In a hall at London’s Royal Academy of Music, pianist Yuanfan Yang performs pieces by Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Joseph Haydn with just a cameraman for company.
The 24-year-old is taking part in the first round of 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 Yang and his fellow pianists compete for a coveted prize.
“I thought it might be a bit challenging at first, but once I started playing, I just forgot about everything,” Edinburgh-born Yang 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 this week, increasing the number of host cities to 17 from 2018’s three so that the selected pianists could take part close to their home or place of study.
From one competitor in Miami to 14 in Berlin, they all performed their roughly 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.”
He added the competition would in future keep aspects of this year’s event, namely cutting travel distances for crews and contestants – but would welcome live audiences.
First held in 1963, The Leeds is a prestigious music competition offering a career-making package of prizes for its winner: a recording and management deal, recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall and tours of Europe and East Asia among other bonuses.
“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 in September, hopefully with a live audience.
“Music has been and always will be a social occasion,” Israeli competitor Ariel Lanyi said.
“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.”