Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 18: Leeds International Piano Competition

Sounds from the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, including an exclusive tour of The Cobbe Collection of antique pianos, masterclasses with Lars Vogt and Imogen Cooper, and reflections on the final performances from Aljoras Jurinic, Anna Geniushene, Mario Haring, Xinyuan Wang, and winner Eric Lu.

Many thanks to Alec Cobbe and The Cobbe Collection team, Leeds International Piano Competition, Medici TV and the University of Leeds.

Leeds International Piano Competition 2018: eight thoughts from Final One

Leeds Town Hall acoustic is special

The spacious interior but surprisingly narrow interior creates a clear and atmosphere. The sound is crisp, and at times, incredible warm. It feels like a place that wants to hear music. When the audience applauds it sounds like you’ve just had the wax extracted from your ear – brittle, bright and invigorating.  

The Leeds competition has a passionate community at its heart

There’s been a really strong community feel at every event I’ve attended in the Leeds this year. I haven’t felt like an outsider (even though I am one). There was a buzz in the Town Hall before the Final the like of which I haven’t really experienced in London. That’s special. 

Move Me

All the performances are going to be and are good. But as a punter, I’m looking out for something that transports me – a live performance experience that roots my memory of the work, it’s performer and Leeds all in one. Mario Haring achieved this. 

Does the performer assume the character of the concerto?

I disappeared into a strange new world when I listened to Anna Geniushene play Prokofiev 3 with the Halle. She is a strong player. Assertive. Solid. Intent. But how much of that is Anna the performer? How much of it is the character of the concerto she is taking on herself? 

The Hallé are bloody brilliant

I only really ever hear the Hallé at the Proms. Or maybe on Radio 3 from time to time. But bloody hell, the Hallé are brilliant. The octave leaps in the principal horn during the second movement of the Prokofiev were stunning. 

The competitors must be exhausted

I was reminded of this again during the Mozart Piano Concerto K461 from Aljosa Jurinic. In addition to the repertoire the 24 pianists brought to the second round, each competitor had to prepare 1 hour 22 minutes for their potential inclusion in the semi-final round, and in case they got through, two concertos from which one would be chosen for the final. A lot of music. And a lot of shifting of mindsets too. What with the inevitable adrenaline rushes and crashes, they’re going to be exhausted (if they’re not already).

They also look a bit vulnerable up there on stage

Unlike concerts and recitals, in competition environments you’re likely to see the competitors in various locations outside of the competition. That means you see them as human beings rather than super-human types on a special stool on stage. When you next see them flanked by 100 or so musicians and countless other members of the audience, those same competitors suddenly take on a slightly vulnerable look. Before the Mozart began I experience a vague feeling of worry on behalf of the Aljosa. Odd. 

This has been massively rewarding

I always enjoy these kind of trips. I think people know that already. But this has been especially rewarding. It’s been a great way to understand more about the piano, technique and musicianship, making something like a concert packed full of concertos an even more enjoyable experience. I feel like I’ve discovered a new interest to explore: piano music. 

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.

Leeds Piano Competition 2018: Finalists announced

It’s my first day in Leeds and my first experience of the Leeds Piano Competition.

Some brief thoughts follow, plus the names of the finalists announced this evening.


What’s been really striking from the semi-finals I’ve attended today is how demanding the competition is. A considerable amount of repertoire needs to be prepared by each musician (fourteen or fifteen) for the competition; then there are additional concert appearances in Leeds throughout the competition and various masterclasses. Within the semi-final the soloist is expected to shift from solo repertoire to chamber music in a short space of time. I like it being a tough competition in that way.

Boundaries

Something that has really come into focus for me today is how we discuss the concert experience. I’ve heard a few people talk about what the performer has or hasn’t done to illicit a desired (or undesired) outcome in a performance, and how that has contributed to a successful or otherwise experience for the audience member.

I do it myself from time to time, even though I’m striving to talk authentically (which essentially means I end up talking about myself a tremendous amount) so that others feel encouraged to do so themselves.

The real moment of clarity for me came around boundaries. I mentioned it in the last video from today on the Twitter feed. My point is this: we as audience members can only really speak authoritatively about how we felt in response to the performance we engaged with as listeners.

We can speculate about what the performer did or didn’t do, of course. But we aren’t the performer themselves so can’t speak authoritatively for them. We shouldn’t allow ourselves or other audience members to feel as though their view of their experience is downgraded just because they don’t back up their opinion with technical expertise.

I’m increasingly of the mind, for example, that a worrying majority of the audience is unwittingly battling with imposter syndrome when they engage in conversation about the artform – that so has to stop). I am responsible for my own emotional reaction to a performance, just as you are for yours. I wonder whether that’s the point we need to be getting across more to people – giving them permission to articulate their personal response to a performance.

Fanboy

I’m conscious that I haven’t seen the other finalists semi-final performances yet, but after having heard four today, I’m just going to throw caution to the wind and throw my weight behind 20 year-old Eric Lu from the United States. His Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor was a remarkable concert experience this evening. Watch the performance on Medici TV. 

Finalists 

Anna Geniushene
Mario Häring
Aljoša Jurinić
Eric Lu
Xinyuan Wang

Three finalists will play concertos with the Halle Orchestra and Edward Gardner on Friday; the remaining two on Saturday night. Both finals are streamed lived on Medici TV.

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.


Jon:
 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.