The importance of the documentary “Pianoforte” is not in the story that it tells, but the story is provides a background for. Director Jake Piątek follows several young pianists who are part of the 18th edition of the famous International Chopin Piano Competition. For Asians and Asian Americans, the competition and this documentary are a curious commentary on representation.
According to the website for XVII Konkurs Chopinowski Warszawa (18th Chopin Competition Warsaw), this competition is “the most important musical event in Poland and one of the most important musical events in the world.” The first Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition taking place in Warsaw in 1927. In all, eight countries were represented by 26 pianists. There were two more in 1932 and 1937, before there was a pause for World War II. The winners of the first competition after World War II (1949) were two women: Halina Czerny-Stefańska (Poland) and Bella Davidovich (Societ Union).
The competition currently is quinquennial–it takes place very five years. The documentary “Pianoforte” follows the 18th iteration. Although originally scheduled for 2020, it was postponed until October 2021 due to the pandemic. According to an article in Variety director Piątek wanted to do something different than other documentaries on the competition. He told Variety, “It crossed my mind I was taking on something sacred, but I wanted to go beyond polished album covers. To me, the most interesting things happen before and after they play.”
Explaining how he determined which people he would follow, he said, “We asked 160 people to make a self-tape. I was interested in their story, not in whether they can actually win.”
He further noted, “We wanted to tell a coming-of-age story, because for many of them, it’s their first ‘adult’ competition. It’s also the last time you can see them being so raw and so honest.”
That would be 160 or less than half of the people who applied. The people he followed included Eva Gevorgyan (Russia/Armenia), Marcin Majchrowsk (Poland)i, Alexander Gadjiev (Italy/Slovenia), Hao Rao (China), Leonora Aremllini (Italy), and Michelle Candotti (Italy).
The 18th competition had 87 people in the preliminary rounds (out of 500 applicants). Of that 55 of the 87 (or 63 percent) were of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent. Forty-five people survive to go into the second stage from which emerge 23 people. The field is then narrowed down to 12.
While the director specifically told Variety that he “wasn’t trying to focus on the favorites, like Canada’s Bruce Liu” who went on to win, he did select Gadjiev who tied for second with Kyojei Sorita of Japan, but he didn’t pick Sorita. He also chose Aremllini who finished fifth behind Aimi Kobayashi (Japan) and Jake Kuszik (Poland), who tied for fourth.
Eva Gevorgyan and Hao Rao finish in the top 12 where half of the competitors are of East Asian descent. Of the top four, two are of East Asian descent–the eventual winner, Paris-born and Montreal-raised Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu of Canada and Kyohei Sorita. Sorita of Japan tied for second with Italian Alexander Gadjiev. Martín García García of Spain finished in third.
It’s notable that the two Canadians in the top 12 were both of East Asian descent (Liu and Toronto-native JJ Jun Li Bui), but also that all four Canadian in the competition were of East Asian descent (Eric Guo and Victoria Wong along with Qui and Liu).
While the Polish director Piątek said he chose those competitors he found most interesting, his choices in the final film weren’t really representative of the demographics of the competition which had people from 16 countries (Russia, UK, US, Japan, Spain, Poland, Italy, Mainland China, Canada, Cuba, Thailand, Latvia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Vietnam), 18 if you include the two competitors who represented two countries at once (Italy/Slovenia and Russia/Armenia). In the YouTube video, posted by the Chopin Institute (“Behind the scenes: ‘Pianoforte'” which I’ve posted below), Japan and Tokyo are mentioned as filming locations, but I don’t remember representation of Japan in the final film screened (streamed) at Sundance.
The director mentions that he and his crews followed 40 people. The documentary winnows down this number for whatever reason, but Poland, Italy, Switzerland, China, Russia and Japan are mentioned in the “Behind the Scenes: ‘Pianoforte'” YouTube video as filming locations.
Filming in Poland, of course, makes sense because that is the country of the competition. By demographics alone, China has the most people entered t (21 people), followed by Poland with 15 and then Japan with 13. South Korea had seven. Russia and the US had five people each. Russia’s Gevorgyan also represented Armenia. Italy had six, including Gadjiev who represented Slovenia as well. While China is represented by Rao, Piątek chose not to include anyone from Japan (although he filmed in Tokyo) or South Korea, even though the last winner in 2015 was from South Korea. The US and Canada were not included at all.
