in Columns

Lifelong competition

by Olli Virtaperko

"It must be very important to achieve competition success, but how important, and for what reasons?" In this column, composer Olli Virtaperko discusses the role and importance of competitions in musical life.

It is late August in 2022. I have travelled to Turku for the week of the XIV Turku Cello Competition. I have taken my seat in the Sigyn Hall at the Turku Conservatory as the semi-final round is about to begin. The twelve players who made it through from the first round to the semi-finals have each been allocated a performance slot of three quarters of an hour, playing their choice of program as well as a set piece: my solo cello composition Sitka, commissioned specifically for the competition. It is hard to say which one of us is more nervous, the 23-year-old Artturi Aalto who opens the semi-finals, or myself. I am anxious to find out whether the interpretational and technical aspects in the piece are well balanced, and whether the work is suited for a competition performance. Is the level of difficulty optimal, does the piece have the capacity to create musical distinctions between the various contestants, are the specific cello techniques smattered across the work clearly presented in the score, and are they universally playable regardless of the cello used? Hearing the first competition performance of the work is a relief. Artturi breezes through the piece, all the technical elements seem to work well. With each consecutive performance my concerns are further alleviated. The work does seem to distinguish players from each other musically. My own professional goals for the competition are already fulfilled during the first hours of the semi-finals. The competitors, however, still have days of agony ahead, with a dozen players remaining in the game. All of them have the same goal, but only one can win. 

Listening through a music marathon such as the Turku Cello Competition leaves one with plenty of time to think. I considered the fourteen young cellists who did not make it through the first round. They had been preparing for the competition potentially for years, yet never got the opportunity to perform more than a small fraction of their nearly two-hour-long competition program – not the set solo piece nor their chamber music segment, not to mention the concerto in the finals. The investment of their time seems massive compared to the gains received. I started thinking about the participants’ motivations and goals. Whether they choose to enter for money or for fame, or simply to determine who is best, to define their ranking among their peers. It must be very important to achieve competition success, but how important, and for what reasons? 

* * *

From the viewpoints of biology, ecology and evolution, natural selection is the inner drive to go after those finite resources that are essential for life: food, water, living space, light. The same commodities are pursued by many, but only one can have them – that is the definition of competition in a nutshell. The management of our essential resources is a prerequisite for the survival and thriving of individuals and whole species. Resources are sought after, they are fought over amongst others who seek the same thing, and in order to emerge as the winner, one must have both the will to compete and the ability to find ways of winning. All living beings must thus have an innate ability and willingness to expose themselves to situations involving competition. Humans are no different in this regard. On an individual level, we compete against our peers over everything imaginable, from the cradle to the grave: first over our parents’ attention, then over school grades and later over education, jobs, spouses and so on. We also form many kinds of commercial, social, political, or ideological alliances, which compete against other alliances whilst waging bloody internal battles amongst themselves. Competition takes place on many distinct levels simultaneously, with the ultimate goal being to snatch something that everyone wants but not everyone can have. 

When mutual competition in one form or another dominates our social or professional lives, you might think that we would not want anything to do with competition during our free time. As if! We spend our free time watching others compete. Our entertainment is centred around an arena of mutual rivalry which dominates our media, namely professional sport. However, sport alone is not enough for us, we have a strong appetite for other forms of competition as well: reality TV, talent shows, cooking contests, dance competitions for celebrities, trivia competitions for ordinary people. We want to know who owns the most beautiful house, who decorates their home the most tastefully, who catches the biggest fish, whose garden produces the most luscious tomato. We participate in team sport, play poker, chess, board games. We also compete against ourselves: we bury ourselves in computer games, we keep a tally of our running or skiing miles, we play solitaire, solve crossword puzzles, and sometimes at the summer cottage, with no other options available, we even throw darts. The desire to compete has been imprinted into our DNA with capital letters.          

* * *

It is no wonder, then, that music is not immune to mutual competition either. From a competition standpoint, however, there are many hazy variables in music. Determining absolute superiority requires strictly defined rules as well as comparable performances and measurable results. The winner must be determined in an unambiguous manner. In sport, this is clear: there is always someone who is the fastest, throws or jumps the furthest, makes the most goals. Performances are measured by time, length, height, speed or scored points. Competitive sport provides an unquestionable framework for determining superiority.

Music has none of the above. No measuring scales exist for the qualitative valuation of art. Centimetres or seconds are not relevant parameters, there are no goals, no final sprint wins. However, the need for determining mutual superiority of skill is genuine. One of the fundamental laws of the performing arts is that there is always an oversupply of aspiring artists compared to the real demand and available resources. Art funding bodies and art organisations themselves thus have a very tangible need to form an opinion about who should benefit from the limited resources available in the professional arts sector. In principle, all artists must compete tooth and nail against each other for anything imaginable – performance opportunities, commissions, grants, work opportunities, general visibility. 


