A year ago, when we decided we would devote one of our 2018 Special Focus sections to “The Competition Life,” the name that immediately popped into my head as the person who best embodies that concept today was Kiev, Ukraine–born guitarist Marko Topchii. In the nearly four years that I’ve been closely following and reporting on the outcomes of classical-guitar competitions both large and small, his name has turned up over and over, often as the winner and sometimes as the second- or third-place contestant. But It wasn’t until I looked deeper at his competition record over the past eight years that I got a true picture of the stunning magnitude of the 27-year-old’s accomplishments in competitions: 41 first prizes (in 22 countries on four continents), 16 second prizes, and 18 third prizes, plus nearly two-dozen “special prizes” (audience awards, best interpretation prizes, etc.). Among those first prizes are such prestigious competitions as the Michele Pittaluga in Italy, the biennial Maurizio Biasini, the JoAnn Falletta Concerto Competition, the Changsha festival in China, the Segovia competition in Linares (Spain), and many others. I’d be very surprised if you could find another guitarist who has logged more miles playing competitions; Topchii is virtually a “professional” competitor, in the sense that his competition prize earnings largely support his active competition lifestyle, at a point where many other guitarists have turned to teaching or concerts (or both) to make ends meet.
This inveterate world traveler still calls Ukraine his home, but as fate would have it, when I went looking for him to conduct an interview about “The Competition Life,” I found him living less than half an hour from my house: unbeknownst to me, he was finishing up the spring term at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he was studying intensively with Judicaël Perroy (who has become known as a molder of competition winners). On a lovely spring afternoon, we met in the Conservatory’s striking central atrium, parked ourselves in a couple of comfy chairs, and talked for nearly two hours about the ups and downs of the competition world. Topchii’s English is excellent (he started learning it when he was four), and I found him to be very candid and self-effacing. He’s a serious young man—though also funny and personable—and he’s given to deep thought about and analysis of his chosen path.
In fact, when I turn on my recorder for our interview, one of his first points is about what he believes is a common misunderstanding about him: “I think some people have a lot of prejudice toward you if you’re a winner of a lot of competitions: ‘Why are you still doing competitions? Why don’t you have a career?’ I recently found out that some people think I am sponsored for all my trips, which is not true. I have been funded by one foundation in Ukraine that helped me out on some trips, but most of the trips I’ve had had to fund myself, basically trying to win to get funding for the next event.”
It helps, too, that he has an extremely supportive family who have helped immeasurably on his long road. “My mom has a degree in classical piano and is also a composer. My father was a folk-instrumental ensemble conductor and worked with my mom on arrangements of the music they did together. And my aunt is a concert piano player. So, if I was doing something wrong in music, someone knew what to say,” he says with a laugh. Topchii had already demonstrated some musical aptitude at the age of 4, and through his youth he studied both guitar and piano, and for a while he wondered if piano would win out: Intrigued by classical harmony, he adored Chopin and Liszt (among others), and of course piano was omnipresent in his household. At 16, however, he decided to concentrate on the guitar, which he says was “not that much of choice, because I was relatively unskilled on the piano and quite skilled at the guitar.”
By that point, too, he’d already taken part in several guitar competitions. “I think I was 11 or 12 when I did my first in Ukraine. It was the Petrenko Competition. But my first international competition was in Heinsberg [Germany] when I was 16. It was a no-age-limit competition and my parents took me there to push me, in a way. I went to the semi-finals. Then it was the Forum Gitarre in Vienna when I was 17. That was when I got my new guitar from a wonderful Ukrainian luthier who at the time was making guitars out of his apartment, [Mykola] Roodenko, and my expressive abilities started to channel with the help of that instrument.”
Unfortunately the guitar couldn’t help him overcome a mental error he made in the competition, in which he switched one of his pieces from the first round to the second round, not realizing that it put two pieces from the same century in the round, “so I didn’t pass to the final round that year. But the performance was very promising to my parents and others who knew me, and I felt like I was making progress. When I came back home I listened to my performance and it was so fast I could barely process it myself! I was excited, and there are some instruments that provide that possibility of playing fast, so you have to learn to control that.”
