Over the course of February 2024, city of Dubai has resounded with piano talents from all over the world taking part in the Third Edition of the Classic Piano International Competition. Classic Piano saw each participant presenting a variety of works from across the spectrum of classical music, including a contemporary composition from Composer-in-Residence Alexey Shor and Mikhail Pletnev. Josie Campbell had the opportunity to talk to Mr Shor, and gain his insight into his collaboration with Classic Piano, the background behind the piece he has contributed to the competition’s repertoire – From my Bookshelf – and his views on Dubai, amongst other topics.

Alexei Shor

There are many piano competitions being held every year nowadays. What attracted you to the Classic Piano International Competition, and what do you feel this event is able to contribute to the world of music?
The competition is very special in terms of the selection criteria. It’s not done by the usual method of video submissions, which is an extremely closed process. This one has a very transparent selection approach. There are fourteen competitions around the world, and the top ranking pianists are then invited to come to Dubai to take part in Classic Piano. I think the element of transparency is very important and it attracts very good participants. It’s also a very big competition with a huge financial prize and a big tour.

What do you think about the way that the competitors are interpreting your piece – the Suite for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 ‘From My Bookshelf’?
I’m not a jury member, so the only reason I was in the concert hall is to hear the different interpretations. These are some of the brightest pianists of the future and they all have their different ideas, different tempos, and different moods, and it’s a real pleasure for me to hear.

Have you noticed any surprising interpretations or unique approaches by pianists? Are any of them doing something with it that you may not have been expecting?
Something always surprises me either here or whenever established artists play my music. What distinguishes great artists from competent players is their individuality, so every time one of them plays my music there is something different and something new about it that I’m always looking forward to discovering.

How important do you feel it is that young pianists get exposed to, and tested on their ability to perform contemporary works in music competitions, as opposed to just playing the historical greats?
Many competitions do this, and this is what they want to test – the performer’s ability to play something that does not have a hundred years of performance history behind it. This way, they have to swim on their own. The music is something they’re probably not too familiar with, and they can’t look up twenty different performances by the greats of the past, or have a teacher who knows every note inside out telling them what to do.

Alexey Shor

‘From My Bookshelf’ is a collaborative work, written with Mikhail Pletnev, which isn’t perhaps a very common thing in classical music. What was it that motivated you to work together with Mr. Pletnev in this, and what would you say are the benefits that a collaborative approach may offer to music composition?
It is a very unusual thing in classical music, and the way collaborations come about is not something that happens on a regular basis. There is no formula as to how it should happen. In this case, I wrote my piece in 2019. Mr. Pletnev was supposed to play it in 2021, and he had all kinds of different ideas and changes that he wanted to make. I very much enjoyed working with him, so that’s how the new version came about. Mikhail Pletnev is one of the historical greats on the piano, he’s a composer in his own right and he’s also a conductor. He’s a legend of music, so to work with him was a wonderful experience.

Contemporary music can tend to be of a more dissonant and atonal variety when compared to historical works, yet with ‘From My Bookshelf’ this is very much not the case. What is it that inspires your musical approach, and do you believe that contemporary music can benefit by turning to a more harmonic style?
For me it wasn’t a difficult choice. I don’t see the point of writing music that I don’t normally listen to myself. I don’t normally open up a concert program of avant-garde music and think, ‘Oh great, I’ve got to listen to that!’. So, whenever I write something, I literally imagine myself as an audience member and I ask myself, ‘Would I enjoy this?”. This leads me to the kind of music I write, rather than something more avant-garde.

Do you have any particularly favorite moments or passages in ‘From My Bookshelf’, and what do you hope the contestants will especially appreciate?
It’s very hard for me to be objective about my own works. I’m pretty much always in love with what I’ve written most recently. Within individual works I don’t really think in terms of favorite passages; I just like the piece as a whole. When I’m listening to the whole piece, I don’t think “Oh, this is a wonderful moment!”; instead I’m thinking about each moment as it’s played, and which bit is coming next.

This edition of Classic Piano was taking place in Dubai, a city that one would not have so readily associated with classical music just a few years ago. How important is it that this competition, which is one of the largest of its kind, is held in the UAE? Do you think that we may see other major festivals and competitions coming to this region in the future?
Dubai has become one of the world’s hubs. All kinds of people come here, all kinds of people live here, all kinds of people pass through, come here on holidays, and come here for business. Naturally, in that environment, there has to be a significant cultural aspect, but I don’t know if a single place needs more than one major competition. It doesn’t really happen. There is, for example, one Queen Elisabeth, and one Chopin. It’s not like there’s another huge competition in the same place. But I’m sure that the fact that the Classic Piano Competition is here will probably result in a lot more classical concerts and classical music stars coming to this region.

Are you inspired to write anything while you were in Dubai?
Well, while I’m here, there’s no way I can write anything because there’s no free time! But I’m sure that when I’m back home I’m going to bring with me all kinds of memories and experiences which will in their own way definitely inspire me to write more music.

Alexey Shor’s website – https://alexeyshor.com/

For more information about the Classic Piano International Competition, make sure to visit the official website at www.classicpiano.eu

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