Not only just a review of the 2021 Leeds International Piano Competition, but also a wider examination of the issues brought up by competition in music, the role of music in communities, interviews with some of my favourite competitors including the winner Alim Beisembayev, audio clips from the unofficially linked Leeds Pub Piano Competition event, discussion with the competitors about how they deal with the nerves and pressures of competitions, and much more!
- Thank you to the pianists who gave me their valuable time for interviews:
- Alim Beisembayev
- Ariel Lanyi
- Yuzhang Li
- Elizaveta Kliuchereva
- Priscilla Navarro
- Thanks to creative producers Dave Cartwright & Sam Berrill for giving me their valuable time for the interview after the competition, and thanks to Clare Teal for the interview in the interval of the Leeds Pub Piano Competition
- Thanks and apologies if I interviewed you and there wasn’t room in this podcast episode to include it- and I will try to upload the full interviews with the pianists in the coming weeks
- Thank you to the competition organisers and staff for their generosity, time and help!
- Intro-outro music for this episode is Alim Beisembayev playing Beethoven Sonata Op .111 in the second round
The website of the Leeds International Piano Competition: https://www.leedspiano.com/
Medici TV’s webpage for their coverage of all the events from The Leeds where you can catch up with all the performances: https://leedspiano.medici.tv/en/
Medici’s YouTube channel where you can also watch all the performances and coverage: https://www.youtube.com/user/medicitv
Here’s the script I wrote myself to read from which I mostly managed to keep to, although I did go a bit ‘off script’ at times!
Hello and welcome to the heart of the piano podcast where we are exploring the world of piano.
In this episode, I’ll be bringing you my experience of the 2021 Leeds International Piano Competition, known informally as ‘The Leeds’, and exploring some of the wider issues that competition in music brings up.
Some of my favourite pianists have been finalists of The Leeds in past years, and in fact the competition was one of the main factors in launching the careers of famous names such as: Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Andras Schiff, Mitsuko Uchida, Dmitri Alexeev, Ilya Itin, Artur Pizarro, Kathryn Stott, Noriko Ogawa, Louis Lortie, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, and many more household names in the world of classical pianists.
It seems to come as a huge shock to most people in Leeds that there is a regular local event happening every 3 years that is regarded as one of the most important events in the international world of professional piano- but don’t just take my word for it- during the competition I asked some of the competitors why they had entered The Leeds- this is what Alim Beisembayev said who went on to become the winner:
And Elizaveta Kliuchereva who was in the semifinals:
And Ariel Lanyi who was the 3rd prize winner:
And semifinalist Priscilla Navarro:
A topic that’s bound to come up in a review of a major music competition is about the controversy of whether musicians should take part in competitions and about whether we should take them seriously. There are plenty of people who very rigidly think that competitions for musicians are a very bad thing to be avoided. I personally think they can be a useful challenge for musicians, as long as the challenge is how to be deeply musical under pressure rather than get caught up in being too serious about competition and ego- this is a skill all professional musicians need to learn at some point or another!
Ultimately, we can’t really say that one amazing musician is better than another one- and personal subjective taste is going to vary enormously. I enjoyed chatting to people sitting near to me at every stage of the competition, and it’s always interesting to see just how almost every single performance can generate such a wide array of feelings and opinions!
I played devil’s advocate to ask those same competitors we heard from before if they thought piano competitions were psychologically unhealthy. You’ll hear from Priscilla, then Ariel, then Alim, and then Elizaveta.
I also spoke to Yuzhang Li over the phone- who was one of my favourite semifinalists- once the competition was over and asked her the same question:
So already we’ve started to hear some very warm comments about how this competition in particular creates good experiences for the competitors, and The Leeds does pride itself on quite a few things that make it unique.
But I might be a little biased- I went to Leeds University where all the rounds apart from the concerto finals are held, and remember being absolutely dazzled many moons ago by the stratospheric talent when I was still very fresh to the world of classical piano.
