Relevant reinvention

Adam Gatehouse, co-artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, reflects on the thinking behind the developments and innovations at The Leeds and what a competition should offer audiences and artists in the 21st century

When Paul Lewis and I were asked to re-envisage how the Leeds International Piano Competition might go forward, we soon decided that we needed a new set of priorities to make a competition valid for both audiences and musicians today.

Our first priority was to make the whole experience more humane for the competitors. Competitions can sometimes feel a bit like a gladiatorial contest in which the winner takes all, usually a fat cheque and a few concerts, and those who are knocked out are sent home the next day with their pride and self-confidence in tatters. Of course you can’t remove the competitive element – they are there to compete after all. That’s the deal. But in our new-look Leeds, the 24 competitors who are selected to come to Leeds for the main part of the Competition will all remain there until the end, and those knocked out of the earlier rounds will take part in a whole range of activities including masterclasses, workshops, impromptu concerts in the city and, very important, learning and outreach work.

Priority number two was that the prize should have a strong element of nurturing and career building. Paul and other members of our performer-led jury will provide mentoring for the winners over an extended period, and that will also include career coaching from prominent members of the musical world.

We have also partnered up with Askonas Holt, one of the world’s leading artist managements, who will take on the prizewinner for long-term management. And they will help to build a carefully managed programme of concert and recording engagements that are strategically planned to allow the winners time to grow, to mature, to learn repertoire, and to learn from their mistakes. These will include a lot of concerts across the UK in smaller venues as well as in some of the leading halls in the country, including Wigmore Hall, South Bank, Bridgwater Hall and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. There will be recording and broadcast activities with our partners at BBC Radio 3, as well as a solo CD recording with a leading label. Abroad there will be a European tour organised by our partners Steinway & Sons, and appearances in the Netherlands, US, Japan and South Korea.

We also want to want to bring the competition to a much wider public. So we are taking the first round out to Berlin, Singapore and New York, giving us a much more international allure. We are also streaming the whole competition online through Medici TV, thus engaging with an exponentially wider public numbered in millions, across some 170 countries and 13,000 cities worldwide.

Other new elements include a chamber music round in the semi-finals, which will show audiences another side of the pianists’ armoury. And they will be able to enjoy masterclasses, talks, films, as well as a Leeds Piano Trail, with over a dozen pianos in public places across the city where anyone can come and play and record or film themselves, and upload it to our website. We hope this will show people that the piano can be a non-elitist, accessible and fun experience for all.

That aspect extends also to our learning work, which we feel is absolutely crucial to the competition in the future. We are working on an extensive and all-embracing programme that will see the piano in all its many facets being brought to new audiences, both young and old, in schools and communities and care homes. We are planning to expand this on a national level with a National Piano Week, hopefully in collaboration with the BBC. And with our new partners the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, we will be exploring the global possibilities by harnessing all that is new in digital technology to take the piano out to the whole world.

Of course all this is about to happen this year, and by the end of September 2018 we will see whether it has worked or not. There are a lot of competitions out there, and it is increasingly a challenge to make a competition distinctive and yet remain true to its principles. The Leeds has always been known for its artistic integrity, and we hope that this will be maintained and enhanced, partly through new activities which also include an annual Leeds Piano Festival in Leeds and London, but also, and most importantly, through the quality and musical integrity of its competitors and winners. After all it is they who will make or break the competition.

The first international first rounds take place in Berlin, Singapore and New York, 3-12 April 2018. The Second Round, Semi-Finals & Finals take place in Leeds, 6-15 September 2018. The inaugural Leeds Piano Festival takes place in Leeds and London 14-23 May. Tickets and information about all events can be found on The Leeds website.