Wednesday, 26 August 2009

LEEDS INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION 2009 OPENS TODAY / An Interview with Dame Fanny Waterman (2006)

Korea's Kim Sunwook wins the coveted First Prize
at the Leeds International Piano Competition 2006.

The Leeds International Piano Competition 2009 opens today! Here is the interview I did with the Founder and Artistic Director Dame Fanny Waterman in 2006, which was published by The Flying Inkpot.

A short interview

Those weren’t her exact words, but one knows precisely what she meant. The resources to run an international piano competition are formidable. However it requires the indefatigable energy, dogged persistence, astounding endurance and single-minded leadership of a very unique individual to make a competition special.

Those qualities are embodied in the diminutive figure of Dame Fanny Waterman, who has been at the helm of “The Leeds” since its inception in 1963. Founder, Artistic Director and Chairman of the Jury, Dame Fanny, now 86 years young in 2006 (Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is her junior by three years!) shares her wisdom and experience.

What qualities do you look for in a competition pianist?

There are four important qualities I seek: beauty of tone (the ability to make the piano sing like an opera star), musical integrity (respecting the score and the composer), rhythmic vitality (because music is never static and always goes forward), and the “magic” that comes through in a pianist’s musical personality. The last is something that is natural, innate and cannot be taught.

How do you select from the hundreds of young pianists who apply for “The Leeds”?

There were over 250 applications for this year’s competition. It took me and a few other judges ten hours a day for eight weeks to go through all the entries. I personally viewed and listened to all the CDs and DVDs that were sent to us. We also scrutinised their curriculum vitae and letters of recommendation by teachers and mentors, narrowing the field down to 90 to 100 pianists. We accepted a total of 81 pianists, and with some dropping out just prior to the Competition, 71 performed in the First Round. We are not gods but we try to get in as much talent as possible. Some competitions accept only 24 to 40 participants but we believe, “you have to have a lot of milk for a little cream”.

What attracts pianists to “The Leeds”?

The prize money and concert engagements offered to the six finalists – recitals, concerto performances in festivals and orchestras in UK and around the world for three years – are a career. Even members of the jury would love to have a career like that. And when first prizewinners of other international piano competitions (and there are many this year) come to “The Leeds”, they are making a statement. Winning at Leeds provides them a career where other competitions cannot. They are catapulted to fame and many doors are opened to them in an instant.

Do you manage the careers of the prizewinners?

“The Leeds” is not an agency nor is it a business. We merely open doors for the best young pianistic talents in the world today. The engagements you see (and there are 2 full pages in the souvenir programme) are offered to all the prizewinners and not merely the First Prizewinner. From these, their reputations will eventually grow by recommendation and word of mouth.
Dame Fanny Waterman with fellow judges
Renna Kellaway (UK) and Dmitri Bashkirov (Russia)

You have also assembled a quite formidable competition jury. Who gets to judge at “The Leeds”?
Many of the judges are themselves great pianists and teachers. Some are already regulars. I have worked with others in competitions around the world and found them honest and with much integrity. Judges can enter their students in this Competition but must abstain from voting for them, and this is indicated in the voting papers. The rules and regulations of the Competition were written by my husband, and have been checked by a former Chief Justice in London who found them definitive and beyond reproach. Many competitions around the world have now adopted this same set of rules.

What about the accompanying orchestra for the finals?

My first priority is the conductor, and whichever the orchestra he directs gets to play in the concerto finals. Mark Elder (now Sir Mark) is one of the greatest conductors in the world today and his HallĂ© Orchestra (from Manchester) will be at “The Leeds” for the second successive competition. Our previous conductors have included Sir Simon Rattle (6 times!), Sir John Pritchard, Sir Charles Groves and Norman del Mar.

Benjamin Britten’s Night Piece (Notturno), originally written for the 1963 competition, has been selected as the set piece for 2006? Why not commission new works from contemporary composers instead?

Lord Britten was a close friend of mine, and his Night Piece deserves to be kept in the repertoire and played by as many pianists as possible. It’s a beautiful piece with so much going on – especially in the “night music” segment – and thus many possibilities for interpretation. I have heard many newly commissioned works in competitions that aim to promote this or that composer from certain countries. Frankly much of this is not good music. They are more of a gimmick and are often unhelpful to the juries.

(Editor's note: There is no set piece for the 2009 competition)
Dame Fanny Waterman with the two Kims (finalists in 2006),
Kim Sunwook (left, 1st prize) and Kim Sunghoon (right, 5th prize)

What have been some of your most treasured memories of the Competition?

Radu Lupu playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in 1966 was a high point, and so were Murray Perahia’s performances in 1969. Both pianists helped cement and reaffirmed the reputation of “The Leeds”. I also love the playing of many young pianists, who are fresh, untarnished and do not copy other pianists they may have heard on CDs.

Have you ever been to Singapore?

No, but do invite me to your first international piano competition in Singapore and I will be the Chairman of your jury!

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