The Honens International Piano Competition is blazing a new path online and has streamlined its focus on shaping well-rounded young pianists in an attempt to stand out in a cluttered field of music contests.

Calgary-based Honens, which debuted in 1992, is relatively young in the world of classical music competitions, but has already made a name for itself for its devotion to building the careers of its chosen laureates. The contest was established in 1991 through a gift of $5 million from the late Calgary philanthropist Esther Honens.

Now held every three years, it is showcasing its most recent 10 contenders through live webstreaming of their semifinal and final recital performances. The live webcasts, which began Wednesday, are part of a budding new practice worldwide.

"The Tchaikovsky and the Van Cliburn have really lead the way with really high end big studio productions… We’re doing it on a shoestring budget, but I think the results are amazing," Honens artistic director Stephen McHolm told CBC News.

The 2012 Honens semi-finalists:

  •     Federico Colli, 24, from Italy.
  •     Lorenzo Cossi, 30, from Italy.
  •     David Fung, 29, from Australia.
  •     Sasha Grynyuk, 29, from Ukraine.
  •     Pavel Kolesnikov, 23, from Russia.
  •     Maria Mazo, 30, from Russia.
  •     Jong-hai Park, 22, from South Korea.
  •     Konstantin Shamray, 27, from Russia.
  •     Avan Yu, 25, from Canada.
  •     Zenan Yu, 25, from China.

Russia's International Tchaikovsky Competition and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth, Texas, are definitely established leaders among international contests. The Russian competition simultaneously broadcast from St. Petersburg and Moscow during its 2011 edition, while a reported 20 million viewers took in the 2009 Van Cliburn competition online, so adopting live streaming is a case of "keeping up the Joneses," says McHolm.

Honens has recorded and posted performances by its competitors on the web in the past, but this year is a first attempt at live streaming. The competition teamed up with the Banff Centre, CBC Radio as well as Medici.tv, which offers Europeans free live broadcasts of concerts, operas, ballets and similar programming.

"We’re already getting comments from people across the country saying ‘Wow, it’s so great. It’s like I’m in the front row,'" McHolm noted.

"There are music lovers around the country and the world who can’t make it to Calgary in October. It’s all part of helping build the profile of both Honens and the artists that we serve… We’re doing this for them in the end."

Amid the organization's overall attempt to ramp up its online presence — which also includes blogposts on CBC Music and increased social media outreach — staff have found fans in unexpected places. For instance, McHolm said, they've discovered that almost half the "likes" on the Honens Facebook page originate from Brazil.

"We get all these comments," he said, adding that it turned out a large portion of the audience for Wednesday's livestream was tuning in from South America.

"It’s great! I think we’d better do a tour of South America," he laughed.

Boosted cash prize, new interview segments

Meanwhile, in hopes of "raising the bar" and carving out a more prominent place on the international scene, Honens organizers have also made some significant changes, including:

  • choosing just one laureate and increasing the cash value of the grand prize to $100,000 (versus multiple laureates and $35,000, $25,000 and $17,500 awarded to the three winners in 2009).
  • incorporating interview segments with the contestants, which are factored into the judging process.
  • bringing fewer semi-finalists to Calgary to compete.
  • ending the practice of commissioning a new piece for the semi-finalists’ competition repertoire.

Unlike some competitions, Honens seeks to develop and promote what it calls "complete artists": accomplished, creative musicians able to stir minds and spirits, who demonstrate an open, entrepreneurial spirit and are willing and capable communicators. They're also versatile and adaptable: able to fill in at the last minute for an ailing colleague, for instance, or perform alongside a vocalist or musician with a completely different style.

The 2012 Honens semi-finalists perform during the recital round, which continues through Sunday when five finalists will be announced. The finalists perform with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in the two-day concerto round on Oct. 25-26. The winner will be announced on Oct. 26.

"We’re looking for a different kind of artist… We’re looking for someone who has that capacity and that drive to be more than just fast fingers," McHolm said.

"This is someone who leaves you always wanting more. It’s something intangible," he added, calling the quality "that goosebump factor."

Award-winning French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a laureate from the first Honens competition in 1992 who has returned as a juror several times, is a good example.

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Stephen McHolm, artistic director of the Honens International Piano Competition. (Honens)

"He represents the kind of artist we are looking for: that complete artist with a unique voice," said McHolm. 

In addition to the boosted $100,000 cash prize, the 2012 Honens laureate will also be enrolled in a development program. Estimated to be worth $500,000, it will include a range of career-building opportunities, including mentoring and coaching from established musicians, concert engagements, meetings with and auditions for important conductors and industry figures, as well as potential tours abroad and/or recordings.

"We certainly don’t have the profile of the Tchaikovsky or the Queen Elizabeth [music competitions]. We haven’t been around for that period of time. Unlike Tchaikovsky or Chopin, Honens is not a name that people know or associate with music necessarily," McHolm acknowledged, referring to another rival contest, the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition.

"We have a lot of work to do to make people think of Honens like they do with Chopin."