The Spark episode “The Business of Art” charts the progress of the young competitors of the Irving M. Klein International String Competition as they vie for the grand prize of $10,000 and the chance to headline a series of prestigious concerts. In a field where many are called but few are chosen, watch these up-and-coming musicians get last-minute advice from teachers and steel their nerves to play their best for the judges. “When you go out there, a billion things could be going through your head. But you must be focused and clear, alert and active, spontaneous and free. I just think — you make your music, you show them what you have to offer,” says Eunice Keem, a 2003 competitor.
In 1985, Mitchell Klein founded the Irving M. Klein String Competition in memory of his father, a well-known chamber musician. His vision was to create opportunities for young string musicians to compete for very prestigious awards in an environment that was less cutthroat and aggressive than that of many other such events. The prizes range from $200 to $10,000 as well as a series of debut performances as a concerto soloist and recitalist.
With fewer and fewer performing opportunities available to solo artists, musicians depend on competitions to gain notoriety and establish their careers. Among them, the Irving M. Klein Competition is seen by many as one of the most prestigious international events. Mitchell Klein sums up the experience, saying, “It’s a hard life they’ve chosen for themselves. If you succeed the rewards are fabulous. You get to play the greatest music, commune with the greatest artistic minds and perform with wonderful colleagues … but there are no guarantees, that’s for sure. It’s a great life, but it’s not open to too many people.”
For the 2003 competition, Klein received applications from more than 60 musicians from 11 countries. Virtually all of those who apply are students of renowned teachers and conservatories and are on the edge of major careers as solo performers. Of these, only 12 were chosen to compete in the semifinals. Each participant must prepare a Bach piece, a movement from a sonata and one major concerto. They are also asked to perform part of a new work commissioned just for the competition that they have never seen before. From the semifinalists, the judges select five finalists to return the next day to present a longer performance. From these contestants, the top three finalists are chosen to perform a full concerto backed by an orchestra on the final evening of the competition, which is open to the public.