But also I had an amazing piano teacher- Benjamin Frith- who in two separate years had taken part in this competition and who was a student of Fanny Waterman, who of course founded The Leeds and was its chair and artistic director until the age of 95, only relinquishing the reins in 2019 to Paul Lewis and Adam Gatehouse. BTW, you can listen to an interview with Adam Gatehouse from Heart of the Piano back in 2019, the link will be in the shownotes. So anyway, I feel like I have strong connections to this competition.
Even in 2019 at the age of 98 I remember Dame Fanny’s very energetic presence at every single event in the competition, always sat in the front row- it was very strange and surreal to not see her this year. There’s no doubt that it was her charisma and sheer strength of personality that made such a success of The Leeds.
But when Paul Lewis and Adam Gatehouse took over as artistic directors in 2019, there was a fresh feeling of looking to the future of what an international piano competition could and should be. For example, the voting system was changed so that there could be no charges of nepotism or favouritism. The jurors are absolutely forbidden from discussing any of the competitors with each other, relying on a secret ballot system.
This year’s impressive selection of jurors included the Artistic Director Adam Gatehouse who has a proven track record of discovering and nurturing classical music stars of tomorrow for the BBC, Dame Imogen Cooper as chair of the jury, and one of my favourite pianists Steven Osborne. There’s a strong emphasis on the mentorship and career guidance that winners will receive as part of their prize.
The Leeds has always been one of the most demanding competitions in terms of requiring a huge amount of repertoire in the search for the most fully rounded musician. In recent years, competitors need to supply two entirely different programmes for the second stage, which only gets decided by the jurors when the 1st round winners are announced. And this is the same for the semifinals- choosing two separate programmes which only get chosen when announcing who has gone through to the semifinals, meaning some people only get a weekend’s notice of what they’re going to play for that round. And again the contestants have to specify two concerti which the jurors choose for them at the last moment. This is a huge test of each competitor as a complete rounded musician who has what it takes to survive the tough world of concert pianism- and in 2019 a new challenge was added to the competition, which was to play with a chamber group or accompany a violinist or cellist. Elizaveta describes her experience of this in the semifinals:
So, before I give my personal opinions on my highlights of this year’s competition, I have to talk about another aspect that makes it absolutely unique amongst all the top competitions which is the emphasis on community engagement and education.
Creative Producers Dave Cartwright & Sam Berrill were in charge of this year’s Leeds Piano Trail and community outreach, and their infectious enthusiasm and energy resulted in not only a huge visibility for the competition in a city that had previously been relatively unaware of its presence, but also played a vital role in reimagining the role of an elite classical music competition by democratising it and looking for ways to bring all communities together with the power of music-
I spoke to Dave and Sam a few days after the competition had come to a close:
This piano trail had at its heart 10 playable pianos in public places, decorated by Leeds artists & communities, together with 10 sculptures commissioned from Pianodrome- whose amazing amphitheatre made entirely from upcycled pianos I caught at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival. Like their amphitheatre, all the sculptures in Leeds were made from piano parts and were certainly very striking and quite the talking point of Leeds!
But I can’t begin to do justice to the huge programme of events and activities that were part of this piano trail, for example, there was a group of very high level piano students who had the role of young ambassadors- they played these public pianos, went into schools, and generally brought as much classical piano as possible to the general public.
Free 20 minute lessons were available to the public, 73 people made the most of this opportunity! There were musical night walks, a talk on the link between nature & music with a conservatoire piano student improvising responding to their environment in the park,
There was yoga for kids with piano accompaniment, and public interviews with community leaders who chose their favourite music for a conservatoire piano student to play. And as well as the piano trail, there are also outreach projects in schools in the three years in-between each competition.
Dave here tells us a bit about the public reception to the piano trail:
This year’s winner of The Leeds, Alim Beisembayev shares a passion for as many people to enjoy classical music as possible- when I interviewed the contestants, I asked them what they hoped for the future… meaning their future as individuals, but Alim replied beautifully with his hopes for classical music in general:
And it’s interesting that when I asked Yuzhang about classical audiences in China, she described a very different scene to what we see here in Europe!
There was also the Leeds Pub Piano Competition, which offered a much needed break from the sheer intensity of the classical side of things which could be absolutely mentally exhausting after so many concentrated hours every day!
This event, although it sounds like it could be silly and superficial, actually has a longstanding history with the main classical event, and I remember stories about a well-known member of the jury escaping off and taking part in the pub event one year.
It’s a massive massive shame that this year it seemed to be run by members of the council who made almost no attempt to publicise it, and seem to have really put a half-hearted effort into organising it. If you try and look up even who won it this year (that was Karl Mullen), it’s quite the challenge to even find that information. I hope the next one will be run with more love and care.
One of the jurors, the highly respected jazz musician Clare Teal talks here about the importance of this event:
And before we return to the highbrow classical event, I’ll treat you all to a few clips of pub piano playing- here’s Kyran Russell the 14-year old that Clare referred to:
Adam Sowter here shows us that pub piano can be educational:
And the winner Karl Mullen here combines the world of classical and boogie:
So, I’ll now share some of my highlights which you can watch and listen to either on Medici’s website, or on YouTube- I’ll put links in the shownotes! Of course, this is just my subjective opinion, and it’s always a little bit of a different experience when you’re there in person listening live, but do leave some comments to say who your favourites were, and if you agree or disagree with my opinions!
I’ll try to keep things brief by sharing some of the bulletpoints I wrote down as I was listening!
Right from the first round, I was really impressed by Kaito Kabayashi- he played Bartok in the concerto finals which I wasn’t so keen on, but in the first round I enjoyed his Haydn which I wrote was ‘exquisite , and oozing character & love. Very well structured. Superb phrasing’
In the second round, I loved the ‘light & delicate LH’ in the Mozart. ‘ Structurally almost like minimalism in places, but structure present where it needed to be! Lovely trills’. He absolutely nailed Debussy’s Feux d’artifice- ‘so many subtle nuances, but full of character & drama’
The Schoenberg was so expressive- great programming, oozing character- I’m sold on this piece which normally would leave me a bit cold.
Kaito ‘really communicated a Zen quality with all these pieces- a feeling of space & presence between the notes missing from most of the other contestants’
In the 3rd round, his Shubert was ‘very beautiful & refined- but starting to think he’s not so great at pieces which demonstrate darker heavier emotions & drama’. For example, I wasn’t so keen on his Scarbo in round 1, and felt that most of his Debussy in round 2 suffered from too much clarity in all the notes, betraying a lack of ease outside of the world of refined Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. His two choices of concertos- Bartok 3 and Beethoven 1 also suggested an avoidance of deep emotional expression in styles beyond the Classical era, making him a bit too much of a specialised performer in my opinion to be the fully rounded musician that a competition like The Leeds is searching for.
The two British pianists- Tyler Hay and Thomas Kelly showed a huge amount of potential. Tyler’s Liszt in round 1 was phenomenal- ‘almost flawless. Filled with deep moods & characters, very confident.’
But Tyler’s choice in round 2 to play all of the Chopin op.10 Etudes I felt was a mistake at a point in the competition where the jury are really looking for not just technical chops but deep musicianship and large scale structure. In 2018 I do remember somebody got through to the semifinals by playing the same Chopin Etudes in round 2, but I personally feel this is against the spirit of communicating deep musicianship rather than flash at this stage of the competition.
Thomas Kelly actually got through to the final concerto round, but although of course we wanted to support the British pianists in the competition, many of us were surprised to see him get through to the finals after his semifinal performance which saw a serious memory lapse in his Chopin Barcarolle. And although his Liszt & Debussy had phenomenal technique, I felt there was a bit lacking in the areas of atmosphere, mood, & expression. But I did really enjoy his Beethoven Cello Sonata which gave him a chance to relax and enjoy the music a bit more.
