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Ivo Kahanek: "I tend to be the universal type of pianist".

This year saw the 56th year of the Prague Spring International Music Competition. It is an event that makes the Prague Spring Festival not "just" a star-studded event, but also a welcome chance for young musicians at the start of their careers to display their talents, and if they get to the final to play with a symphony orchestra. This year it was the turn of young trombonists and young pianists. The contests in the different instruments do not take place at regular intervals and the piano competition was being held for only the ninth time (the preceding years were 1948, 51, 57, 63, 73, 88, 93, and 98). Among Czech competitors, in the past Zdenek Hnat (1957), and Martin Kasik (1998) won first prize, and this year it was another Czech, Ivo Kahanek, who--like his older colleague six years ago--carried off the laurels with ease despite the strong international competition (4.6 pianists from 13 states). The second prize went to the Korean Dong Min Lim, and the third place was shared by the Japanese Takashi Jamamoto and the Slovak Matej Arendarik. Let us hope that as in the past, so for this years winners success in this prestigious competition will be a springboard for a successful international career.


In the last decade one undoubted benefit of the PS International Competition has been its role in the systematic propagation of Czech contemporary music. New pieces by Czech composers have become a regular part of the obligatory competition repertoire. This year the competition committee for piano turned to Petr Eben (just celebrating a jubilee 75 years), who composed a liturgical piece for the piano "Universi". New pieces are premiered in the second round, and so they are obligatory for semi-finalists. The notes were promptly printed by Editio Barenreiter Praha, and so candidates received them with their notifications of acceptance into the competition and had two months to practice them. Naturally they were also supplied to the members of the international jury, which was this time made up of the following: Ivan Klansky--Chairman (Czech Republic), Marian Lapsansky (Slovakia), Piotr Paleczny (Poland), Daniel Pollack (USA), Peter Rosel (Germany), Peter Toperczer (Czech Republic), Jan Wijn (Netherlands).

The pianist Ivo Kahanek, born on the 23rd of May 1979 in Frydek-Mistek, had already made a name for himself in a series of national and international competitions. He obtained the foundations of a musical education at the local music school (1983-1993; Kveta Razlova), but the decisive turning-point came with his studies under Prof. Marta Toaderova at the Janacek Conservatory in Ostrava (1993-1999). Later he was admitted to the Prague Music Faculty of the Academy of Performing arts to the class of Prof. Ivan Klansky (1999-2005). His first major success was the 2nd Prize in the 1994 Concertino Praga International Competition for Young Musicians, which was followed by 3rd Prize in the Piano Competition of the Bohuslav Martinu Foundation in Prague (1996), victory in the 4th year of the Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Marianske Lazne (1997), a special prize at the 46th year of the Marie Canals International Music Competition in Barcelona (2000), 1st Prize in the G. Mahler International Piano Competition in Jihlava (2001), and 1st Prize in the Venedome Prize Middle Europe in Vienna (2003). He has already given concerts in many European cultural centres and music festivals (Prague, Paris, Stockholm, Warsaw, Zurich, Cologne, Santander etc.)



Victory in the PS Competion has brought Ivo Kahanek the right to honorary appearances with Czech orchestras (The Karlovy Vary Symphony Orchestra, the West Bohemian Marianske Lazne Symphony Orchestra, the North Bohemian Teplice Orchestra, the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic in Zlin) and also honorary appearance at the International Meeting of Young Musicians Ticino Musica (Switzerland).

Do you think that the fact that the chairman of the jury was also your teacher may have had some effect on your placing?

It could have been a certain disadvantage that the winner of the last competition (1998), my colleague Martin Kasik, was also a pupil of Prof. Klansky. And so if I hadn't been so far ahead of the others on points, the 1st Prize might not have been awarded at all. Of course I would be lying if I said that it was more of a disadvantage than a plus to have my teacher on the jury. It must definitely be a good thing in the sense that the other jury members wouldn't be tempted to try and give you artificially few points. Because that person is there, you have a good chance of being judged as you truly deserve.

You are the second successive Czech pianist to defeat strong international competition so easily at the Prague Spring Competition. You will be following in your predecessor's footsteps and trying your luck at one of the most prestigious competitions--the Young Concert Artists Competition in New York. What does taking part in competitions and winning them mean for you?

Winning a competition in the higher international category, such as the Prague Spring Competition has been important for me because it opens doors onto the world, international agencies have started to be interested in me, especially those that help the young most talented musicians to "take off" in their careers. One of these is the "Young Concert Artists Competition" agency, for example, which also organises the important international competition every year. To be a winner at this competition then opens the way to leading American concert podiums. If a pianist does well there, it is generally quite easy for him or her to move over to other famous music agencies in the long term.