Asked if there were players who were particularly influential on him, Topchii says, “I didn’t have an idol or somebody I wanted to copy, but there were people who inspired me to play certain pieces they played, and which I still play. I first heard Marcin Dylla play the Jose sonata [Antonio Jose’s 1933 Sonata para guitarra] on an old recording from Poland, so I started playing that at 16. Zoran Dukic actually recorded it before Dylla did, but I never heard that. I got the Passacaille by [Alexandre] Tansman from Dimitri Illarianov, who was also playing it. With [Leo] Brouwer’s Variations on a Theme by Django Reinhardt, my professor gave me the scores but I didn’t really notice them until I heard Irina Kulikova play it, and I really liked the harmonies in her version. Usually there’s at least one hook in a piece that makes you want to play it. Same with [Mario] Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Capriccio Diabolico. I had heard it so many times, but then I heard Dimitri Illarionov and those pulsating chords in the piece and all those key transitions; they sounded very Liszt-ish to me, and I was a fan of Liszt at the time. My mother is the one who heard a Russian guitarist play [Mussorgsky’s] Pictures at an Exhibition—the [Kazuhito] Yamashita guitar arrangement—and she suggested I try that. She didn’t pressure me or anything, but I found I loved playing it and loved the difficulty of it.”
Another piece that has figured prominently in some of his competition programs has been the striking, modern Introduction and Vivace by Russian composer Nikita Koshkin, which Topchii describes as “a powerful piece [Koshkin] gave to me a long time ago. It has this toccata style, with continuous movement that I like and which is very challenging.” Still, like nearly every serious competitor, he’s developed a broad repertoire that spans major (and some minor) composers from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, plus, of course, the 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed, rare is the major competition today that does not require players to learn a difficult contemporary piece, some of them written specifically for the competition.
Topchii says he has never decided to not play a competition because of a difficult required piece, but he acknowledges that “it can add a level of stress, because playing modern music often requires a different approach. I find that sometimes I almost have to abstract myself from the classical rules I know, and learn modern pieces in a different way. Sometimes they don’t have the symmetry I’m looking for, and I have to learn them linearly, bar by bar, because it only has intonations, and all of them are very different.” He recalls one case in Tokyo, where “every morning when I woke up, I tried to remember the piece and it was very difficult. The day of the competition I was still struggling with it, because it was so hard to remember what came before or after what. I wondered, should I use the score or not? I decided to leave the score and go out. Surprisingly, I remembered thing after thing. It probably sounded a lot more stable than I was, but it was such a relief when it was done.” He won that competition on his second try; the previous year, “I wasn’t aware of the existence of the last page of music, so I played the piece without its epilogue and was disqualified from the competition as a result.”
These things happen. It’s the nature of competitions that each one is different, and there are often unpredictable circumstances that can affect a performance, from sudden unexplained mental lapses to environmental factors. Topchii is refreshingly honest as he relives a few difficult scenarios:
“I just came from Portugal, where I won the competition [Festival de Música da Primavera, Concurso de Guitarra] after two earlier tries.In the final round I was playing the Jose Sonata and the Koshkin piece and I was forgetting fingerings and having to replace them in real time in the fastest parts.But you cannot really use that ‘insider information’ to explain the difficulty of that to the jury members or the listeners, but that was what happened and I was fortunate to overcome it.I think part of the problem there was that we warmed up in a small room that had plenty of reverb, then we go into a theater and it was like the sound had been taken away from you; it had no life and didn’t sound right, and under those conditions I sometimes forget fingerings. But that’s my fault. Everyone else had to deal with that, too. So I’m working on that specifically—working on ways to reconstruct my memory. In the final round, we were fortunate to have amplification, so I could hear myself very well and it was a very gentle and intelligent amplification.”