Thomas’ 2nd round performance was strong- I’d not heard the Beethoven Fantasia in G minor op.77 before- wow what a piece! Loads of character & drama, great performer. Good ears, great tone. Absorbing, focus on drama, not the notes. Scriabin Sonata #4 reached more flow towards the end & beautifully built up to the climax. So perhaps his place in the finals was influenced by the potential he’d shown in the second round and his musicality in the chamber music.
I was disappointed not to see Anfisa Bobylova get through to the semifinals- although I can understand why her Chopin 2nd Sonata might have divided opinion- I was intrigued by how she used incredibly nuanced and expressive shifts in tone and timbre to give structure and cohesion to her pieces with a little less emphasis on rhythm and harmony which is more usual. I wrote in my notes ‘immaculate chord weighting, tone is so central to expression and structure’
Ariel Lanyi’s place in the final was probably assured by a very strong 2nd round- in particular his rendition of the 2nd book of Debussy’s Images- here’s some of my notes from his 2nd round:
‘Debussy very impressive ear for textures, colour & timbre- really able to stop hearing individual notes. Incredible technical control. Really knows how to give space where needed. Perfect rhythmic timing.
Scriabin had incredible focus & absorption- even when somebody’s phone went off for some length of time. How is it possible to be this relaxed and absorbed under pressure? Really communicates to us what there is to love in this piece. Ending full of emotion’
I asked Ariel about his experience of playing the Debussy and how he dealt with nerves:
Alim Beisembayev had been one of my favourite pianists right from the very first round, where my notes said ‘deeply musical. Oozing character, drama, narrative & emotion’
But it was surely his Beethoven Sonata Op .111 in the second round that won him the entire competition? This was one of those rare memorable performances that are so transcendent and exceptional that it takes its place in memory as one of the most treasured musical experiences.
The gentleman who was sat next to me had to wipe away tears before he could talk to me afterwards.
I’d watched Steven Osborne who was on the jury play this piece in concert a few years ago, and I deeply enjoyed it- Steven Osborne is one of my favourite pianists! But Alim’s performance was really a truly profound spiritual experience.
I asked Alim about his experience playing this Beethoven:
Many pianists showed their nerves more as they progressed through the rounds, but a couple of pianists seemed to grow more confident and become more musical and expressive as they went through the competition- Elizaveta Kliuchereva was one of these, and I made these notes as I watched her 2nd round and semifinal performances (although here I’m focusing on the positive elements and leaving out some quibbles that I had!):
‘Schumann Carnaval really suits her- very powerful for such a light frame. Nice exaggerated expressive phrasing. Really embodies contrasting characters. Gives enough space, makes atmospheric moments of suspence well. Self-assured. Makes technical difficulties appear effortless. In her stride, she has charisma & a star quality!’
And in the semifinals: ‘very refined, poised & expressive. Background notes, while staying in the background, much clearer than other contestants. I like the way she feels harmonic modulations. Stronger sense of structure than most others.
Fugue in the Franck was magical, with an amazing ability to layer textures with some really stunning tones.
Ligeti L’escalier du diable- emotionally intense, unbelievable ability to read while playing! Superb leggiero, absolutely committed & intense stunning rendition’
Here, Elizaveta talks about her experience of playing this Ligeti:
Another pianist who made huge improvements as she progressed through the rounds was Yuzhang Li. In the second round, I was really impressed with her Beethoven Tempest- a brave choice for something played so often where jurors will have strong opinions. I wrote ‘Masterful beautiful tones. Idiosyncratic in places, but she’s selling it! Interesting enough interpretation to risk this piece. Amazing control, textures & tones’
In Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, I particularly enjoyed her ppp textures in Le Gibet and sense of space & mood. I wrote ‘Really knows how to listen. Gorgeous tones low on the piano. Definitely unique enough interpretation of these pieces to warrant making another CD of them that I would buy!’
But I really thought she shone in the semifinals- some quotes from my notes: in the Schumann: ‘excellent at the ‘long line’. Always a sense we know where we’re going. Finally true large scale playing! 2nd movement- really moved in places- as much as I can be by Schumann! Lovely ‘from the heart’ quality to her playing. Excellent listener, really listens like a composer. Good at directing our ear to where it should go’
But then she had quite a bad memory lapse at the end of the Schumann- and for a while it seemed like Yuzhang was doing a heroic job of letting it go and moving on, but although I loved her playing in the next piece- Chopin’s 4th Ballade- which was absolutely sublime, you could tell that she was fighting to not get distracted and annoyed by her earlier memory lapse which was a huge shame.
She also made a fantastic partnership with Cellist Laura Van Der Heijden- two impassioned heart on sleeve musicians sharing deep emotional rapport with a real sense of absorbtion & dedication to this piece. Again, it was a real shame when the cellist’s string snapped right near the end of this epic work, leaving the cellist to heroically continue until the end playing on alternative strings which was a bit ambitious for a Brahms sonata! Somebody said afterwards that it just wasn’t meant to be for Yuzhang this day!
Something that very much surprised me when interviewing the contestants was that nobody seemed to have systemised psychological strategies for dealing with pressure and nerves. This is a topic close to my heart as it’s a strong factor in how I teach and I’m in the process of writing a book about cutting edge techniques to maximise the psychology of peak performance in musicians. In the world of sports, it’s completely normal and part of the culture to make the most of the copious amount of research that has been done in this area, and there’s a huge amount of strategies from the world of sports psychology that musicians can benefit from- especially in the context of a competition!
I already asked Ariel how he deals with nerves and pressure in a clip we heard earlier, and here’s what Yuzhang, Priscilla, Elizaveta and Alim said when I asked them what their strategies were to deal with performance anxiety:
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I was disappointed in this year’s crop of competitors’ general ability to convey large scale structure and communicate harmonic tension & release- there were only very few contestants who seemed to have focused on this in their practice.
I was musing all the way through the competition on all the various reasons why this may have been the case- here are a few suggestions I came up with- do let me know your opinions!
- As teachers increasingly focus on the importance of creating beautiful tone, maybe structural and harmonic aspects suffer?
- Maybe with so many important piano competitions all happening at the same time in the same year, the sheer amount of repertoire to have ready under the fingers for The Leeds makes it difficult to really focus on large scale structure as well as having all the notes and individual sections of each piece ready to perform?
- Maybe because of the lack of performing opportunities under COVID restrictions people are more nervous performing than usual which affects being able to focus on large scale structure and harmonic awareness under pressure?
But also it’s interesting just how few genuinely large scale pieces such as sonatas were chosen by virtually all the competitors from the second round of the competition. When the requirements for the second round said to include‘one substantial work (or groups of works) by a major composer‘, I felt this year that we were relentlessly overwhelmed by collections of short pieces by Schumann to cover up a lack of ability to cohesively communicate long structure and architecture in favour of indulging in individual moments with beautiful tone.
I spoke to Yuzhang about this issue, and how much I enjoyed her ability to communicate structure and harmony:
I could say so much more about the competition, but I think I’ve gone through the most essential points I wanted to cover-
I’d like to thank the competition organisers and staff for their generosity, time and help, and also want to thank everybody who gave me their valuable time for interviews.
I’m going to try to upload to the podcast some of the complete interviews of the pianists including the pianist Alim and the longer interview that I did with Yuzhang after the competition was over.
Shownotes for all episodes are available at the website for the podcast which can be found at www.HeartOfThePiano.com/Podcast
It takes a huge amount of time to put one of these podcast episodes together- especially this one which required a huge amount of editing- if you’d like to show your appreciation, please do review, like and comment on your podcast platform of choice which helps me to feel that all the time invested was worth it, and helps to make the podcast more visible to other people who might enjoy it.
Thanks so much for listening, and see you at the next episode!