A competition reinvents itself

Pianist Willem Latchoumia talks about the upcoming International Piano Competition of Orléans

WFIMC: You have been involved with the Orléans international Piano Competition ever since you won First Prize in 2006- what memories do you have from back then?

Willem Latchoumia: It was my second competition, actually. I had won Second Prize at the Montsalvatge Competition in Spain, and I didn´t really want to try another competition in the first place. But I lived in Lyon, I played a lot of contemporary music, and it sounded like an attractive idea, so I decided to do this competition as well. I was a little afraid, because I was kind of “king of contemporary music” in Lyon- I played whenever a contemporary work required a pianist, and there was hardly anyone else familiar with this repertoire. But that was Lyon. In Orléans, I was surprised to find so many artists who performed contemporary music. 
I went to the competition without any expectations, taking it one round at a time. I didn´t think about what would come next, so I was very surprised when I advanced. And advanced again, and again. I had never imagined that I would win First Prize!

Back in 2006 you were focusing on the same repertoire as today, not only on contemporary music, but a very particular repertoire. No Mozart, no Beethoven, but other classical and baroque composers, quite a special choice…

For me, music is not a question of repertoire, but what I feel when I play it. So of course I perform a lot of Baroque and add quite a bit of new repertoire. I play a lot of Rameau, for example, and everyone seems surprised by my choice of repertoire. But my focus is not necessarily on contemporary music. I met a lot of composers personally and decided to perform their music, maybe that´s a reason.

Looking back at 2006 and at the Orléans Competition today, how has it changed? It was founded by Françoise Thinat in 1994, and she is still alive today- I am sure you have met her. Not only her, but also Artistic Director Isabella Vasilotta speak about a certain “ambitious, dreamy but above all smiling” atmosphere at the competition. What do they mean by that?

I like the idea of Francoise Thinat. She wanted to create a special atmosphere, and she didn´t really like the idea of a competition. She wanted to bring pianists together, perform a lot of repertoire, especially new repertoire, have a lot of performances during these ten days, and make people feel like at a festival. 
This year, it will be quite different, because we will have a first round not only in Orléans, but also in Chicago and Shanghai. I will travel there together with Maroussia Gentet to judge the first round, but we will also play there and give masterclasses. I think it´s the first time we see the jury performing during the competition.

Maroussia Gentet won First Prize in 2018, twelve years after yourself. Now the two of you will travel around the world as the jury of the first round- a wonderful idea. And you will play concerts at the same time.

Yes, we will play concerts in all three cities. We will teach masterclasses, and we will give lectures on piano and electronic repertoire.

That way, it takes a little pressure away and changes the image of the competition.

Well, for us it´s actually a lot of pressure, because we not only have to teach and perform at the same time as the First Round, we also have to find a pianist who will be supported and presented by the competition during the next two years with concerts and recordings. Someone who will really represent the competition, its image, and its repertoire. This is quite a challenge!

What sort of artist are you looking for?

Usually there are some people who are focused only on contemporary music. But the challenge of this competition is that you have to be able to perform everything from 1900 onwards. A Rachmaninov Second Sonata the same way as a Sonata by Pierre Boulez. There are a lot of different kinds of musical styles, and different aesthetics. You have to find the right balance between all of those.
At the end of the competition, in the Final round and at the Gala Concert in Paris, the pianists are going to perform with Ensemble Intercontemporain: „Vortex Temporum“ of  Gérard Grisey, and a new piece by Bastien David for three pianists and ensemble. A wonderful opportunity!

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Has your view of the competition changed after you became part of the jury?

Of course it changed, because now I just have to sit behind a desk and make decisions for the future. That´s a big difference. But my views have also changed a lot since I have started teaching in Bern and Strasbourg. I met a lot of students who are interested in competitions, who want to become professionals.
But in any case, for me the most important question in this competition is how we can find a person, a pianist, a musician who can deliver a very special message to the audience. We know that contemporary music is not always easy to comprehend for an audience, so we need someone who can really create a sensation with his or her artistry, expression, and charisma.

If you had to convince one of your students to take part in the Orléans Competition, what would you tell them? Why should they go?

You should feel like you are going to promote a new composer. Like Mozart promoted his own music. You should have your own vision to make the audience feel the evolution of the language of music. I also think it´s most important to be in contact, to be close to a composer in order to be able to promote his/her music.
Contemporary music is all about us, about our life, about the present time. But in order to understand it, you need to find a balance between old and new repertoire. You have to go to the past, to the old masters, with your vision of the future. Then you come back to the present, and only then you will have a real understanding of contemporary music.


The 16th International Piano Competition of Orléans- key dates

– CHICAGO, USA:  March 16-17, 2024 / Roosevelt University - Rudolph Ganz Memorial Hall
– ORLÉANS, France: April 24-27, 2024 / Conservatoire d’Orléans - Salle de l’Institut
– SHANGHAI, China:  May 11-12, 2024 / Shanghai Conservatory - He Luting Concert Hall
End of May 2024: Jury deliberation and Announcement of selected candidates

– ORLÉANS, France: Oct. 26 – Nov. 2, 2024 / Salle de l´Institut &Théâtre d’Orléans

– PARIS, France: November 4, 2024 (8.30pm) / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord

More information : www.oci-piano.com


Photos: ©William Beaucardet, Anhtony Arquier, Laeticia Paerbet