A Piano Battle Goes Global, and Discovers Its Sensitive Side

Paul Lewis, left, and Adam Gatehouse have made significant changes to the Leeds International Piano Competition, which was first held in 1963.

LONDON — The Leeds International Piano Competition got underway this week — but not in Leeds, England, where this famous fixture of the international keyboard circuit has been based since it began in 1963.

“The Leeds,” as the competition is known, has taken up its bed and walked. The first round is now happening in Berlin, and it will move to Singapore on Sunday, and then to the DiMenna Center in New York on Wednesday.

The competition — whose prizewinners include Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia — is going global in an effort to confront the growing power of its rivals on the international circuit: heavy-hitting operations like the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Van Cliburn in Fort Worth, or the Honens in Calgary, Alberta. But there’s another reason.

Music competitions are widely thought to be in need of change, to modify their death-or-glory qualities and find a new kind of humanity. (The composer Bela Bartok once said that such events were for horses, not musicians.)

The Leeds is changing with a vengeance. Its creator, the formidable piano teacher Fanny Waterman, retired last year at age 95, and control has passed to new blood: Paul Lewis, a British pianist, and Adam Gatehouse, a former power broker at the BBC, are now joint artistic directors.

Between them, they have reimagined what a piano competition can to be. It is not a surprising move for two people who accepted the job having the same misgivings as Bartok.

Mr. Gatehouse previously ran the BBC’s New Generation Artists, a platform for talent that’s emphatically noncompetitive, and said he was approaching his new task with “a healthy skepticism.” Mr. Lewis has also kept clear of contests, apart from what he remembers as the “miserable” experience of taking second prize in the 1994 London International Piano Competition.

“You can’t really like the idea of them,” Mr. Lewis said, “because they don’t foster an environment where you can properly be heard as a musician. When you walk onstage as a competitor you should be thinking about music, but you’re actually thinking about being judged.”

He added that he did not like the way “competitions tend to exist for themselves, full of self-congratulation when a few prizewinners go out into the world and succeed. The goal should be to help performers whether they win prizes or not.”

But both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Gatehouse said they accepted that, like or loathe them, competitions are popular with the public and help launch careers.

“They’re part of the fabric — they’re not going to go away,” Mr. Lewis said. “So I thought, O.K., if I were 24 and entering the Leeds, what would I want it to be? How could I bring it closer to the reality of what it is to be a musician in the 21st century?”

Credit...Leeds International Piano Competition

The answer was a series of reforms that transformed a blood-sports entertainment to a celebration of the keyboard, with, perhaps, a different sort of winner: somebody whose musicality runs deeper than the fire and flash of virtuoso brilliance.

After this month’s rounds in Berlin, Singapore and New York, the competition will return to Leeds in September. This is a much less punishing experience: In the past, 80 pianists flew into Leeds from across the world and played through the rounds and finals relentlessly, under pressure, for as long as three weeks.

“No one’s at their best in those circumstances — least of all the jury,” Mr. Gatehouse said. “By the time you reach contestant number 43 at 9 p.m. on day five you’re completely knock-eyed and can’t make meaningful comparisons.

“So splitting off the first rounds and locating them strategically in Europe, Asia and America — closer to where most of the contestants come from — seemed like a good idea, as well as giving the competition a more global presence.”

Those first rounds will reduce the number of candidates who end up in Leeds to 24, for a competition that lasts 10 days. The lucky 24 will have plenty of time for preparation. And they’ll find that some of the time-honored cruelties of competitions have been dropped.

“It used to be,” said Mr. Gatehouse, “that as soon as someone was eliminated they had to vacate their room and get the next flight home, their self-confidence in tatters. But now everyone will stay on to the end, and we’ll gainfully employ them — in pop-up recitals, educational projects at community centers, schools, anywhere we can get a piano. And they’ll all participate in master classes with the jurors.

“They’ll still go home disappointed, but it won’t be with that devastating sense of failure and rejection.”

Jurors will also mentor some participants, with continuing career advice part of what Mr. Lewis calls the competition’s “duty of care.” And prize packages for first, second or third place extends beyond the usual cash awards, engagements and recordings to include long-term management from a leading artists’ agency.

If all this reads like going soft on a snowflake generation that needs to be toughened up for life on the concert circuit, there are some respects in which the Leeds makes more demands than before. The rules now require performers to offer more repertoire, with more variety. They have to prove themselves in chamber music, collaborating with other instrumentalists. For the finals they must offer two concertos, with one from before the Romantic era — which means they cannot rely on churning out the standard virtuoso repertoire of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Grieg that often wins competitions.

Most interesting of all, performers have to put together a recital program with a written explanation of the thinking behind it.

“It’s not that we don’t value virtuosity,” Mr. Gatehouse said, “but we want to make the point that being musical is what will count.”

As the pianist Lars Vogt, a past winner of the Leeds and one of this year’s jurors, put it: “We’ll be looking for someone with a view of the world, not just fast fingers. Who can tell a story in their playing and make meaningful connection with an audience.”

If these promises are met, the Leeds will certainly be different this year. It will nurture and explore, dig deeper into what it takes to be a pianist. And perhaps it will be won by someone whose abilities extend beyond a knack for winning competitions.

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