Vendome names Robert Bily ‘one of our strongest winners ever’Sponsored
Monday, January 29, 2024
In its debut outing at Mannes School of Music, the biennial piano competition made as much of an impression as its winner, Robert Bily
Robert Bily had every reason to believe his trip to New York last week, for the finals of the Alexis Gregory Vendome Prize In Partnership with the Mannes School of Music, was doomed to failure. ‘It was always my childhood dream to visit America,’ says the Czech pianist, ‘but something had always got in the way, most recently Covid. I began to think I was cursed never to make it.’
But make it he did. In accordance with The Vendome Prize’s selection procedure, he was nominated by his conservatory, the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and invited to New York to compete in the live rounds of the competition, taking place at the Mannes School of Music at the New School’s College of Performing Arts.
Playing both semi-finals and finals from memory, and including treacherously difficult works by Dutillieux (Piano Sonata) and Boulez (Douze Notations) alongside Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven, De Falla and more, Bily was awarded the Grand Prize of $30,000 last Sunday. As runners-up, Anthony Ratinov and Ido Zeev each received $5,000.
Robert Bily, 2024 Vendome Prize winner (photo: The New School)
What will Bily spend the money on? ’I will probably buy a Lamborghini’, he laughs, before immediately sobering himself: ‘I won’t buy anything specific. I will invest the money in future projects and maybe take a small vacation with my girlfriend.’
Bily was described by Vendome’s Artistic Director, Matei Varga, as ‘one of our strongest winners ever.’ Richard Kessler, Dean of Mannes and Executive Dean of the College of Performing Arts, described the 26-year-old pianist as ‘a wonderful musician who will no doubt have a fine career ahead of him.’
Robert Bily's Finals performance:
Bily's prize package includes several performances in Europe and the US; one which will be broadcast by the BBC. ‘That’s what I am most happy about,’ he says of the latter. ‘I love giving recitals and I love playing for the public. That’s why I participate in competitions in the first place: not for fame and money, but for the chance to share my music with people.’ The whole competition was live-streamed via YouTube.
The Vendome Prize sets out to support young pianists at the most challenging point in their careers – just after their studies. It was established in 2000 by the late Alexis Gregory, and continues to be supported by his Foundation. The competition has literally never stood still, shifting its base every few years following fruitful residencies in Paris, Lisbon, London and Verbier. Laureates include Yevgeny Sudbin, Yekwon Sunwoo and Denis Kozhukhin while Christa Ludwig, Cyprien Katsaris, Elisabeth Leonskaya, Joan Sutherland and Stephen Kovacevich have all served on its jury.
Robert Bily, 2024 Vendome Prize winner (photo: Nathaniel Johnston, Courtesy of the Alexis Gregory Vendome Prize In Partnership with the Mannes School of Music)
In this, its twenty-fifth year, the biennial competition ushered in a new, long term partnership between the Alexis Gregory Foundation and the Mannes School of Music. The prize will live with the small, yet vibrant conservatory in New York City for at least its next two editions, and likely beyond. The fit seems like a good one, given the central place piano takes in the school’s activities and its founding, in 1916, by the pianist Clara Mannes Damrosch.
It certainly works well for the contestants. ‘This was one of the best if not the best competition I’ve participated in, in terms of organisation. Often at competitions you’re lucky to be able to practice at all, but here we each had our own practice room with two grand pianos, a green room and plenty of time to try out the pianos on stage. That’s unique. I get stressed at competitions but I was able to completely have my mind on my music. I had a special feeling on the stage, like I was totally calm and in control, and because the atmosphere was also so nice.’
Robert Bily's Semi-Finals performance:
Alexis Gregory, a proficient pianist who was a close friend of Horowitz and Rubinstein and made his home in New York, would have been heartened to hear that. He felt a personal responsibility towards contestants at his competition, however far they proceeded through its rounds. He recognized, as do his successors, that the greatest gifts that can be bestowed on an outstanding young musician are confidence, recognition, contacts, advice and a financial leg-up.
A competition, though, is only as good as its winners. There was little doubt seeing Bily articulate Mozart’s Rondo in A minor with such finesse, find such distinctive colours in his Albeniz ‘El Puerto’ (from Iberia) and truly enter the zone in Debussy’s Pour le Piano during his performances in the competition’s Final, that this is a pianist to watch. Remember the name.
Watch the Semi-Finals, Finals and Awards ceremony on YouTube: