Friday, December 19, 2014

Who can jump-start Leeds?

It's been a big week for musical chairs. Abigail Pogson of Spitalfields Festival is off to run The Sage, Gateshead. Darren Henley, head honcho of Classic FM, has been appointed CEO of Arts Council England - this man knows music, knows people love it and knows what's needed in music education, and has made his station a massive success, so looks like good news to me, touchwood. But one more change, north of Watford, is in its way just as vital, perhaps more so.

Dame Fanny Waterman is stepping down from running the Leeds International Piano Competition, which she founded back in the 1960s. Can it survive without her?

We need "The Leeds". It is the most important music contest in Britain. It launched Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and more. Andras Schiff once pulled in third, just behind Mitsuko Uchida, while first went to Dmitri Alexeev (hmm...). Further alumni of the prize ranks include Peter Donohoe, Kathryn Stott, Artur Pizarro, Leon McCawley, Riccardo Castro, Sonya Gulyak and most recently a vintage line-up with Federico Colli placed first and Louis Schwitzgebel second.

The next competition is September 2015 - part of a year ahead of top international contests that also includes Dublin, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. And it's precisely because we talk about Leeds in the same breath as the gigantic circuses in Warsaw and Moscow that it's vital the competition survives the retirement of its founder.

The Leeds puts Britain on the map for young musicians from all over the world. While certain other competitions are up to their armpits in gossip about jury corruption, it has survived with a squeaky-clean reputation (comparatively speaking), and a name for choosing superb musicians as its winners. It may not be as rich as the Cliburn or as glittery as the Tchaikovsky, but it's the one everyone wants to win.

Leeds depends heavily on local support, both financially and in terms of the volunteers who help to run it, putting the contestants up in their own homes, driving them to the venues and so forth. Dame Fanny, a local personage if ever there was one, has kept a tremendous grip on all this, with a sure touch for everything from inspiration to fundraising to musical judgment. People are asking who might step into her shoes. I wonder whether the competition can survive at all without her.

If the London Competition foundered without sufficient funds - in the wealthy heart of the capital, headed by the dynamic Sulamita Aronovsky and with winners including such luminaries as Simon Trpceski, Behzod Abduraimov and Paul Lewis (who got second prize), then what hope for a competition up north? Chancellor George Osborne has rightly identified the need for a powerhouse conurbation and railway system around Manchester, Leeds and the other great northern cities, but we don't have it yet and it'll take time to build, if it's done at all.

Without Leeds, Britain would have no musical contest of such peerless status. The Carl Flesch Violin Competition folded years ago. The piano competitions in Scotland and Dudley are fine and respected events, but their international standing is not yet on a level to compare with Warsaw and Moscow. In other words, without Leeds Britain would be pretty much an irrelevance as a destination for young musicians eager for credentials and wing-testing. And there would be no truly top-level "home game" for any British pianists to enter.

Not that any have been in view recently; this is another matter. Mostly young British pianists don't even bother entering international competitions these days, let alone winning them. Without Leeds, the last incentive for them, one that sets an example and a standard at home, would be gone and we would be well and truly a pianistic island again - merely the place that Chopin couldn't get out of fast enough.

Dear Leeds, we need your piano competition! Please keep supporting it, please find yourself a really powerful successor to Dame Fanny - and please encourage young British pianists to take part and to aim at the necessary technical and musical standards to compete in an international playing field, even if it is in Yorkshire.

Who might take over? Among the figures one could consider are:

Kathryn Stott - former prizewinner, lives up north, much-loved British musician.
Peter Donohoe - all of the above (lives in Midlands) and very experienced juror.
Mike Spring - head of APR records, formerly chief piano man of Hyperion, know pianism inside out and backwards.
Erica Worth and Jesper Buhl - wife and husband team, respectively editor of Pianist magazine and of Danacord Records, dynamic duo with top-notch pianistic knowhow. Pianist's head office is in Leeds, btw.
Murray McLachlan and Kathryn Page - husband and wife team, Manchester based - both pianists, movers and shakers. Murray is head of piano at Chetham's and founders of a marvellous summer school, the Manchester competition for young pianists and much more besides.

Watch this space...