Earlier this week I wrote about the criteria for writing up a press release. See here for a recap. Note: I’ve added additional criteria since the publication of that post.
Consequently it is incumbent on me to blog about very exciting news. Leeds Piano Competition winner Eric Lu who blew me away with his semi-final performance you may recall (see below if you don’t), is performing at LSO St Lukes in The London on 4th April.
And, in the interests of emphasising that I do consider the world outside of London, he’s also performing at The Venue, Leeds College of Music on 30th March. Both concerts are at 7.30pm.
I’m advised that the programme is:
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, K.511 Brahms – 6 Klavierstücke, Op.118 Chopin – Ballade No.4, Op.52 Handel – Chaconne in G major, HWV 435 Chopin – Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35
I don’t normally get excited about artists; I’m usually more driven by programmes. But the prospect of hearing Lu again is the exception.
It’s a test. Did I imagine what I heard that night in Leeds? Did I just let emotion run away with me? Was I in fact drunk?
As it happens, I wasn’t drunk that night at the Piano Competition, nor at the competition final a few days later. But there’s still a level of interest around whether Lu’s playing can transport me in the way it did in September last year. There’s also the question of what impact the competition had on his playing. Will I detect something different given that the competition is no longer present in the mind of artist or audience? Or will there be greater pressure on the part of the artist to prove their win?
Questions, questions, questions.
Oh. And I should add. There are other concerts that form part of the Leeds Piano Festival 2019 – Steven Osborne in a programme of Beethoven on 3rd (Leeds) and 5th (London), Barry Douglas playing Tchaikovsky, Schubert and Rachmaninov on 5th (Leeds) and 6th (London). And on 1, 2, and 4th April Aliya Alsafa, Jasper Heymann and Shuheng Zhang (the Young Scholars in the Lang Land International Music Foundation) also make their Leeds Piano Festival appearance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-oldEric 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.
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.