Leeds Piano Competition 2018: University, exhibitions and masterclasses

Staying in University accommodation near to the various events that form part of Leeds 2018 has had an unexpected effect on me.

After checking in to my accommodation in one of the halls of residence, I wandered around the campus revelling in nostalgic recollections of my own university experience twenty-eight years ago. I ended up yearning to spend as much time as I could here

It was as if by staying on campus a few weeks before term began I was experiencing again my undergraduate days back in the early 1990s. 

The accommodation – exactly my kind of pared back experience – does a lot to promote a sense of calmness. A different kind of focus emerges, different from the comparatively maniacal energy I have when I’m staying in a hotel.

Frivolous expenditure seems at odds with the purpose (real or imaginary, present-day or nostalgic) of being here. A simpler approach to the everyday emerges. Schedules are reduced to necessary activities and vital functions. Everything – the University music department, the bank and the Tesco Express – is within 5 minutes walk. This does a great deal to clear the mind of the usual procedural tasks I negotiate in London.

Simple but effective; accommodation without the bells and whistles is the way to go

At the same time it brings into sharp relief an even greater need for self-motivation. It would, in this environment, be all too easy to become accustomed to an easier pace. Expectations, demands and deadlines all hide behind a fluffy white cloud of loveliness. It’s not a real experience. It’s not the real world. The real world is mean and demanding and disappointing. 

Some of the time here I’ve spent some of Tuesday reflecting on my own achievements at University. My summary of the experience – the story I’ve told myself repeatedly over the years – is that I didn’t work hard enough, that I somehow coasted. That if only I had the chance to go back I would work harder at that degree, probably even devote the entire three years to Music history.

Motivation

The fact is I got my degree and a good one too – even if the DfE doesn’t rate a 2.1 as particularly good anymore. Not only that, a university friend of old corrected me on my false memory. The stories we tell ourselves aren’t always the same as what others see us as. Even so, being here in Leeds reminds me that during my University years I just would have liked to have been more motivated from earlier on in the process.

It got me thinking about the pianists we’ve heard in Leeds this week.

Forget some of the television competitions. Sure, those musicians have reached a particular stage in their learning and expression, but they’re only just embarking on their developmental journey. I worry those TV competitions skew the balance – we watch and revel in the achievement of the young. Promoting participation is vital, of course. But, recognising that musicianship takes years to perfect is crucial. I worry that our attention is too much on promoting participation, when it also needs to emphasise what’s entailed in the kind of performances we as audience members expect.

Where and when did the potential first present itself?

Then I start wondering how the competitors were at university, conservatoire or college. Did they, like me, let themselves become accustomed the relative safety of a higher education environment? How did they maintain momentum? What did they do (or what was said to them and when) that meant their motivation remained sufficiently high for them to reach the standard they are? What doubts do they confront in their day-to-day experience and how do they overcome them? What’s their view of their future like? Do developing musicians have a clear sense of what they’re striving for? Do they hold a ‘plan b’ close to their chest, assuming they have more than one plan anyway? 

Second round and semi final competition rounds were held in the Great Hall at the University of Leeds

These questions get louder and louder whenever you hear one of the competitors play in either a masterclass, a concert, or a competition round. It’s not that they’re young (I consider anyone in their twenties as young) that commands my attention and makes me go ‘wow’ out loud.

What I observed

It’s the crispness of the tone they extract just by striking one note on the keyboard. It’s the poise they display when sat at the keyboard. It’s the image they complete when they sit at the piano – two critical elements meeting one another head on before a moment of musical expression. It is as though in this moments, when the combination is just right, the player’s age is irrelevant. More, it’s that the player is suited to the piano. Everything else that follows seems natural and utterly compelling as a result.

Andrzej Wierciński (22, Poland) is a case in point. He may not have got through to the final, but just watching him in the competition and in the masterclass yesterday (clip below) its difficult to think he won’t be cropping up somewhere in the sector in the years to come. His commitment and self-assurance makes for a riveting performance. 

Pavel Zemen (25, Czech Republic) was another personal favourite of mine. His semi-final performance of the second piano sonata by Rachmaninov displayed an intensity and an immediacy that was at times almost too much to bear, as though he was pushing us gently towards an emotion rarely felt and difficult to handle. But like so much of the Leeds experience (which is what makes it rather a joyous thing) seeing those instrumentalists away from the piano keyboard was a discombobulating thing.

When I arrived at the Halls of Residence I saw Pavel sat on a bench casually reading a magazine. I commented on how much I’d enjoyed his performance. He seemed to look at me in mild terror as though he wasn’t quite sure how to react. There was, without the piano to contextualise him, there was an air of vulnerability about him in that moment. It is that stark contrast between stage performer and everyday individual that intensifies the wonder around their on-stage persona. On stage, I see entirely different individuals – people made complete by the music they are playing. 

And then there’s Eric Lu. The conversation amongst the chattering audience during the many necessary breaks for fresh air is accompanied by knowing looks whenever Eric Lu’s name is mentioned.

And unusually for me, I quite like being in amongst that kind of conversation. There isn’t a burning need by anyone to predict a winner, only the joy to be experienced of being in amongst others who feel the same way about a performer you’ve discovered quite unexpectedly.

For me, it’s Lu’s ability to create such a rich variety of different sounds from the instrument, a seemingly wide array of characters, tones, and colours whilst maintaining a stillness and solidity about him.

The second melodic subject in the second movement of Chopin’s second piano sonata is a perfect example of what I’m talking about – delicacy, elegance and just a little hint of heartbreak, all combined in one melodic line.

And don’t get me started on the third movement. That just about pushed me over the edge when I heard it in the Great Hall.

Eric Lu is to Leeds Piano 2018 what Jonathan Swensen was the Aram Khachaturian Cello Competition in Armenia earlier this year. 

Immersion is where its at

What’s helped me deepen my appreciation for the endeavour all of the competitors have taken on, is having a chance to gain insight into the intricacies of technique and musicianship.

In this way, the masterclasses have been more than the treat I described them as at the beginning of the week. They’ve helped me understand what to listen out for and appreciate that there are a multitude of different factors known and unknown to the instrumentalist physical and mental which have an impact on the art that is created at the keyboard.

Masterclasses remind me that this isn’t just us listening to a person play a piece of music. We are watching something rather miraculous happen in front of our eyes and feeling the results resonate in us. The more I think about that the more it excites me.

The Cobbe Collection

And whilst the opportunity to look at a collection of antique pianos wouldn’t necessarily have been on my top ten list of things to grab hold of,

The Cobbe Collection turned out to be a fascinating introduction to the piano’s history. Being able to hear the development of the instrument’s sound over a 250 year period neatly illustrated the way in which the music written by Chopin for example, was originally played on an instrument entirely different from that which moved me a few days ago.

Alec Cobbe and David Owen Norris shared insights about the history of piano construction at The Cobbe Collection Exhibition, and feature in the Thoroughly Good Podcast about the Leeds Piano Competition 2018.

Our emotional response to the instrument is in a way conditioned by the present-day aesthetics we’ve assumed as an audience. Musicianship is built around the instrument available to us today, not the kind the music was originally written for. That reveals a whole host of different paths to go down in appreciating and understanding the music.

And what’s rather wonderful about all of this is that none of it is calling upon anything I studied at University on my music degree course. It isn’t knowledge which makes this world fascinating, its appetite and curiosity. 

The Leeds Piano Competition Finals are on Friday 14 and Saturday 15 September 2018 and are streamed live on Medici TV.

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