Working delicately and getting new perspectives – competition pianists in interview

Five Finnish top pianists are playing with the competitors during the preliminary rounds and semifinals of Mirjam Helin Competition. But what is it like to play in a competition and what does the lied repertoire demand? And what about the jump from opera répétiteur to performing? Pianists Tuula Hällström and Hans-Otto Ehrström tell us.

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Tuula Hällström

For Tuula Hällström, the start of the Mirjam Helin Competition has gone pleasantly. “In an international competition the musical partners are unknown beforehand, but the music is enough of a common denominator”, Hällström says. “The situation is same for everyone and in a certain sense uncomplicated. Nowadays everyone really understands that the work means reacting to each other and reaching something altogether new.”

Certain favourites of the Finnish repertoire for the semifinals, like Kuula’s Illalla or Sibelius’ Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte, are featured in every Mirjam Helin Competition. “The competitors have dug into the repertoire really admirably, though”, Hällström says. “They have went head on with the textual challenges, and there is also contemporary music from Saariaho.”

As an experienced lied pianist Hällström knows what it means to throw oneself into the full colour range of the art. “All music requires a nuanced approach, but when you work with lied, you are creating whole worlds and scenes on a small scale. If you are not experienced enough, you might cut corners.” In a late romantic piece like a Wolf lied, for example, the notation is rich in information and tells a lot about the text. “In a way, though, it all comes down to breathing together and narrating a story – being watchful in the moment.”

Hans-Otto Ehrström works as a répétiteur at the Finnish National Opera and Savonlinna Opera Festival, preparing repertoire with singers and playing as a rehearsal pianist. He has also worked in the same function at the International Opera Studio in Zurich. “The endless repetitiveness of opera work suits me, because I do not get bored easily”, Ehrstöm says. “One needs an ability to always see the same pieces in a new light. Then, when the role, music and text are principally mastered, you just need to deepen every possible aspect further, in order to reach the fantastic in every work.”

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Hans-Otto Ehrström, Marianne Croux

Being a répétiteur differs from performing lied music or arias as a pianist. “Often in rehearsing opera, instead of keeping tightly to the score, it is relevant to play only the things which will definitely be heard in performance.” Ehrström is delighted to make the jump in role. “Working in a competition means a fast tempo, and it is fascinating. In this competition the singers have such strong personalities that as a pianist, you are able to get many new insights about the music. As the competition is held every five years, you can also really reflect on your progress as a musician.”

Text: Justus Pitkänen
Photos: Heikki Tuuli