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While perusing my shelves of old CDs recently (which I do once in a blue moon wink ), I came across an 'old' CD of Angela Hewitt playing Bach, on the prestigious DG label. She made it soon after winning the Bach Competition, though I don't know whether that CD was part of the prize package. Listening to it again (Italian Concerto etc), I realize that her Bach playing hasn't changed since then.

I'd almost forgotten that CD, because there was a very long interval between that and her subsequent debut on Hyperion, after which she shot to fame for her Bach....and now she has carte blanche to record almost anything she likes (including Liszt's B minor & Dante Sonatas on her latest CD). Why did it take a fairly 'small' recording company to set her off into orbit decades later, when the yellow label couldn't (though that CD was well-reviewed)? Her performing career only really took off when she made Bach CDs for Hyperion - i.e., it was the recordings that made her career, rather than live concerts. The latter came later.....

I can think of quite a few other examples, like Richard Goode (Beethoven). Conversely, other pianists became famous purely from their live concerts, like Grigory Sokolov.

If someone can crack the code of what makes (or breaks) a pianist's career, I'm sure there are many budding concert pianists who would be agog..... grin

(BTW, winning a major competition is no guarantee either: look at the difference between Krystian Zimerman's and Rafal Blechacz's careers after their competition wins).
I think Lang Lang is a case study. Never won a competition. Never even entered a competition. Never had a scandal to draw attention to him. Never did anything but play so electrifyingly (if not necessarily finely in all cases) that he is now at the top of the heap at barely 30 years of age. I think his greatest "scandal" was his manic karate demonstration on the Prokofiev Concerto No 3 which is available on YouTube for pure entertainment, not any actual knowledge about Sergei.
I certainly don't have all the answers but here are a few in no particular order:

1. Winning a major competition
2. Having a great agent.
3. Giving a positive response to every scheduling request your agent makes even if it is inconvenient, on short notice or your can't stand the orchestra/conductor.
4. Having the kind of personality that can easily mix in crowds of strangers, pleasing everyone. (Sorry, introverts).
5. Willingness to travel, put up with loneliness and live out of a suitcase.
6. Not having high expectations about having a normal family life.
7. Ability to perform in inferior halls and on inferior instruments and still pull off a good performance.
8. Having a large, evolving repertoire.
9. Generally conventional playing, low risk taking.
10. Talent and hard work.
Originally Posted by gooddog
I certainly don't have all the answers but here are a few in no particular order:

1. Winning a major competition
2. Having a great agent.
3. Giving a positive response to every scheduling request your agent makes even if it is inconvenient, on short notice or your can't stand the orchestra/conductor.
4. Having the kind of personality that can easily mix in crowds of strangers, pleasing everyone. (Sorry, introverts).
5. Willingness to travel, put up with loneliness and live out of a suitcase.
6. Not having high expectations about having a normal family life.
7. Ability to perform in inferior halls and on inferior instruments and still pull off a good performance.
8. Having a large, evolving repertoire.
9. Generally conventional playing, low risk taking.
10. Talent and hard work.


Lang Lang has all of those except No. 1
Originally Posted by J Joe Townley
I think Lang Lang is a case study. Never won a competition. Never even entered a competition. Never had a scandal to draw attention to him. Never did anything but play so electrifyingly (if not necessarily finely in all cases) that he is now at the top of the heap at barely 30 years of age. I think his greatest "scandal" was his manic karate demonstration on the Prokofiev Concerto No 3 which is available on YouTube for pure entertainment, not any actual knowledge about Sergei.

Actually, he did enter - and win - a few competitions as a kid, in China, Germany and Japan. All before he was 14. His first win was when he was five.....

And his finest virtuosic achievement (which endears him to so many people) is playing Chopin's Op.10/5 with an orange. Anyone can play Chopin, but with an orange? grin

But I think Lang Lang is a unique case - he has not just the talent, technique and musicianship, but also the charisma to draw people in (excepting some folks in PW, of course.....). Is there any other virtuoso classical pianist today who admits that it was Tom & Jerry who made him want to play piano (and not just with an orange)?
I really don t know and don t care. I ve come to find some of the best pianists i know aren t all that famous. I was checking and collecting old (or not so old) recordings of the Listz Sonata this week, and i 've found some by not well known pianists that are far superior to those by some bette rknown ones:

Starting by this gem pw's own Michael Sayers pointed out:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQME82iH9kg

and followed by many other examples of pieces played by many greats that are sometimes surpassed by lesser known artists' interpretations.

Success is a funny thing. Totally unpredictable.
Originally Posted by bennevis
Originally Posted by J Joe Townley
I think Lang Lang is a case study. Never won a competition. Never even entered a competition. Never had a scandal to draw attention to him. Never did anything but play so electrifyingly (if not necessarily finely in all cases) that he is now at the top of the heap at barely 30 years of age. I think his greatest "scandal" was his manic karate demonstration on the Prokofiev Concerto No 3 which is available on YouTube for pure entertainment, not any actual knowledge about Sergei.

Actually, he did enter - and win - a few competitions as a kid, in China, Germany and Japan. All before he was 14. His first win was when he was five.....

