Tinkle, tinkle, little star (while we wonder who you are)

'Leeds is one of the most important piano competitions in the world. God alone knows why'
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The Independent Online

The Leeds International Piano Competition cranks up again, drawing the young hopefuls of the piano world to Yorkshire. A hundred-plus virtuosi will go through their paces, and, after the televised final, one winner will emerge, clutching a cheque for £12,000 and a trophy, and, with the help of tremendous media coverage, will find him or herself catapulted into the first rank of concert pianists. At least, that's what we're told.

The Leeds International Piano Competition cranks up again, drawing the young hopefuls of the piano world to Yorkshire. A hundred-plus virtuosi will go through their paces, and, after the televised final, one winner will emerge, clutching a cheque for £12,000 and a trophy, and, with the help of tremendous media coverage, will find him or herself catapulted into the first rank of concert pianists. At least, that's what we're told.

It's been going on now for nearly 40 years. It was set up by the redoubtable Fanny Waterman and Lady Harewood and has escalated steadily ever since. It's one of the most important piano competitions in the world and is taken very seriously, it seems, by pianists and pundits alike.

God knows why. Frankly, it is a competition with the track record of a three-legged mule. From the first competition, in 1963, which was won by Michael Roll - who happened to be a pupil of Fanny Waterman herself - it has steadily picked pianists who have failed to make much of a mark on the outside world. The jury, almost every time, passes over anyone with individuality and talent and settles on some amiable bore, who promptly returns to the semi-obscurity he came from. John Kimura Parker, Ilya Itin, Michel D'Alberto, Ian Hobson, Ricardo Castro... all perfectly OK pianists, but none of them is ever going to set the Thames on fire.

And then there is a sadder list, of the unarguably great pianists of whom the Leeds Competition just wasn't worthy. Piotr Anderszewski famously disqualified himself; the sensational Evgeny Kissin and Maria-Joao Pires, that sublime Chopin player, appear nowhere in the Leeds history; Mitsuko Uchida, the most thoughtful and meticulous of musicians, failed to win; Louis Lortie came fourth once - and he, I think, is the greatest and most complete pianist I have ever heard live.

It would be easy to go on. Why this competition gets it so consistently wrong I don't know. There can be no suggestion of corruption or money changing hands among the jury. Nor is it likely that horse-trading goes on, with members of the jury voting for one another's protégés; that could hardly fail to be noticed.

It's far more likely that the safe middle-rankers triumph because of the usual progress of jury deliberations. If you've ever judged a prize, it quickly becomes apparent that it's easier to reach agreement on someone to whom no one actively objects. I remember being on the panel for a literary prize once, and, though everyone had a different favourite, we all agreed on our second choice. The universal second choice, which no one felt very passionately about, naturally won. I'm sure that's what generally happens at Leeds; a really individual artist who divides the panel violently will end up with fewer marks than someone who plays Brahms neatly. But it will usually produce a wrong result, and the wider world, which doesn't feel a need to mark artists out of 10, will find it easier to express interest in the idiosyncratic loser.

The culture of competitions is not a healthy one, and yet it is now inescapable. There is a particular sort of artist whom competitions favour; one with a public face and obvious ambition. The Booker prize, which tends to reward serious novels on serious themes, has persuaded a whole generation of English novelists to put on a straight face and talk about History, in the hope of some eventual spectacular recognition. The Turner prize has discouraged artists from the simple observation of the facts of the world, from a delight in materials, light and colour, and made them think that they ought to be producing big ideas. And the Leeds competition rewards stolid reliability and public showiness over poetic fantasy. It's no good; in each case, what trails in the wake of these circuses is a generation of hopefuls who, in Auden's phrase, have ruined a fine tenor voice for effects that bring down the house.

When, like at Leeds, a prize consistently gets it wrong, you would think that its authority would quickly diminish. But that doesn't seem to be happening. It is broadcast and followed eagerly. People watch prizes with great interest. You can't ask creative artists now to boycott these undignified spectacles; they offer too promising a short cut to fame, too easy a way to attain public exposure for what, after all, may very well be a remarkable talent.

What we can do, as an audience, is to stop taking them so seriously and to make an effort to discover the sort of new talent that flourishes away from the artificial limelight; to go and hear the recitals of young pianists in the middle of the week at the Wigmore Hall, to wander routinely into small private galleries and look at the work of painters we've never heard of. If we want art to flourish and be truly various, that is really the only option.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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