The Leeds is back

2006 WINNER: Sunwook Kim.
2006 WINNER: Sunwook Kim.
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The Leeds International Piano Competition returns this month. Chris Bond looks at what makes it so special.

for those who watched Radu Lupu in the finals of the 1969 Leeds International Piano Competition, his performance has lived long in the memory.

Not only did he win first prize but his interpretation of the works of such masters as Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven established him as one of the most important musicians of his generation.

Among those watching that night was a classical music enthusiast called Geoffrey Owen. “He made a huge impression on me,” says Owen. “I remember he played Beethoven’s third [piano concerto] and I knew he would win from the first entry. There was an artistry and poetry in his playing that spoke volumes.”

Owen is now head of artistic planning at the Hallé and met up with Lupu when the Romanian returned to Leeds a couple of years ago. “I reminded him of his performance which I had never forgotten and he admitted that he had been so nervous beforehand that he had drunk a bit too much wine.”

It’s perhaps reassuring to know that even the greatest musicians are still human and suffer from nerves like us mere mortals. Certainly the 71 young pianists will be feeling the pressure when the competition, held every three years, gets underway later this month in front of a distinguished international jury, chaired by Dame Fanny Waterman.

Popularly referred to as “the Leeds”, the competition was first held in September 1963, the same month that The Beatles reached the top of the charts with She Loves You. The Fab Four were about to help change the face of pop music culture, but they weren’t the only ones making musical waves. Dame Fanny, who founded the Leeds in 1961, had started something that was to have a profound impact on the city.

Since then it has established itself as one of the most important classical music competition’s in the world. “I think any competition needs some history and the history of the Leeds is incredibly distinguished and not just in terms of its past winners but those who have been finalists, too,” says Owen.

He is full of praise for what Dame Fanny has achieved through the competition over the years. “It has undoubtedly enhanced the music scene in Leeds. The city’s music life is much richer than a lot of other similar sized places and the Leeds has played an important part in that.”

However, many people perhaps don’t appreciate just how big a deal the competition is in the classical music world, or the impact it has had in terms of raising the profile of Leeds, and Yorkshire for that matter, on the international stage.

There are those, too, who view the competition as being a bit stuffy and elitist. But Owen says that’s not what it’s about. “The competition is designed to find one of the best young pianists in the world so it has to be about a degree of excellence.” He points out, too, that without the Leeds the city’s cultural life would be worse off. “If we didn’t have this competition then I believe it would make it much more difficult for other parts of the city’s cultural and artistic life to flourish.”

Danny Evans is one of the jurors at this year’s competition and says the standard of these young pianists is incredibly high. It’s the job of Evans, along with his fellow jurors, to be talent-spotters – the Simon Cowells of the classical music world if that isn’t too distasteful a comparison. “We are looking to find a great artist,” says Evans. But what, exactly, does that mean? “It’s the indefinable quality that makes someone impossible not to listen to.”

It’s what separates the very good from the excellent and what makes the Leeds so important. “It’s remarkable and we have Dame Fanny Waterman to thank for that. The competition is now inextricably link with Leeds and you could not imagine it anywhere else. It is a vital part of the musical life of the UK, and it is precisely thanks to institutions like the Leeds that we can proudly say the North holds its own mightily against the musical offerings of London.”

Erica Worth, editor of the Pianist, agrees and places it among the top four piano competitions in the world. She, too, puts its success down to Dame Fanny’s drive and her contacts.

“It’s down to her connections, she knows so many people and makes sure they get all the best judges. In 2009 they had their launch at Number 10 Downing Street. How many music competitions can say that?”

But with Dame Fanny, who turned 95 earlier this year, stepping down after this year’s competition, concerns have been raised about the future of the competition. “Some people have asked if it will continue to be as successful and I think it will be. It’s still really important for all the top young pianists,” adds Worth.

“I first came to the Leeds when I was about 16. I wanted to be a concert pianist and I just remember being so excited. I’ll be there for the finals again this year and for me I still find it just as exciting as I did when I was 16.”

The Leeds International Piano Competition runs from August 26 to September 13. For tickets go to www.leedstownhall.co.uk or call 0113 224 3801.

You can follow the competition on twitter using the hashtag #TheLeeds2015