Survivor, The Voice, RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Bachelor, Dancing With the Stars … we love competitions. We love to see the underdog win and to be honest, we don’t mind watching epic meltdowns either. James Kim, a producer at Dinner Party Download, has crafted a beautiful audio version of what we love to watch in the aptly named The Competition.
The first season of the show follows the journeys of several contestants in the 2017 Van Cliburn piano competition, held in June in Fort Worth, Texas. This prestigious competition features just 30 contestants from around the world, is only held every four years, has an age range limitation, and puts the pianists through the wringer. The reward for taking home the top prize is a management contract for three years, international tour dates, a recording partnership, and oh, $50,000.
I first heard about The Competition several months ago, but I often have such a long queue of episodes I’m dying to hear that it’s hard to work in a serial show that’s really best listened to in one fell swoop. But last week I cleared out my queue and just threw The Competition on play. After one episode I knew how I would spend my next listening block.
Kim introduces the audience to a handful of contestants throughout the first few episodes, and then we get to attend the Cliburn in what feels like real-time, even though it is now several months later. Each contestant shares how they came to play piano in the first place, why they’re passionate about playing classical music, and how they’re feeling about the upcoming contest. Kim narrates how he’s feeling about the contestants and the competition as well, and it is very effective.
When the episodes get to the actual competition, we listen as the contestants profiled in earlier episodes are interviewed before and after playing. Kim’s earnest hope for their success translates as if he is a genuine friend to these pianists. We also get to hear from a former Cliburn jurist and competitor who provides an insider perspective about how the featured contestants fared in each round. This commentary became one of the most anticipated segments of each episode as I was listening.
It was an exquisite choice to profile a competition that may seem on the surface to be less than dramatic: there are no epic falls or injuries, no double crossing, nothing remotely faked as it is often on television. Because the tension is authentic, the drama is real, completely non-manufactured, and human, and it has a gorgeous soundtrack as a backdrop. The classical music is played romantically, carefully, and often triumphantly throughout the show. Again, the Cliburn competition features piano phenoms from around the world – it was so enjoyable to lose myself in these pieces.
The first season of The Competition was thrilling; the next season can’t come quickly enough and I can’t wait to find out what competition James Kim has picked out to profile. Very well done.
What do you think of this podcast? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss! Also subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter!
Audible Feast Ratings
Educational Value (5 / 5)
I loved learning about the Cliburn competition, something I’d never heard of. Can’t wait to see what competitions the show profiles in the future!
Pop Culture Value (3 / 5)
Host Listen-ability (5 / 5)
The awe and excitement of host James Kim as he listens to each live performance is infectious and pure.
Flow & Production Value (5 / 5)
Humor (3 / 5)
Investigation (5 / 5)
Storytelling (5 / 5)
There is tension, self-doubt, self-confidence, gratitude, joy …. all terrific elements to a personal narrative, and they’re embedded within a greater story of a competition. Terrific.
Makes Me a Better Person (5 / 5)
Overall Audible Feast Rating: (5 / 5)
Start with These Episodes:
It’s a serial podcast, you must start at the beginning and resist looking up who won the competition!
You May Also Like …
The Great Composers, BBC Music Magazine, From the Top, London Symphony Orchestra Podcast