The first person of Asian descent to place in the top three was Fou Ts’ong who placed third in 1955. At the following competition (1960) a West Asian person, Tania Achot-Haroutounian of Iran, also placed third. Then in 1970, a Japanese woman, Mitsuko Uchida, was second. In 1980, Đặng Thái Sơn of Vietnam earned top honors over two Soviet Union pianists. In 1990, no one was given first place, but Yukio Yokoyama of Japan was third behind Kevin Kenner of the US. In 2000, Yundi Li of Mainland China finished first and at 18 was the youngest pianist to win. If Hao Rao had won in 2021, he would have been the youngest at 17; Rao turned 18 on 4 February 2022. The following competition (2005), South Korean’s brothers Dong-Hyek Lim and Dong-Min Lim tied for third (no second was awarded). In 2015, Seong-Jin Cho of South Korea finished first and Kate Liu of the US finished third (behind Canadian Charles Richard-Hamelin).
The previous competition in 2015 (April 13–24, 2015 for the preliminary round and October 1–23, 2015 for the main competition and concerts) had 163 pianists. Of that number 27 were from Japan, 24 from Mainland China, 24 from South Korea, two each from Taiwan and Hong Kong and one each from Indonesia, Mongolia and Singapore. Canada had four people, of which three were of East Asian descent. The US had 11 people with eight of East Asian descent. That means 82 people were representing Asian countries (50 percent) and with the Canadian and US musicians of East Asian descent, the number becomes 92 or 56 percent. The large presence of East Asian and Southeast Asian faces isn’t unique to the 2022 competition.
In the 2010 competition, Russia dominated with first place (Yulianna Avdeeva), a tie for second place between Lukas Geniušas (Russia/Lithuania) tied for second with Ingolf Wunder (Austria) and Daniil Trifonov (Russia) in third. Two more Russians would be in the top ten. The other countries represented would be Bulgaria, France (two pianists) and Poland. In all nine pianists represented Russia in the preliminary round. Six pianists from Poland would also made the preliminary rounds, but 18 pianists represented Japan, with one also representing Japan and the US (Rachel Naomi Kudo). Six pianists from Mainland China, four from South Korea, five from Taiwan, and of the five from the US, three would be of East Asian descent. Out of 79 preliminary pianists, 34 were from East Asia (Mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) to represented 43 percent of the preliminary competitors. Adding the three US pianists of East Asian descent (Claire Huangci, Esther Park and Mei-Ting Sun) would make this 46 percent. Three were from West Asia (Israel and Syria). Canada only had one pianist (Leonard Gilbert).
Overall, the Soviet Union is tied with Poland for the most medals (13 each). Russia has four and is tied with the US, but one of the US medals was Kate Liu. South Korea and Japan had three medals each.
In the documentary “Pianoforte,” we do get a few glimpses of the eventual winner, Canadian Bruce Liu but it might have been interesting to hear from a prominent teacher of Liu’s who had previously won: Đặng Thái Sơn taught at the Université de Montréal for 20 years and Liu was one of his students.
The now 64-year-old Đặng Thái Sơn was one of the jurors at the 18th competition. The competition has several juries. One for the qualifying round, one for the preliminary round and one for the main competition. Jury members recuse themselves from assessing a former or current student. Đặng Thái Sơn was a member of the competition jury (representing Vietnam and Canada. Akiko Ebi of Japan (who finished fifth at the 10th competition) and Sa Chen of Mainland China (who finished fourth in the 14th) were also members of the competition jury.
Without looking at the actual numbers as I did above and just watching the documentary, one might not be aware that the majority of pianists at the beginning of the competition are of East Asian or Southeast Asian descent. A fictional film, “Tár” was set in the real contemporary where people of East Asian descent have high profile positions in an orchestra (Berlin Philharmonic), but decided to feature White faces instead. In both the fictional and the non-fictional world, the representation of API professionals doesn’t seem to reflect reality and might mislead viewers to believe that API musicians are not part of these worlds.
It’s hard to second guess the director’s decisions regarding the 40 people who were followed, but if representation matters, then this documentary doesn’t provide subjects that reflect the actual demographics of the competitors nor has it given an indication of the talents that is coming out of East and Southeast Asia. It’s also different to be part of a continuing legacy for a Polish (and to a lesser degree, French) pianist than to be taking up a non-traditional musical instrument and repertoire. Like the fictional world of “Tár,” the documentary “Pianoforte” misleads us by representing the high levels of classical music as a very White domain, but “Pianoforte” does provide some understanding of the dedication required to place in this competition and the differences between male and female competitors during the rounds.
“Pianoforte” made its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.