DURING the past fortnight the Gothic splendour of the Great Hall at the University of Leeds has, once again, echoed to the mesmerising sound of Rachmaninoff and the brilliance of Beethoven.
The return of the Leeds International Piano Competition is welcomed by classical music buffs eager to watch the world’s finest young pianists perform some of the greatest works ever composed. Held in the city every three years, only the most gifted and prodigiously talented pianists are invited to take part.
But behind the sumptuous music, the beautiful pianos and the eager, immaculately-dressed, musicians, is a competition that is run like clockwork. And just as its exacting standards have become one of the hallmarks of “the Leeds” so, too, have the band of loyal volunteers that help make it tick.
This year, 93 volunteers from across the Leeds district, many of them working up to 15 hours a day, are involved.
Whether it’s giving up their time to act as stewards at the Great Hall, ferrying the musicians to and from performances, or inviting them into their homes for a spot of last minute practice, the volunteers are the heartbeat of the competition.
Dame Fanny Waterman, who co-founded “the Leeds” back in 1961, has gone on record saying that without their tireless commitment and support the competition wouldn’t be what it is today.
Francoise Logan is one of these volunteers. She and her husband, StClair, have been welcoming the musicians into their home in Rawdon, West Yorkshire, since 1978. “My husband was on the friends of the piano competition committee, many of whom were volunteers, and we were asked if we could help, so that’s how it started,” she says.
That first year they hosted Frenchman Michel Dalberto, who went on to win the much coveted top prize. “We became very friendly with him and after he won we drove him around to some of his engagements because he had recitals in Ripon and Huddersfield and places like that.”
Over the decades they have had a steady stream of musicians coming through their doors.
“We have a model B Steinway which they can come and practice on. It’s not a new one but some of them like playing on ours because it’s softer and gentler.”
Francoise says she just lets them get on with their practice. “Sometimes it can be a bit boring but other times they will play a piano sonata and you get to hear this beautiful music.”
Both Geneva-born Francoise and her husband, a retired surgeon, are big classical music fans, so for them it’s a labour of love. “We really enjoy the concert series at the town hall. The music scene in Leeds is wonderful and it’s all linked to the competition so to be a part of that, even in just a small way, is fantastic.”
The couple are among a number of volunteers in and around Leeds who invite the musicians into their homes to practice during the competition. Not that they just turn up unannounced. This, like the rest of the competition, is carefully orchestrated.
“They arrive here at 9.30 and practice solidly all morning. Then they have lunch at 12.30. I tell them ‘12.30’ because they don’t like to be interrupted in the middle of playing. They then have a break and the chance to relax a bit and then they go back to practicing until five o’clock when a driver comes to pick them up,” she says.
“In the first week you have someone coming every day because there’s so much demand for pianos, but by the second week it’s more like every other day.”
The six finalists are then allowed to choose where they practice in the run-up to the grand finale. “You basically adopt them for the remainder of the competition. You drive them around or help them if they need to get a new outfit. They become like one of your own children for the time they’re with you.”
Over the years Francoise and her husband have hosted several finalists, some of whom have gone on to become friends. In the case of Alessio Bax, the 2000 winner, they were even invited to his wedding.
It’s allowed them to glimpse what they’re like as ordinary people, away from the pressures of performing. “Sofya Gulyak [who won in 2009] was quite a wilful character and good fun to have around. She actually fell asleep on the big settee in our lounge because she was so tired. I don’t think people realise how tiring it is for these young musicians and how worn out they get.”
Another person they grew close to was Ilya Itin. He won in 1996 and a few months later came to stay with them ahead of a concert series at Leeds Town Hall. “He played beautifully and afterwards we held a reception for him at our house. Dame Fanny Waterman came and so did several people from the competition. This finished at about one in the morning and he said he wanted to go for a little walk. It was late September and it was foggy and when it reached two o’clock and he hadn’t come back we got a bit worried.”
They ended up calling the police who came over and while they were there the Russian called from a phone box to say he was lost. “He said he could see a sign saying ‘Tetley’ and also a church that had a sign saying, ‘If you are lost, God will show you the way.’ The police worked out where he was and went to pick him up.”
Many of the volunteers, like Francoise, are retired which means the organisers are always on the lookout for new blood. “We help every year although none of us are getting any younger. But I don’t think the competition would be able to run without all the volunteers.”
It’s a view shared by Margaret Mara, a fellow volunteer from Headingley. She has been involved with ‘the Leeds’ for over 20 years now. “I come from a musical family and I love piano music. I lived next door to Tetley Hall where they used to house the musicians before they moved them to Devonshire Hall. I heard this wonderful music and wandered in one day and introduced myself and I’ve been part of it ever since.”
Like Francoise she enjoys meeting the musicians and getting to know them. “We’re talking about the top pianists from all over the world performing at their peak and to have someone play their recital in your own living room is just amazing. Where else could that happen?” she says.
“I think the volunteers get as much out of the competition as the competition gets out of them, because it provides so much enjoyment and pleasure. It’s an absolute privilege.”