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Borletti-Buitoni Trust

BBT Debate: 'Is Talent Enough?'

Amidst the tenth birthday celebrations for the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, the Saturday morning was devoted to a single question – Is talent enough? A written summary of the discussion is below.  The full audio of the debate is available here.  

Saturday 18 May 2013 at 11am
Level 5 Function Room , Royal Festival Hall , London

Mitsuko Uchida DBE pianist and founding trustee of BBT (on film)

Panelists: Colin Currie percussionistJohn Gilhooly promoter (Wigmore Hall), Paul Moseley record company executive (Decca/Universal), Tom Service broadcaster(Radio 3’s Music Matters and Hear and Now) & journalist (The Guardian), Sonia Simmenauer artist manager (Impresariat Simmenauer). Moderator: Martijn Sandersformer promoter (Amsterdam Concertgebouw) / BBT Artistic Committee member

Before the professional panel got to grips with the question, guided by moderator Martijn Sanders, we had a video address by founding trustee of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and Artistic Committee member, pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

Typically, Uchida was quite direct. You can’t answer the question is talent enough?without starting with the question what is talent? and Uchida breaks that into four facets: musical expression; intellectual ability (encompassing Bach to Boulez); technical ability; and charisma. Uchida argues all but the first of these can be acquired, or taught. However, to make a career in music, you need more – both character and luck – but even more fundamentally a passion for music. Indeed, playing music is a vocation not a profession (Uchida professes she would have played even if she was not paid). She feels that to play music is a privilege and it is our job to make it possible for such musicianship to flourish. But talent, in itself is not enough, to which both panel and audience readily agreed.

Sanders carefully guided the discussion with a series of pointed questions, first to the panel and then, half way through, inviting comments and questions from the audience, before bringing the debate to a close by encouraging us collectively to come up with an action list by which, if talent is not enough, the ‘classical music world’ can help, support, mentor, guide and advise young musicians.

The debate ranged far and wide, and various points were repeated and expanded (or contradicted) not only by the panel but what turned out to be a distinguished audience, including contributions by two Scandinavian record company executives, two PRs and an artist manager, not forgetting founder of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, nor Radio 3 producer and organiser of the BBC’s Young Generation Artists’ scheme, Adam Gatehouse, also on the BBT’s Artistic Committee.

What follows is not a chronological survey of the debate, but a distillation of the various points. At Sanders’ request percussionist, and BBT award-winner in 2005, Colin Currie started, picking up on Uchida’s what is talent? point. Although Currie had always been interested in drums, he only later discovered his ‘talent’ through the inspiration of piano and percussion teachers. Now he spends half his time in the US, which has grown from an early debut, but which was facilitated by profile building in Britain, where he is ever-grateful to have grown up, because it boasts institutions like the BBC, with Young Musician of the Year and the BBC Proms, the offices of all the music publishers in London and such organisations as BBT. Of course musicians need to put in a lot of hard work themselves, and soak up as many influences as possible. He later picked up a point first raised by Robert von Bahr, of using commissioned work as a calling card – indeed, as a percussionist, Currie wouldn’t have had the repertoire if he hadn’t been able to have works commissioned. He has premièred 20 works; each, satisfyingly, having a lengthy afterlife following their world premières (not always a given) although Currie commented, ruefully, that few have been recorded...

John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall, recognises both the need for promoters to nurture talent, which can be as much about saying no to a young singer tacklingWinterreise at their debut recital as to building up a profile over the years, for an artist to have a series of recitals. He recognises how lucky he is, with 425 concerts a year to play with, while other venues have just handfuls that they can devote to chamber, vocal or instrumental recitals. But still, a debut recital badly planned can de-rail a career instead of kick-start it, so developing a good relationship with both artist and agent is very important. There’s also the question of managing the expectations of young artists – even to the point where it may already be obvious that they are not going to forge the career they had banked on.

Agent Sonia Simmenauer, who looked after the Alban Berg and Tokyo Quartets and now has both the Artemis Quartet and (BBT Award-winners in 2007) Quatour Ébène on her books, cited the very personal nature of how she chooses who to work with; she looks for artists that have something different to offer, and her job is to be able to nurture and encourage them to say something new and fresh – whether repertoire choice or flexible playing style – for example, the Other Ébène’s jazz repertoire. Such relationships take both time and discipline, and is harder for quartets than single musicians, where the time-scale for development is longer. With all the time an agent puts in, there can be frustration when it is so difficult to get promoters to offer a breakthrough, using available concerts for long-established artists and a further problem is trying to establish an artist over the whole world at the same time; in previous eras (Rubinstein going to Buenos Aires and playing a number of concerts to develop an audience was cited) you could concentrate in one region at a time.