Olli Virtaperko, photo by Jonte Knif

With no absolute criteria to determine mutual ranking, two institutionalised structures have emerged to help determine the internal pecking order within the mob of artists: competitions and art criticism. The latter remained a seminal tool for describing the prevailing artistic image until the turn of the millennium. A critic’s job description was essentially a modern reincarnation of a court jester – an independent operator, in some ways an outsider but at the same time an integral part of the community, publicly voicing opinions that nobody else could, or else dared say out loud. During the golden era of music criticism, head critics of national newspapers wielded significant cultural and political power, granted to them through mutual, unspoken agreement. Maintaining a guild of professional critics served as an efficient tool for determining where each artist was placed within the cultural community, but only if the critics were guided by the so-called aesthetic paradigm. There, the critic approaches the artwork from their own perspective, and through the authority they enjoy, they present a value-based review of the work. Through their position, critics assumed a role of an ‘enlightener’ and arbiter of taste. Art criticism was mostly produced to benefit the professional community, and the idealised goal behind the whole exercise was ultimately to increase the quality of the arts. 

During the early 2000s, the basis of art criticism changed in the wake of more widespread journalistic changes. Its focal point shifted towards phenomena and individuals, the target audience was now the general public, and value-based reviews were rejected in favour of more circumspect event descriptions. Producing this new kind of journalist paradigm no longer required a specialist of any particular field – art critics recognised by the arts community were gradually replaced by generalised arts journalists. Cultural pages were filled with artist portraits, with no space left for words about the real substance of artistic work. The basis of traditional art criticism was crumbling. With art music reviews now written by generalised arts journalists who did not enjoy the art community’s respect, the significance of art criticism as a tool for organising the arts community faltered. From an artist’s perspective, the new absence of reviews by authoritative figures meant that they no longer had access to a clear mechanism of distinguishing themselves from their peers. The need to determine their place in the professional community, however, was still there, and was not only required by the artists themselves, but also the cultural structures built around the arts. After art criticism gradually became obsolete, the only way this function could be fulfilled was through music competitions. 

* * *

I walk along the Aura River towards the Cathedral Bridge and the Turku Concert Hall. August has given way to September, today is the day of the Turku Cello Competition finals. I think about music competitions as the remaining form of mutual competition which still attracts widespread attention in cultural circles. I conclude that this must be the reason behind the increasing popularity of these events, while understanding that the exponential increase in the number of music competitions diminishes the clout of any individual competition. Nevertheless, being declared as a winner amongst one’s own peer group by a jury – in this case, being peer-reviewed by professional cellists – is an efficient way to leave one’s mark on one’s cultural surroundings. 

I think about the moment of winning a music competition. It lacks a climax often seen in sport: final sprint, pin down, knockout, or scoring a winning goal at overtime. Each performance is independent, there is nobody to go against per se – the only opponent is one’s own self. My thoughts shift to the awards. I realise that while the first prize of 6,000 euro might seem like a significant sum for a student, in reality the prize money is only symbolic, even trivial in the larger scheme of things. The real prize is scoring a professional career breakthrough and being ranked high up in the professional community. The recognition which comes through winning competitions provides winners a head start in relation to their peers – and immediate performance opportunities. In addition to the prize money, the Turku winner secures solo recital bookings for no less than nine prestigious festivals. In the long run, the benefits will keep multiplying – more gigs and better gigs, better teaching positions and better students, an advantage when applying for grants or borrowing valuable instruments, a confidence boost for orchestral auditions. With its multiplier effect, the monetary value of winning can increase by dozens of times even by cautious estimates. These are the real stakes at the Turku Cello Competition. 

Four hours later in the concert hall green room, glasses are raised and speeches are given. The competition has come to an end. 21-year-old Tatu Kauppinen has been crowned as the winner, as well as being awarded a special prize for the performance of my solo cello composition. Tatu has also been voted as the audience’s favourite, so it seems that the expert jury’s opinion-based, subjective evaluation mechanism has produced a fair result. One might imagine that only the winner has reason to be happy, but in fact most of the twenty-something finalists seem relieved and ready to celebrate. For many, making it through to the finals and performing as a soloist in front of a professional orchestra for the first time already felt like a victory. ‘Conquering oneself’ might sound like a dated phrase, yet it rings true. The standard of this competition was high. I sense that there will be many future success stories emerging from the group of finalists. They are starting their race slightly behind Tatu, but there is no doubt they have already achieved something significant themselves. 

A career in creative and performance arts is like a glass elevator. It has two directions – up and down. Even with Tatu’s sudden catapulting to the top floor, with the door slightly ajar towards the secure rooftop terrace, his fellow finals competitors Artturi, Daniel, Saara, Matti and Joanna are not doing too badly either. Their professional career elevators are well in motion, and the movement is pleasingly upwards. The lifelong competition continues. 


Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham