Music Interview: Honens makes piano cool

By Dasha Taikh

Classical piano performances don’t usually inspire a great deal of excitement, but Calgary has an organization determined to change this. The Calgary Honens International Piano Competition was founded in 1992 by Esther Honens. Instead of acting as a regular competition though, Honens is more of a festival of music. As a warm-up to the fifth Honens International Piano Competition held from Oct. 19 to Nov. 3, 2006, Honens will be hosting Music as a Second Language 2.0, an examination of the cultural links of music able to unite people all over the world. MSL 2.0 will also serve as a test run for the new executive director Stephen McHolm, who was appointed in 2004.

“I was working in Ottawa for a national art service organization, which dealt with touring live performing arts throughout Canada, and Honens was a member of that organization,” McHolm explains. “The organization would deal with the agents of performing artists, musicians, theater, dance and buyers and performers of the arts. I met the artistic director at one of the conferences and eventually I came to Calgary to work for the organization.”

Honens’ events provide an exciting way to experience professional classical music, as well as the opportunity to learn about it and inspire young artists at any level. The organization hopes to attract people of all ages and musical expertise.

“You have a combination of real music fans and then you have people that are new to classical music,” McHolm remarks. “The great thing that a competition can do is get people who think they don’t know anything about classical music. It gets them in the door and they realize this is fun. It’s really exposing people to the music and helping them understand it, because music is like a language, and sometimes if you don’t understand the language it’s intimidating to be part of it.”

Though Honens is an excellent way to introduce yourself to classical music or further your learning, it still runs like a normal competition. As much as they look to inspire rookies, only the finest pianists in the world make it to the end.

“The big part of Honens is how people construct their recital programs,” McHolm says. “We’re looking for the complete artist, not just someone who can perform the solo works and play fast and loud.” Once the winners have been chosen they are not just given a reward and tossed aside. Instead Honens adopts these musicians and helps them gain further exposure.

“What happens is that we work with the top three winners as their managers for the next three seasons after the competition. We produce recordings with them and we help them tour,” McHolm explains. “One thing that really makes Honens different is the amount of time put in after the competition to help them understand the business side of music as well. It’s really the only organization of its kind. Certainly it’s a prestigious organization and it’s well respected around the world. It’s great to be working with young artists, it’s fun to be around young artists that are just launching their careers, and some day you can say ‘oh, I knew them.’ It’s exciting.”

Though Honens puts on shows like MSL 2.0 throughout the year, the main competition is the major draw. This festival of aspiring artists blesses our city every three years. “Calgary is very lucky to have this organization here in the city,” McHolm remarks. “Esther Honens lost money to start the organization with a real dream. She wanted a center for music and for this competition to be renowned around the world and we’re proud we’re making her dream a reality.”

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