At another competition, this one in Moscow, “I played a whole solo entrance of a very nice concerto by Antón García Abril—his Concierto Mudejar—and the monitors were so loud that I could hear every single scratch—and I don’t usually hear many, because I really work on that. So when I got that sound so loud and in my face it was a little unsettling and it made me decrease the amount of power I applied to my performance, because I was constantly hearing these scratches. It made me play more gently, but I was actually putting more effort into it, trying to be gentle.” He also notes that at a San Francisco competition he wore ear plugs to try to mitigate the loud monitors pointing up at him.
“When you feel right and you’re hearing everything well,” he says, “you’re able to try to go for a beautiful sound and go for your aesthetics and actually be that artist that people want to hear. I’m not making excuses. A lot of it is inside, being pressured by the imperfections you hear from yourself. Sometimes it’s great to be able to fight those stressors, and be resistant to those influences on your performance, and overcome them, but the truth is sometimes you can’t.”
Not surprisingly, through the years Topchii has competed against a number of guitarists multiple times—there is a sort of “competition circuit,” just as there is in professional golf and tennis—and it is not unusual for a guitarist to go back two or three times to the same contest until they’ve won it. “I’d call it a friendly rivalry,” he says with a smile. “I’ve met some people who are very competitive—and I’m competitive too, but I try to act the ‘peaceful warrior.’ I have had people ask me if I’m doing a competition, and when I say yes, they say, ‘Damn, I’m not going!’ But I’m not the only one there, and you have to beat the other people, not just me, because you never know who’s going to be there or how they’re going to play. So I think the safest way to think is that you have to beat yourself; play your very best and satisfy yourself, and even with that, you might win and you might not. You have to stay humble.
“Sometimes when I perform,” he continues, “it’s like there’s something inside me I have to fight. Playing can be a very meditative process, but you’re not always able to meditate when you play. There’s something inside of me that wants to take that steering wheel and turn it to the left! I can think of everything during my stage performance: I can think of my daily chores. I have to accept this and admit it; otherwise it will bother me too much. I have to let that part of me talk, but not interfere.”
I ask him, half-jokingly, “You’re playing Tansman and thinking about your laundry?”
“Oh, it’s almost like that! Not that crude, but as disturbing. Once, I was starting with the Giuliani Variations [Op. 49] in the second round and what popped into my mind was: ‘Should I have told everyone what the piece was? Because maybe they didn’t know the piece, except the jury members.’ And I had to slowly and gently push away those thoughts while I was playing, and really focus. It doesn’t deny the style I’m playing or the thoughts I’m expressing, but it’s another voice. I’ve heard a lot of guitarists express the same idea; it’s not just me. The positive part of that is that there are times you actually get to think about your life when you play, and instead of it being a distraction, it’s giving you a message, and that actually can allow more of your real character to come through.”
Getting to more mundane matters, I wonder how much practical considerations—cost and logistics of travel, prizes offered, prestige of the events—affects the choices he makes. And does he plot everything out a year or more in advance? “Actually, the older I get, the less it’s planned.So, I’m more likely to go to a competition spontaneously, or maybe even cancel a competition—I had to cancel Brussels recently because I had to do an exam here [in San Francisco]. That was quite sad because I want to do as much as possible and I wanted to do that one. I would love to say ‘yes’ to everyone, but of course I can’t.”
As for the variances in prize money, “What’s interesting is that with some of the smaller competitions, while they provide less prize money, you can sometimes still earn more than from going to more expensive places; you can end up carrying out more. But the thing is, you can’t count on winning or even coming in second or third. I just have to keep doing my job, keep working at it.
“My goal is to sustain and support myself, while learning to play guitar. And of course I’m looking to a more productive future; looking forward to that stage where I’ll be satisfied with the way I play, so when I record I will present something that I and others will enjoy. Or when I play more concerts. I have this inner expectation of myself that there is more to be done about my performances. I’m hard to satisfy when it comes to my playing, but I’m learning to be at peace with myself, and I’m trying to be less judgmental toward myself and others. I’m enjoying others’ performances much more than I used to, too.”
