"In the 2010 competition there were four of us pianists, and some of us felt that the work load was a little too much. Now we are five; each one has six to eight competitors to play with, so there is enough work for everyone." Very few competitors bring along their own pianists. The word about the high quality and good reputation of the pianists working for the competition has gone around throughout the years. Most of them teach at the Sibelius Academy, and the pedagogue inside helps the young and restless in reducing competition stress.
Ichihashi had to play the compulsory Mozart Rondo in C major eight times in the first round. How does the experience differ each time? "The first thing that comes to mind is the tempo," says Ichihashi. "Most of them kept a rather fresh moving beat going, one of them was more peaceful, but the differences were not that big. Sometimes you run into finer deviations - you just have to really pay attention at that very moment, because you can't remember every single thing that was mentioned at the rehearsal, you just move along."
Ichihashi had a super busy Sunday rehearsing with all of her eight violinists. "My first headache was to come up with a functioning schedule," she recalls. Also getting the five pianists and the general secretary of the competition, Päivi Pousar, around the same table before everything started was a timing miracle. "Everybody is so busy, but once we got together, things were easy."
How close to a concert performance can a competition duo get? "It doesn't have to be very different from a concert, but it is quite far away from how I usually work," she says referring to the longer processes and periods in which music is being prepared before performances. "Now we don't have much time, but the violinists are extremely well prepared, everything is well-thought, the tempos are clearly set, they know how things should go. One competitor asked me about the tempo in a Sibelius piece - how fast should it be played? I didn't say much, we just played until he felt it was right."
There are three Japanese violinists in Naoko Ichihashi's group, and for them being able to communicate in their native language with the pianist was a lucky strike. "They are the ones who came directly from Japan and are not attending any of the European music schools," says Ichihashi about the co-incidence, since the competitors and pianists are paired due to the sonatas they play in the second round and the pianists' schedules - the ideal is to give the pianists longer breaks in between competitors so that they can concentrate on the upcoming session and recall the tempos both agreed on. "And we have sonata preferences, too. There are some I like more than others and our preferences were taken into consideration."
The fact that each violinist had a very different cadenza in the Mozart Rondo created another unique challenge. "Some cadenzas were very long, some much shorter, so you really had to be alert," says Ichihashi..
Playing with eight different violinists in a short time has been an enjoyment for Naoko Ichihashi. "When the body language works, it is easy, they all move very naturally, nobody was "machine-like" in any way, and they are such nice people!"
Naoko Ichihashi started working for the Sibelius Violin Competition in 1990. "I was so young, some of my friends from Japan came to take part, but now it's my friends' children and students who come to compete," she says.
She is not the only one in the family who is involved in the competition. Daughter Tami, 19, works for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) as chat hostess of the live webcasts. She is the winner of the Kuopio National Violin Competition of this year. Naturally people have asked why she is not in the competition; she felt it came too soon and is looking forward to the one in five years. Having a fully qualified competition pianist at home sounds like an ideal situation. "We don't play together any more, not since Tami was 12. Well, playing together would be fun, but rehearsing is pure horror!" the mother and daughter laugh in unison.