It's a knock-out for the grand masters

Music prize events aren't sprinting races, says Christopher Wood. So why is the Leeds Piano Competition so important?
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The Independent Culture

While Olympic golds were being fought over in Sydney last week, a more sedate if no less noisy spectator sport was taking place in Leeds. The Leeds piano competition has been in existence for nearly 40 years, its roster of winners including some household names, and some whose fame has faded as rapidly as a chord struck on their chosen instrument. Like the Olympics, the sight of pianists slugging it out over a concerto may make good television, but does it do the pianists and the profession any good?

While Olympic golds were being fought over in Sydney last week, a more sedate if no less noisy spectator sport was taking place in Leeds. The Leeds piano competition has been in existence for nearly 40 years, its roster of winners including some household names, and some whose fame has faded as rapidly as a chord struck on their chosen instrument. Like the Olympics, the sight of pianists slugging it out over a concerto may make good television, but does it do the pianists and the profession any good?

Peter Donohoe, who entered the Leeds in 1981, is one of many doubters. "When the result was announced it felt like I'd been kicked in the teeth," he says of coming sixth out of six finalists. He picked himself up, then the next year won the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition, but insists: "If anyone thinks I won the Moscow because I'd had some lessons that year and improved, they want their head feeling. The performance I gave in Leeds was one of the best of my life - and the Moscow wasn't."

Getting the result wrong is one obvious way competitions can fail - Andras Schiff, Boris Berezovsky and Louis Lortie all have successful careers after failing to win the Leeds. In such contests, it is often the inoffensive candidate who does well. Andrew Ball, a pianist and head of keyboard at the Royal College of Music, explains: "People who play with a lot of character tend to evoke strong responses; either like or dislike. Often the jury trade off interesting people against one another and you're left with someone rather anaemic in the middle."

Twenty years ago, Donohoe felt that entering the Leeds was a necessary evil. "I rode the system quite cynically," he says. "It's like getting a string of qualifications when you apply for a job. I had to do it - the fact that I had to is the problem. It's a symptom of so few people seeming to listen to what they actually hear. They go by preconceptions - if someone has a certain teacher, or has won a certain competition. If the system approves of them, they're given credibility. If you are an unknown artist who happens to be brilliant, it's very unlikely anyone will even come to your concert - certainly not critics."

Irrespective of who wins or loses, many musicians feel that the culture of competitions is irrelevant to the needs of today's aspiring pianists. Andrew Ball says: "Competitions are dinosaurs. They're disconnected from what the music profession is about. They take a model of repertory - largely classical and Romantic - that was necessary 25 or 50 years ago. People are questioning what a concert should be like now. Competitions place no premium on imaginative programming."

Rolf Hind, who specialises in contemporary music and has given numerous premiÿres, is a pianist whose career owes little to traditional concerto and recital formats; nor has he relied on success in public competitions. His last foray was a speedy exit from the BBC Young Musician of the Year at the age of 14. "It's more important to have strong and intelligent ideas about repertoire and programming," he says. "I'd much rather hear interesting, individual musicians introducing me to stuff I don't know."

Hind gives classes in contemporary music at the Guildhall and finds the pressure to compete an invasive influence. "I see delicate flowers of pianists being trampled," he says. "Not just by contemporaries who are bullish about the competitive rat race, but by teachers who insist that's what they have to fit into."

The Leeds competition has a contemporary prize, but its gestures towards contemporary music are somewhat half-hearted. Fanny Waterman, the contest's founder and artistic director, has cited Michael Tippett's presence on the repertoire list in response to a question about living British composers (Tippett died in 1998) and claims: "Many contemporary composers don't write for the piano. You have to be a pianist yourself. The piano has to sound like an orchestra, not just a series of percussive notes. There's got to be melodic quality. I've sat on a hundred juries at other competitions and some of the pieces commissioned are rubbish. It doesn't help the jury to assess the pianists. They have to spend weeks preparing pieces they don't like and nobody else likes."

Of this year's contemporary prize-winner Waterman says: "It was mind-boggling how he made Messiaen palatable for audiences," and mentions Britten's Notturno, from 1963, as a modern piece she enjoyed. She says that a successful Leeds entrant should "make the piano sing, and master the acoustics of Leeds Town Hall - that's part of the game".

But the idea that a pianistic career is a game that competitions prepare one for is anathema to Peter Donohoe. "Some people like the gladiatorial aspect of competitions," he says, "but it's nothing to do with music. As artists we should be contributing a new vision instead of saying 'I can play this piece louder or faster or more eccentrically than anyone else'."

Andrew Ball concurs on the absurdity of comparing artistic performances. "How do you rank Horowitz against Schnabel?" he asks. "It's meaningless. It's obvious at a high level - and should also be at a lower level. Music isn't a sporting competition."

Ball is critical of the composition of juries that are often made up of piano teachers intent on doing business. "Competitions become cattle markets for teachers to woo talent to come and study with them. It's a trade show." Donohoe occasionally sits on juries himself and is of like mind. "The juries are made up of teachers vying for their own profile. They enter their own pupils and use them to make themselves more famous. The whole thing stinks."

Ball believes there should not only be fewer teachers on juries, but fewer pianists. "Teachers have strong pedagogic standpoints and tend to be less open to qualities that can communicate to an audience or to non-pianists. And pianists have their own narrownesses of mind and idiosyncrasies. Why not have a jury that encompasses a wider range of musical opinions and viewpoints?"

Peter Donohoe, however, would not do away with competitions altogether. "They do give young people something to work towards," he says. "The problem lies with regarding them as the be all and end all." He also warns that the answered prayer of winning can be as damaging as losing: "If somebody wins and then fails to deliver, or is perceived as not deserving it, it can destroy them - just as you can destroy someone's ego by kicking them out as soon as they arrive."

Nor would Andrew Ball dissuade his students at the RCM from entering, as long as they know the pitfalls. "The only point of competitions is to give unknown pianists a platform, and other organisations such as the Young Concert Artists Trust do that much better," he says. "They're one of a range of opportunities. What's wrong is the idea that they're the main way of kickstarting a career. People think competitions wave a magic wand and turn them into better pianists. Competitions will never give them more than a platform to be what they are."

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