Leeds Piano Competition 2018: Preview

Five days of Leeds Piano Competition loveliness gets underway for me tomorrow.

Fran Wilson from the Cross-Eyed Pianist blog and I exchange emails in preparation for the competition finals.

 I’m off to Leeds for the piano competition; you’re watching online and TV. I get excited about these things – a sense of occasion mixed with the opportunity to discover something or someone new. What draws you to these kind of events?

Fran: First and foremost, for me it’s a live performance, and that always excites me because I adore live music. It’s always been a big part of my musical landscape ever since I was a little girl. Although I won’t be there in person, I will still enjoy the palpable excitement which comes from a live concert.

There is an element of risk in live performance, even though the competitors will have put in hours and hours of dedicated practice to make their music super-secure.

It’s that strange paradox – that very careful dedicated practice enables one to perform with a certain freedom. Special things can happen in performance when the adrenaline is flowing and the performer rises to the occasion. I agree with you also that it’s a chance to discover something new – new performers and maybe some new repertoire as well.

Also, it’s an opportunity to hear well-known repertoire receive a slightly different treatment. The reason why performers, and especially competition participants, play the big “war horses” of the repertoire is because it is so bloody good, and like the works of Shakespeare, it has stood the test of time and yet is open to new interpretations and ideas. I don’t mean radical re-interpretations of well-known works, but someone doing something a little different, perhaps with interior melodies or highlight certain piquancy of harmonies. Small details like this can make a big difference to one’s perception of the music, and I admire any performer who is prepared to step slightly outside of the “usual way” of playing say Mozart or Beethoven, who makes the music more personal to them.

I’m much less interested in virtuoso pyrotechnics and “style over substance”, or performers who are playing to please the judges. A performance which is sincere, convincing and committed, rich in expression and musical thought will definitely move me.

And finally, it’s all about the piano, which I adore with a passion, and events like the Leeds are a real celebration of the instrument, its literature and those who play it (that has certainly been the sense from the Leeds Twitter feed in the months leading up to the competition finals).

You’ve attended several other music competitions this year, including the ROSL gold medal competition. Do you find the fact that it is a competition, as opposed to simply a concert, changes your perception of the music and how it is played/presented?

Jon: I do really love competitions, it’s true. I think they are a great way of exposing yourself to a range of repertoire or, in the case of the initial rounds of some competitions, they’re a chance to get under the bonnet of a work – to really familiarise yourself with how something is constructed. Hearing the same work over and over again played with different interpretations demands an attentive kind of listening which can deepen appreciation of the music. That was certainly the case during the Aram Khachaturian Cello Competition a few months back. I’m not a string player, so I found I was especially curious about why different instruments produced different sounds. Then there is the additional inevitable opportunity to compare and contrast. Its not so much about working out who’s best (though you can end up feeling like a bit of a cheerleader for personal favourites). During the Khachaturian competition it did at times feel like I was deliberately pitting myself against the jury to see if I could work out whether *coughs* they agreed with my assessment.

But I think there’s also an element of going to another place to experience performing arts. Travelling heightens the senses – creates a sense of occasion. There’s always a part of me that feels like, regardless of whether I’m heading to somewhere in the UK or abroad, I’m going on my own private kind of Blue Peter expedition. In some respects it feels like the most perfect kind of indulgence. I do also wonder whether that’s not necessarily how others experience it. I sometimes eye those classical music tours and wonder whether I’d like to put one together myself for others. Fancy it? Where would you want to go?

Fran: Definitely! I think there IS something very special in hearing music in the country/place where it was created or sparked inspiration, or where its composer resided. I visited Malvern (Elgar) and Aldeburgh and Snape (Britten) many times as a child, and more recently Vienna (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert et al!) and I do think these places have a special resonance. Every building in the Altstadt of Vienna seems to echo with the sound of real and imagined music. My ideal itinerary would be a “composers trail” through Europe – Vienna, of course (because it is my favourite city and it just oozes music and art and culture – and cake), Prague, Weimar, Budapest, Warsaw…. Lots of music along the way, of course, but also conversations, and other cultural excursions.

As for your trip to Leeds, Jon, aside from all the fabulous piano playing you will hear, what else do you hope to take away from the trip? Is it a city you’ve visited before?

Jon: Budapest is special. That’s where I immersed myself in the music of Bartok. I’d always resisted his music – assumed I’d find it difficult to understand. But there’s pride in what he writes. A souped-up kind of Shostakovich with a bit more peril, hardship and defiance. Part of the heart of western classical music.

I’ve never been to Leeds before. Embarrassing to admit. At the same time that makes the trip rather special. I have friends who live close by – Wakefield, Harrogate and Burley in Wharfedale. So, in addition to this trip being a chance to experience some great musicianship outside of London, it’s an opportunity to experience a different UK city for the first time and catch-up with old pals. That this is close to the beginning of autumn, the trip is reminiscent of me heading north nearly 30 years ago for university. It makes the whole thing feel like a mini-expedition. Odd, I know. Such a southerner.

I have one final question. And in asking it, it seems like an impossible one. Given you’re a practised pianist – you play every day – and a teacher, I’m inclined to look to you for a steer. What should I look out for in a performance I hear? What is it that you experience when you’ve been transported? What is the ‘thing’ I should be looking for when I’m listening? 

Fran: Gosh – that’s quite a hard ask! People often assume that because I am a pianist I must have some kind of special insight or “secret knowledge”, that I “understand” the music better…. It’s true that I understand the mechanics of playing, how the sound is made and how aspects of technique such as arm weight can impact on the sound produced.

But when I am listening to a piano concert, the transporting or transcendent moments, the wit, the hints of the pianist’s personality as conveyed through their sound and body language, are those which are the hardest to put into words.

There are moments when one seems in suspense, almost holding one’s breath at the beauty of the sound or the subtle pacing or fluctuations of tempo, the “breathing spaces” which can be used to convey profound emotion or drama. As a musician and concert-goer yourself, you will spot these things too – and when it’s done without pretension or contrivance, you know it’s special.

Also, the performer who makes you hear/appreciate a well-known work in a different light. Sometimes this comes simply from the performance of the piece itself – highlighting certain details which others may have overlooked or decided are secondary to the main melody, for example – and sometimes it’s the result of interesting programming which may place unusual or lesser-known repertoire alongside well-know works, or simply the organisation of the programme: the unusual can shine a new light on the well-known – and vice versa.

Another thing is that amazing sense of collective concentrated listening when the audience is listening very intently.

There is a curious “vibration” in the concert hall at such times and it can be a remarkable experience – that unspoken communication between performer, composer/music and the audience. Again, you know something very special is happening and yet it is impossible to describe. And sometimes a performer will just do something jaw-droppingly virtuosic or clever or witty and suddenly it seems as if the music is painted in a gloriously varied palette of sound colours.

In young performers such as the Leeds competition participants, I think we should be listening out for someone whose technique really serves the music (rather than using flashy technique simply for the sake of ostentatious virtuosity) and is able to shed a new light on the repertoire while also remaining faithful to it. Someone whose playing makes you sit up, ears pricked.

Follow Fran Wilson on Twitter @CrossEyedPiano and on the Cross-Eyed Pianist Blog.

Earlier this year Fran and I recorded a podcast with Leeds Piano Competition Co-Director Adam Gatehouse. Listen via Spotify, iTunes or Audioboom.

Watch the semi-finals live and on catch-up via Medici.TV.

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