And his finest virtuosic achievement (which endears him to so many people) is playing Chopin's Op.10/5 with an orange. Anyone can play Chopin, but with an orange? grin

But I think Lang Lang is a unique case - he has not just the talent, technique and musicianship, but also the charisma to draw people in (excepting some folks in PW, of course.....). Is there any other virtuoso classical pianist today who admits that it was Tom & Jerry who made him want to play piano (and not just with an orange)?


Yes, Lang Lang is like the polar opposite of Gould.

Gould hated large crowds of people, and hated audiences
and touring.

Lang Lang on the other hand, seems to really love people
and huge audiences, and is great with kids and younger
people. I don't think most people like to be on airplanes
that much, but he seems to be coping well.

But apart from Lang, who is exceptional because of his
bizarre Rock-star fame as a Classical pianist (!!), being
"famous" is a really relative term.

You can be famous in a particular niche, like the
Jazz guitar world, and still be relatively unknown
to the general public.

being willing to promote oneself on the Internet tirelessly (e.g. Valentina Lisitsa)

(or perhaps I should change that to tiresomely? :D)
Winning competitions and agents. The latter especially.
Almost all of the great pianists that rose to prominence during the first half of the twentieth century - Horowitz, Lhevinne, Rachmaninov, Schnabel, Kempff, Richter, Rubinstein, Serkin, etc. - did not participate in piano competitions. (Emil Gilels is the big exception to the old rule.)

The second half of the twentieth century is a different story. Competitions became increasingly important after World War II.

Nowadays it appears that a new rule of thumb has been established: It's almost impossible nowadays to have a really big career without winning first or second prize at a major competition.

There are exceptions to this new rule of thumb, however. Stephen Kovacevich, a student of Dame Myra Hess, comes to mind immediately.

Ironically Stephen Kovacevich was at one time married to Martha Argerich. Unlike her one-time husband, Martha Argerich won lots of major piano competitions. Two great pianists, yet so different. Go figure. (By the way, Kovacevich and Argerich are two favorite pianists of mine.)

The BBC interviewed Kovacevich and Argerich jointly back when they were married. The interviewer asked Kovacevich why he had never entered any major competitions. Kovacevich replied that the competition environment, in which technically immaculate, conventional playing is encouraged at the expense of individuality, imagination or risk-taking, is not his métier. He said, "If I were in a competition with 50 other pianists, I would probably come in 51st." Argerich then mischievously interjected, "And I would come in first!", and they both laughed. wink

Ironically, even though competitions encourage technically immaculate, conventional playing at the expense of risk-taking, and Argerich won a lot of competitions, her playing is anything but conventional or safe. She might have a phenomenal technique, but she does make mistakes and she is not afraid to take risks. She is an exception to the rule herself.
Originally Posted by bennevis

And his finest virtuosic achievement (which endears him to so many people) is playing Chopin's Op.10/5 with an orange. Anyone can play Chopin, but with an orange? grin


Eh, Chico Marx did it first.



I don't know what makes pianists famous. I just wanted an excuse to post a video of Chico Marx. Carry on.
Originally Posted by TwoSnowflakes
Originally Posted by bennevis

And his finest virtuosic achievement (which endears him to so many people) is playing Chopin's Op.10/5 with an orange. Anyone can play Chopin, but with an orange? grin


Eh, Chico Marx did it first.



I don't know what makes pianists famous. I just wanted an excuse to post a video of Chico Marx. Carry on.


Lang Lang definitely was the first to play FOTB on a minipad, however. wink
Originally Posted by J Joe Townley
I think Lang Lang is a case study. Never won a competition. Never even entered a competition. Never had a scandal to draw attention to him. Never did anything but play so electrifyingly (if not necessarily finely in all cases) that he is now at the top of the heap at barely 30 years of age. I think his greatest "scandal" was his manic karate demonstration on the Prokofiev Concerto No 3 which is available on YouTube for pure entertainment, not any actual knowledge about Sergei.


I've seen that video. Think of it as Prokofiev channeled through Jackie Chan! wink
Originally Posted by Almaviva
The BBC ... interviewer asked Kovacevich why he had never entered any major competitions. Kovacevich replied that the competition environment, in which technically immaculate, conventional playing is encouraged at the expense of individuality, imagination or risk-taking, is not his métier.


My teacher, who could have had an international career, chose not to for exactly the same reason. How unfortunate the competitions are discouraging creativity and individuality. Technically immaculate, conventional playing is boring.
In the end it's the audience who determines who becomes famous. Sure, there's a pattern right now with competitions and agents, where winning a competition is the way to get an agent and the agent is the way to get in front of an audience.

But there is also a growing freedom for audiences to find their own favorite pianists, maybe on the internet or through word of mouth, especially local favorites -- who might play in a more interesting way than competition winners, or might have something else to offer. If a pianist starts to develop a good "draw" s/he will have an easier time finding bookings.
So let us all go and hear and support those pianists we most enjoy!!
Originally Posted by TwoSnowflakes
... I don't know what makes pianists famous. I just wanted an excuse to post a video of Chico Marx. Carry on.


This makes me happy.
You could drop it randomly in any discussion, perhaps daily!
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