Written by: Colin Anderson
Erica Worth is the irrepressible editor of Pianist Magazine, “the magazine for people who love the piano and who can play the piano; we have 40 pages of sheet music in each issue, stuck in between the editorials and interviews, from beginner to advanced, and there are playing tips, too.” Erica is herself an amateur pianist. “I pursued a career and went to music school and everything. But I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this’, though I had been on stage, and it helps if you’ve had that in your past. In fact, a friend suggested I enter the Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition in the States. In 1999, the first year, someone called Joel Holoubek won, a French numismatist, and I heard that a manager of Starbucks has also won. I wanted to do something over here for all those amateur pianists who read my magazine.”
As Erica says, “there’s nothing quite like the piano. You can have fun on it on your own and it’s a family instrument; if you have a piano in your home then you come across as cultured.” Indeed (your correspondent has one!), and it’s the ideal instrument for a singsong on festive occasions and for accompanying musical friends, and “it’s a beautiful looking instrument. I just had this feeling that an amateur piano competition could be huge. Yamaha loved the idea.” Thus ‘The Pianist–Yamaha Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs’ was born. It was launched in the Spring of this year and the first Final is on Saturday November 26 in Cadogan Hall beginning at 7 o’clock. Apart from residing in the UK and being 30 or older (one of the finalists is in their late 70s), amateur is defined as “not deriving your principal source of income from performance or piano instruction and you should not be studying at a music school or conservatory.” Nor is the competition entirely Classical, for the Modern section is “jazz, rock, Latin, Salsa, you name it; we are looking for a personal and/or improvisatory approach to standard compositions.” The judges for the Modern section are Jamie Cullum and Julian Joseph; and those for the Classical comprise Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe.
Advertising in Pianist Magazine and on Classic FM brought 250 applications, both a surprising and encouraging response. “We listened to every single tape and CD. It was really hard to make a decision.” From 250 down to 20 for the semi-finals, the chosen ones were heard live. “There were five judges, we were all listening together, and the discussion was lively! I’ve been so emotional about this. The people who didn’t make the Final have become something of a family; we’ve been sending them tips and advice and telling them why they didn’t get to the Final. We’ve thrown up some real characters; and there are two brothers, both involved in television, they didn’t make the Final, who are listening to dead pianists all the time. This is about passion and about people who love the piano who are fitting in their passion alongside the day job and family responsibilities.”
Now the public is involved for the first time, and the seven Finalists are neatly arranged as “three Modern and four Classical, interspersed, playing for about 12 minutes each. Simon Bates is hosting the evening. The pianists will play first and then Simon will ask them a bit about themselves.” Just like Miss World! (Roars of laughter from Erica!) “That’s very funny; yes, we want the evening to be fun and warm.” The audience gets to vote, too – so three prizes, Classical, Modern and Audience, and the Classical and Modern winners each receive a £10,000 Yamaha piano.
So successful has this somewhat toe-dipping exercise been that “we’re already committed to the next competition. It’s been so exhilarating. We’re doing it again in 2007, and then every two years.” Erica issues an early “call to women” for the next competition. “We didn’t have that many women this time, maybe men are more competitive, or maybe women are just too busy cooking dinner for their husbands!”