Of course, a record deal can help. Paul Moseley, head of Decca (and previously co-founder of Onyx Records) noted the great changes that had swept through the ‘major labels’ in recent decades, although – albeit with higher overheads – the ‘majors’ can still roll out a marketing campaign to help establish an artist. Yet whatever the business reasons to sign any given artist – the artist’s hunger, promotability and ‘stand-out’ potential etc. – it’s whether their music making speaks to the heart that clinches the deal. And image need not be the overriding factor. Two of Moseley’s signings illustrate the disparate nature of his gut feelings: young Benjamin Grosvenor (who has the ability to make his performances say something new) and not-so-young Cuban Jorge Louis Prats (for his versatility and character) – neither simply ‘typewriters’ (Kovacevich’s word for the slew of modern-day technicians at the keyboard). And as evidence of risk taking, Moseley reported his first BBT signing, harpist Lavinia Meijer, who had her own single-minded way to success, in approaching Philip Glass directly and making a disc of his music in Holland. Decca are hoping to build on Meijer’s own enthusiasm and ambition, although Moseley expressed surprise that she still has not found an artist agent.

And what about the Fourth Estate? Perhaps it was unfair that Tom Service – although both a print and broadcast music journalist – should have to represent the sprawling behemoth of the media, but he bravely outlined the main points: the ever-smaller coverage in newsprint for classical music, where editors want to feature the big names rather than the new comers; while, conversely, possibilities for coverage and self-promotion have proliferated on the internet and through social media. Here he mentioned the case of Valentina Lisitsa, the Ukranian pianist who became a YouTube sensation, sold out the Royal Albert Hall and was picked up by Decca, knowing she looks good on the album cover, although Moseley countered that Lisitsa had done it the hard way, spending years building up her YouTube following. As the audience joined in and prompted by Bis’ Robert von Bahr (‘not all record companies are the same), Service clarified his point that it was not a criticism of the independent labels, although Moseley argued against playing too much on the ‘majors v independents’ rivalry – they both have their place in the world. With respect to the broadcast media, Service cited Radio 3’s Young Generation Artists (introducing Gatehouse) and the station’s standing as the largest commissioner of new music in the country, as plus points. He also brought the debate back to one of Uchida’s remarks, suggesting that if perhaps talent is enough to play music, but a different type of talent, or a different type of musician, is needed to make a major career. And perhaps a young musician needs the courage to be able to say ‘no’ – of not looking what seems like a gift horse in the mouth.

From the floor our two Scandinavian record company representatives raised points about how young musicians can be seen above the parapet. Von Bahr for Bis has commissioned over 60 works (a third of which are flute concertos, having married two flautists), while Jesper Buhl’s Danacord concentrates on rare repertoire to provide a USP (‘unique selling point’) for both musician and recording. Buhl also urged young musicians to be pro-active, finding sponsors for their own recordings: ‘help themselves to sell themselves.’

That final point was reiterated by one of the anonymous contributions from the floor. Young musicians need to be entrepreneurs as well as having, like Claudia Arrau, a ‘unique voice.’ But they also need help while training, which is the responsibility of the conservatoires. Even the greatest talent can freeze in front of an audience, and you need a thick skin to enter the business in the first place, so help in performance psychology should be part of the course. Another contributor offered an example from outside the music business: London Transport, when in the 30s Frank Pick’s welcomed of designs from young artists for LT posters whereas only known names seem to be seen. It’s a ‘catch 22’ situation. And even when there is a policy for young talent, there may still be a problem of ‘arbiters of taste’ not choosing types of art they don’t like (although, as Simmenaeur pointed out, with respect to composers, the world is less prescriptive now than a few decades ago, partially because composers are themselves writing different styles of music).

From the music business there were other important points. PR manger Lucy Maxwell Stewart refined the notion that institutions could help, by suggesting that it was individuals within those institutions that were the most important link, reinforcing the idea of young musicians finding a mentor. Artist manager Charlotte House commented that the risk that management take on nurturing an artist is not always supported by promoters and wondered if more risk-taking on their part could be possible. Debra Boraston, who does PR for BBT, would like a bit more patience in youngsters, although Simmenaeur added, rarely have her young musicians displayed patience: they are always in a hurry, even though they have to take their time! BBT founder Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, recently appointed Junior Minister of Culture in Italy, reiterated the duty of public institutions to look to the future in finding the great artists of tomorrow (and, in passing, whether they should give so much time to big name artists – such as La Scala’s week long Lang Lang carte blanche season recently). On the other hand Simmernaeur worried that with savvy youngsters nowadays, perhaps it’s musicians between 35 and 55 that are most endangered (at 36, Currie gulped at this).

So, what to do? More help should be on hand for young musicians, and it was felt the conservatoires (unfortunately not represented) could do more, especially by educating their charges about the music business and performance psychology, as well as managing expectations about the big bad world. One way was to find a mentor, with experience, who could guide a career.

Of course, as everyone agreed, there is one shining example of an organisation that helps young musicians in such ways – the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. Chief Executive Susan Rivers ended the debate with an impromptu outline as to the flexible approach to each artist. It’s not just the money, but also the PR and profile-making (CD and video) possibilities: that sense of mentoring and nurturing a community. But the Trust’s largesse is limited, so the debate closed with the knowledge that more help would always be welcomed.

© Nick Breckenfield, 2013