Owen Mortimer

Leading the way

7:06, 11th May 2018

Adam Gatehouse, co-director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, introduces an ambitious series of initiatives to redefine the nature and impact of the Competition, turning it into a global event that promotes the pleasures of piano-playing to performers at all levels and audiences of every kind

When my co-director Paul Lewis and I were asked to re-envisage the Leeds Piano Competition, we decided that we needed a new set of priorities to make a competition valid for both audiences and musicians in the 21st century. We asked ourselves: how can you redefine the basic age-old concept of what a competition is? The competitive element goes with the territory; but we thought that there might be ways to make the process more rounded for everyone. Also, crucially, we wanted to extend the competition experience beyond the triennial event in Leeds and engage audiences of every kind across the globe in innovative ways during the three years between competitions.

First among our priorities was to make the whole experience more humane for the competitors. Competitions can sometimes feel a bit like a gladiatorial contest in which the winner takes all – usually a fat cheque and a few concerts – and those who are knocked out are sent home the next day with their pride and self-confidence in tatters. Of course you can’t remove the competitive element – participants are there to compete. That’s the deal. But in our new-look Leeds, the 24 competitors who are selected to come to Leeds for the main part of the competition will all remain there until the end, and those knocked out of the earlier rounds will take part in a wide range of activities including masterclasses, workshops, impromptu concerts in the city and, very importantly, learning and outreach work.

Our next priority was that the prize should have a strong element of nurturing and career building. Paul and other members of our performer-led jury will provide mentoring for the winners over an extended period, and that will also include career coaching from prominent members of the musical world.

We have also partnered with artist managers Askonas Holt, who will take on the prizewinner for long-term management. They will help to build a carefully managed programme of concert and recording engagements that are strategically planned to allow the winners time to mature as artists, build their repertoire, and learn from their mistakes. The winner will be engaged for a number of concerts across the UK in smaller venues as well as some of the leading halls in the country, including Wigmore Hall, Southbank Centre, Bridgwater Hall and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. There will be recording and broadcast activities with our partners at BBC Radio 3, as well as a solo CD recording with a leading label. Abroad there will be a European tour organised by our partners Steinway & Sons, and appearances in Holland, the USA, Japan and South Korea.

We also want to want to bring the Leeds Piano Competition to a much wider public. So we are taking the first round to Berlin, Singapore and New York, giving us a much more international allure. We are also streaming the whole competition online through Medici.tv, thus engaging with an exponentially wider public numbered in millions, across some 170 countries and 13,000 cities worldwide.

Other new elements include a chamber music round in the semifinals, which will show audiences another side of the pianists’ armoury. They will also be able to enjoy masterclasses, talks and films, plus a Leeds Piano Trail, with over a dozen pianos in public places across the city for anyone to play and record or film themselves, then upload the results to our website. We hope this will show people that the piano can be a non-elitist, accessible and fun experience for all. A unique partnership with the University of Leeds will provide the wonderful venues for all these events up to the finals.

‘Lang Lang shares our global ambition to bring the piano to as wide an audience as possible’. Photo by Felix Broede / DG
‘Lang Lang shares our global ambition to bring the piano to as wide an audience as possible’. Photo by Felix Broede / DG

The same philosophy of openness also extends to our Learning work, which we feel is crucial to the future of the Competition. We are working on an extensive, all-embracing programme that will see the piano in all its facets being brought to new audiences, both young and old, in schools and communities and care homes. We are planning to expand this on a national level with a National Piano Week, hopefully in collaboration with the BBC. With our new partners the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, we will be exploring the global possibilities by harnessing all that is new in digital technology to take the piano out to the whole world. There has never been a more exciting time to bring people together from the most diverse backgrounds and communities through music. The piano can be a lonely experience, but we can overcome that with digital technologies that can bring people together in extraordinary and innovative ways. We are only beginning to scratch the surface.

In addition to all this, we have launched an annual Leeds Piano Festival, which will take place in Leeds and London, involving some of the leading pianists of today, many of them Leeds alumni, as well as the Lang Lang Young Scholars who represent the best of the younger generation. Lang Lang is our global ambassador and he shares our global ambition to bring the piano to as wide an audience as possible.

By the end of September 2018 we will see whether or not our new strategy has worked. There are a lot of competitions out there, and it is a huge challenge to make a competition distinctive while remaining true to its principles. The Leeds has always been known for its artistic integrity, and we hope that this reputation will be maintained and enhanced – partly through new activities, but also through the quality and musical integrity of its competitors and winners. It is ultimately they who will make or break the Competition.

The finals of this year’s Leeds International Piano Competition will take place at Leeds Town Hall on 14 and 15 September 2018

Leeds International Piano Competition

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