Pianists compete for prestigious prize with just a camera operator to listen

Leeds International Piano Competition at the Royal Academy of Music in London

By Sarah Mills

LONDON (Reuters) - In a hall at London's Royal Academy of Music, pianist Yuanfan Yang performed pieces by Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Joseph Haydn with just a camera operator as his audience.

The 24-year-old is taking part in the Leeds International Piano Competition, hoping to win over a jury that will see his performance by video.

Held every three years, The Leeds has had to change its processes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with no live jury or audience watching the pianists compete for the career-making prize package.

"I thought it might be a bit challenging at first, but once I started playing, I just forgot about everything," the Edinburgh-born musician said. "It was just literally just me and the music."

With travel restrictions in place, The Leeds invited some 60 competitors from around the world to its virtual first round held in 17 different cities.

From one competitor in Miami to 14 in Berlin, they all performed their 25-minute recitals under the same conditions: playing on a Steinway Model D grand piano and with identical camera set ups.

"We realised very quickly that we couldn't do it in the way which we would love to do it ... with an audience and the jury present," Adam Gatehouse, The Leeds artistic director, told Reuters.

"Clearly we were not going to be able to travel a jury from London to Berlin to wherever all around the world so we will watch the videos at home online and judge them in that way."

First held in 1963, The Leeds offers its winner a recording and management deal, recitals at London's Wigmore Hall and international tours.

"Up until the last minute I thought (The Leeds) would be cancelled," Italian pianist Giulia Contaldo, who practiced playing in front of a cameraman before the competition, said.

"So many of my colleagues don’t have this opportunity, or don’t have any opportunities at the moment. So whatever happens, I am grateful."

While the first round is virtual, organisers plan to hold the second round, semi-final and final in Leeds, northern England, in September, hopefully with a live audience.

"It's not only about the music itself but it's also about the people in the hall and that is how it's supposed to be," Israeli competitor Ariel Lanyi said.

(Reporting by Sarah Mills; Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Alison Williams)