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Paving the way for the future: Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Keep it Real

8:00, 2nd February 2018

Paul Lewis’s distinguished career as a pianist is complemented by his role as co-artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition. As guest editor of Classical Music’s competitions focus this month, he provides some trenchant thoughts about the changing role that competitions are playing in developing successful, sustainable careers. Above all, he says, competitions must be rooted in the real business of music-making rather than stoking fantasies of instant fame and fortune

I’ve always found competitions an artificial and ill-equipped space to critique art. I suppose you might say that I agree with Bartók’s famous assertion that ‘competitions are for horses, not artists’. I never enjoyed competitions as a participant; in fact, I did very few – maybe four or five. I won second prize in the 1994 London International Piano Competition with a forgettable performance of Rachmaninov’s third concerto – a work I’ve barely played since. I took part in my first competition when I was 17 – the Scottish International Piano Competition. I remember one of the participants, who was 30 at the time, arrived in Glasgow with something of a reputation, having played in at least 10 competitions a year for the last decade. He had won a handful of prizes over the years, but had turned down some of the resulting engagements in favour of entering more competitions. For me, that is not what a career in music should look like.

Having read the above, you might be surprised to discover that I’ve recently been appointed artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition. Why would one of the world’s largest piano competitions recruit somebody with an aversion to such events? To be honest, when I was asked if I would be interested in getting involved, my first reaction was to say no. But, after some thought, I realised that competitions are not going away – and they do offer one route to a career in music. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to help develop Leeds – one of the world’s most high-profile piano competitions – into an immersive and engaging event, relevant to what it means to be a musician in the 21st century.

To understand this challenge, it’s important to reflect on the history of music competitions. If we look back over the past 50 years we can see how much they have changed. If anyone won a prize at an important competition in the 1970s, for example, it was big news and many people – not just ardent classical music fans – knew about it. These days there are hundreds of competitions so their impact is somewhat watered down. Competitions have to fight for their place in the music industry. But there are a handful of competitions – such as Leeds – that have a certain prestige.

Top team: Paul Lewis with Adam Gatehouse, co-artistic director of the Leeds © Simon Jay Price
Top team: Paul Lewis with Adam Gatehouse, co-artistic director of the Leeds
© Simon Jay Price

One of the big dangers of competitions is that individuals are promoted not necessarily as individuals, but as prizewinners. Every competition cycle (three years, in the case of Leeds) yields a new set of prizewinners to be looked after, which can result in the previous winners being forgotten. That’s what we need to get away from. It’s not about capitalising on short-term success, it’s about preparing the way for the future. Prizewinners need to be connected with the right sort of promoters – by ‘right’ I mean the type who understand the individuality of that particular musician and will take a long-term view of the relationship, rather than packing concerts into a three-year period.

The Leeds will stay as a triennial event, but whereas previously the competition took place over three weeks, with all four rounds in Leeds, the first round will now take place six months ahead, in three cities: Berlin, Singapore and New York. This means we have far more focused second, third and fourth rounds, with 24 pianists coming to Leeds, instead of 80. It’s more digestible this way, and is much better for the jury. Personally, I would struggle to keep track of 80 consecutive performances. We now have a performer-led jury comprising a range of prominent people from the music world, and not exclusively pianists (although we do have some wonderful pianists, including Lars Vogt and Imogen Cooper). For example, we’ve got Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud and Gillian Moore, Southbank Centre’s director of music.

An extremely valuable aspect of competitions is in the opportunity they present to connect with colleagues and the wider community. We will be encouraging the jury to offer mentorship to any participants they feel would benefit – not just the finalists. This doesn’t have to be lessons; it could be advice or support from someone who understands the process of becoming a professional musician.

In fact, collaboration is the key theme of the ‘new-look’ competition. There’s an emphasis on chamber music, and sharing the best parts of musicianship. To that end, the repertoire is less prescriptive, too – we want people to play what they feel will show them at their best. This is more realistic in terms of what is expected of musicians; you don’t have to touch all corners of the piano repertoire just for the sake of it – it’s important to be selective and play well. We want to give the participants more authority over their performance.

Collaboration is key to the new Leeds, says Lewis © Simon Jay Price
Collaboration is key to the new Leeds, says Lewis
© Simon Jay Price

It’s also important for musicians these days to be able to express their musical thinking in other ways, so Leeds participants will be asked to write a 500-word piece on their programming. Some who naturally think in this way will enjoy the task; hopefully it will inspire the others! It’s also nice for the audience to have a few words written by participants. Even though the repertoire requirements are freer than before, there is more repertoire to prepare; for the second, third and fourth rounds everybody will have to prepare two programmes, and the finalists will play two concertos. This is also part of the reality of life as a musician: you have to carry a lot of repertoire around, especially when you’re starting out.

Competitions have a certain duty of care and it’s a challenge to take that seriously. The prizewinners – and all participants – need to be encouraged to take that long-term view. There are short-term steps to take, too: at Leeds personal connections are important; it’s not about putting the blinkers on and getting up to play. We need to create a sense of community – for instance, participants will play in local schools. To be of any value, competitions should reflect the realities of life as a working musician, and educational outreach, communication and engagement are all part of the job. Turning up and playing set pieces is not enough these days to sustain a meaningful career.

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