Topchii says that it’s typical for taxes to take 25 to 30 percent of cash awards, though he has also won occasional other prizes that have been valuable to him, such as the Redgate guitar he won at the Adelaide (Australia) Guitar Festivaltwo years ago. Obviously, it is easier and less costly to travel around Europe when he is working from his base in Ukraine than when he is on the U.S. West Coast and suddenly flying to Europe for competitions and/or concerts, but either way the expenses quickly add up.
“When I did a trip to Poland and Portugal, it cost me around $1,800 before I knew what, if anything, I would get from the competition. I have had to learn to not apply that financial pressure to my performance quality. I’m also doing concerts that will help me compensate part of my trip, or that will cover my full expenses, or near to full. But sometimes I want to do those not as much for the money, but because I’m connected with the organizer and I’m doing it also for the people there. The concerts I did in Moscow and Switzerland and Germany—the ones that were expensive trips—I was very well rewarded with the people’s reactions; maybe more important than money I could earn elsewhere. They were very fulfilling, and now I hope I can go back to those places. But I do have to be careful about what I do.”
And if you come home from a competition empty-handed? “It’s always food for thought, because I realize that even though I didn’t reach my absolute maximum, I can usually see what I didn’t do right. It’s always a different lesson for me. I always learn something. Sometimes it’s my performance quality; maybe my concentration isn’t what it should be. Sometimes it’s about not being rested enough. Sometimes it’s not being prepared enough—should I have spent more time on this piece and less on this other one? Sometimes it’s about doing well for the public, but maybe not for the jury. Sometimes it’s about someone else who’s in the competition, or someone who’s in the jury, because beyond the actual performance it’s always a matter of taste and of style.”
Needless to say, the guitarist tries to live as frugally as he can when he travels. “I usually stay in hotels, sometimes in apartments. I’m experimenting with Airbnb, just taking a room. Most often I try to book a single room, isolated from anyone, and it’s nice if I have a mirror I can practice in front of. Sometimes, if there’s a competition or concert on a campus, I’ll stay in a dorm room. And I’ve also met so many wonderful people staying with host families, which happens sometimes. I try not to spend too much time socializing, and I also try to make sure I get enough rest.
“I rarely take lunches or dinners out,” he adds. “I’m a grocery store guy—I like to go and buy my own food. It’s nice if I have a kettle wherever I am because I drink a lot of tea: green tea, black tea, Icelandic moss. It makes me think I’m benefitting my health! Sometimes I’m able to cook in my room. I used to travel with a mini-grill and cooked my own steaks in the room, which sounds strange but really worked for me. Vegetables and protein are important.”
Favorite places to play? “Tokyo is wonderful. In Japan they don’t scream ‘Bravo!’ but the fans are still as appreciative and knowledgeable as any audience. I love Portugal; the climate is nice and it’s beautiful, and actually there are a lot of Ukrainians there. I enjoy playing around France and Spain. I love Paris, I love Valencia. I love playing in New York. Some of my most memorable experiences were in Buffalo, New York, where I played the Falletta—huge hall, amazing response. Paris—the Salle Cortot, this little wooden hall with two balconies and fantastic acoustics; and I just played in Moscow, Tchaikovsky Hall, which is one of the most amazing places to play, and a huge response. So many great places in Europe and Asia . . . . I’ve been so fortunate to go to the places I’ve been and have the successes I have had.”
At this point, Topchii truly seems like a citizen of the world, and he shows no signs of wanting to give up his peripatetic life and settle down. “I feel I still have so much to learn,” he says. “I guess you never stop learning. But I want to get even better at competitions. I’m using competitions as a tool to develop the way I’m thinking and to try out ideas. I know I am imperfect. Perhaps this will lead to a concert career or a recording career. But now the goal is to be consistent and to feel like I’m really expressing myself through my music.”