At the Music Faculty [HAMU] in Prague you have been studying with Prof. Ivan Klansky. What most motivates your studies with him?

While I was still studying at the Ostrava Conservatory I wanted to get into his class at the Prague Academy. I got my wish after he heard me play at the Chopin Piano Competition in Marianske Lazne. Now I'm already in my sixth year of studies with him, since I extended my regular five-year piano studies so that I would be able to finish them at the same time as I finished my doctoral thesis, which will be on the piano music of the Jewish composers who lost their lives in Terezin during the 2nd World War. What I most appreciate with Prof. Klansky is his sensitive approach, his ability subtly to stimulate students to search for their own interpretation. You never hear him say anything like "it's just not done to play it like that!", he tolerates an individual approach, so long as the pianist isn't entirely "off-target", of course.

In play and appearance you resemble the romantic piano virtuoso, and one might say with only a small pinch of salt that on the podium you seem like a reincarnation of Ferencz Liszt himself. In the second round of this year's Prague Spring Competition you were particularly impressive in your performance of works by R. Schumann (Symphonic etudes, op. 13) and F. Chopin (Ballade in G Minor, op. 23). But even your Prokofiev (Sonata no. 3 in A Minor op. 28) was unusually effective, even if tackled in a more emotional way than is usual with this composer. Would your agree that you feel most at home in the romantic piano repertoire?

Romanticism appeals to me, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't enjoy playing good music from other period. The situation is more that a pianist at my age, just building a career, has to succeed in competitions, and what juries are looking for is above all how well the pianist copes with the historically tried and tested repertoire. It is in the great classical-romantic works that all a pianist's good and weak features are most evident. I'm sure that once I have got to grips with all the main pillars of the standard piano repertoire, I shall have a chance to devote myself to contemporary music as well. I think I tend to be the universal type of pianist, which is probably an advantage, because it offers more areas in which to be rated and in which to work.

Do you intend to take part in the famous Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw next year?

That's a rather complicated question. On the one hand I would like to take part in the competition, if only for the sake of Chopin, whom I love. On the other hand there are a series of negative points. Various backstage interests play an important role, and there is a minimum entrance quota (just one pianist) that applies to the Czech Republic. If I wanted to go in for a competition like this, it would mean devoting almost the entire year exclusively to Chopin. That seems too much of a sacrifice to me, since at my age I want to develop further and in different directions. So instead of Warsaw I'm preparing for two other important competitions--for example in Santander in Spain -, which have a more diverse repertoire and in which I can make a virtue of my versatility. In the summer I quickly worked up the "Suite Espagnole" by I. Albeniz for my performance in Santander, where I was also delighted to play Vitezslav Novak's Clarinet Quintet in A Minor op. 12 with my foreign colleagues; it's a piece that is almost never played here and for the public and critics over there it was a welcome diversification of repertoire.

What is your attitude to Czech music? In the first round of the PS competition there were obligatory pieces by Smetana (a selection from Bohemian Dances) and Janacek (the cycles "Along an Overgrown Path" or "In the Mists"). You chose the nostalgic and virtuoso Smetana Polka in A Minor and the cycle "Along an Over-grown Path". Do you play any more modern Czech music as well?

In Czech music I particularly like playing Janacek; after all I come from Palkovice which is about 4 km as the crow flies from Hukvaldy, which is the Leos Janacek's birthplace. But as yet I haven't had a chance to study his work in a more systematic way. I shall be playing Janacek's Sonata, 1. X. 1905" at the beginning of October at the Beethovenfest International Festival in Bonn, and the inner drama of his music very much appeals to me. As far as more recent music is concerned I've been successful in competitions with Lubos Fiser's Eighth Piano Sonata, which is ravishing, dramatic music. Two years ago at the Young Podium Festival in Karlovy Vary there was a very good public response when I played Jaroslav Jezek's Piano Concerto, which is only rarely played, even though it remains modern-sounding music. Here there were certain problems with the orchestra, which was used to accompanying straight from the printed parts, but in this case the piece was far from a usual repertoire number and most of the players were seeing the parts for the first time. Among the Czech Jewish composers, I have been particularly impressed by Gideon Klein, whose Sonata I would like to record on a CD together with several other pieces by composers who perished during the Second World War in Terezin.
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Title Annotation:interview
Author:Bajgar, Jindrich
Publication:Czech Music
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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