head of keyboard at the Royal College of Music Vanessa Latarche gave a masterclass from the Steinway showroom in London with two of her younger students. Socially distanced at either end of a Model D concert grand – ‘the big one: you can do anything you want,’ she told the teenager Amiri Harewood as he explored what Rachmaninov might have meant by tenuto in his G minor Etude-tableau – she gave clues to what her panel might be looking for at next year’s competition. ‘You have to be very brave when you play this music,’ she told the twelve-year-old Jacky Zhan as he launched into the ‘wild horses’ of Liszt’s Mazeppa Etude. 

The 2019 runner-up Maxim Kisanov gave a recital including three more of the Rachmaninov Etudes-tableaux, Franck’s organ Prelude Fugue and Variations Op18 arranged for piano by Bauer, and Slonimsky’s Intermezzo in memory of Brahms. Even through the medium of the computer screen, one caught the tension of the live performance and knew how much one missed it. A new sensation is the lack of audible applause or reaction to a zoomed account and one felt sure there were watchers at home clapping their individual computers at each final cadence. Kisanov remained at the keyboard in the eerie silence and took no bow. That may change as we become more used to the medium

A second performance was given by the pianist Martin James Bartlett, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2014. His mixed programme embraced the popular in Bach’s Jesu Joy and a selection of Gershwin standards, and the complex in Earl Wild’s arrangements of Rachmaninov. Earlier the ever-engaging Bartlett had taken part in a panel discussion, ably marshalled by Gill Graham, Director of Global Music Publisher Wise Music, who steered a bubbly conversation towards current issues. Bartlett, who is a great ambassador for his art, said he took ‘solace in intiatives’ from musicians during the pandemic. The necessity of earning a living had been the mother of invention and inspired many to use technology in imaginative ways. Yet the bottom line had not gone away and he felt audiences needed to be reminded of the basic argument. ‘I practise; please pay,’ he quipped, smiling. 

Ian Roberts, Managing Director of the Hastings International Piano which incorporates the Concerto Competition, the Piano Festival and the Digital Festival, exemplified as initiatives the Friday evening ‘treats’ in the form of live-streamed performances. ‘Keep trying – never give up!’ he urged all young pianists. Vanessa Latarche extolled the use of new equipment and said that although the sound on zoom was not ideal, the use of it as a communicative tool had opened up new horizons. 

Chi-Chi Nwanoku, the bass player and founder of the orchestra Chineke, told how she had always been inspired by the word ‘No’ as it had forced her to do the opposite! She later gave the keynote speech in which she emphasised repeatedly the need for and value of diversity. Chineke, she said, boasted forty ethnicities. There were barely more than that in the orchestra! 

It would have been good to hear Chineke play but that pleasure will have to wait. A similar criticism might also be levelled at the Digital Festival’s finale – the celebrity interview and performance from Rufus Wainwright who spoke too much and played too little. One other slight criticism of the whole was the use of piped music to fill the waiting time between the hourly events which detracted a little from the message of the value of music. It cheapens music to be  used as a filler. Nevertheless, this was an absorbing and entertaining mini festival, enjoyed at home by many who are experiencing the evolution of digital or virtual or online media as it happens. My appetite is very much whetted for the Hastings Piano Concerto Competition next June. Sweet vaccination till then!

Rick Jones 

Hon Gen Sec

The Critics’ Circle