Thursday, January 24, 2019

Pianists to battle it out in Hastings

The Hastings International Piano Competition held a launch reception in the House of Commons last night, thanks to the town's MP, one Amber Rudd, aka the Work and Pensions Secretary, who agreed to host the event. Pleased to hear her voicing support for a contest and festival that, she said, helps to bring classical music to local people who may never have encountered it before in their home environment, giving them the chance to experience the best music in the world on their own doorstep.

Amber Rudd introduces the competition.
photo: JD

I can't help remembering that Ghost Variations begins with Jelly d'Arányi playing the Brahms Violin Concerto in Hastings in 1933. Adrian Boult, no less, stepped in to conduct when the intended conductor went down with appendicitis. And the concert was reviewed [luckily for novelists doing research] in The Times. Those, as one might say, were the days. World-class music-making used to be absolutely standard fare in Hastings and similar towns, less than 100 years ago.

The piano competition certainly has the wind in its sails, with a new biennial plan intended to beef up the offer each time, the Royal Philharmonic aboard with a five-year deal, and a valuable line of alumni who have gone on to win top prizes at other contests, notably the Van Cliburn. More power to its elbow, and to the many elbows of its gifted competitors.

Nevertheless, one would dearly have liked to ask a few public questions. For instance: what assurance could our host give that over Brexit the concerns of the cultural industries - worth billions to the exchequer - have been heard, let alone listened to? What future is there for young British pianists robbed of their international competitiveness? After all, if e.g. Pollini goes sick and someone is needed to play Beethoven at the last minute, they won't choose someone from a country that demands paperwork for the privilege if a different soloist in another European country can jump on a train and be there in two ticks. How will young musicians ever afford to live in Britain if they have to be earning £30k before being admitted? Those kinds of things. But of course, this was a celebration rather than a press launch and question time was there none. Not that there's anything much happening in the House of Commons at the moment, joked our host.

Entering the House of Commons is an illuminating experience. The atmosphere resembles a cross between Westminster Abbey, a gentlemen's club (posh sort, not lap dancing), Hampton Court and a public school, plus a strong dose of Hogwarts. Corridor walls are lined with images of battle showing troops carrying St George's flags. There are plentiful statues, all of men (at least the ones I went past were), mostly in 17th-18th century wigs. It's an ageing rabbit warren, a draughty, sprawling complex full, I'm sure, of ghosts and it's quite disorienting; on emerging afterwards, I knew where I'd been but had to take a minute to work out where I was, at least in relation to the nearest tube. You can see how it's possible for the occupants of this building to become detached from the reality of London around them, let alone the rest of the UK.

Across the room, one person braver than I am had come along wearing an EU flag. My contribution was restricted to a yellow BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT sticker that's still on the back of my phone from the march in October and shows itself whenever I raise the object to take a photo. 

The competition takes place in about a month's time and focuses on concertos. If you're a local, you're in for a major treat. Do go. Details here: