For nearly 50 years the Dudley Yamaha International Piano Competition has discovered some of the keyboard stars of tomorrow from Paul Lewis to Peter Donohoe and Joanna MacGregor.
On Sunday the competition will be held for the first time at Symphony Hall, with Michael Seal of the CBSO conducting.
Chairman John Humphreys, the recently retired deputy head of keyboard studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, explains how the competition began.
“It began in 1968 in a way that other competitions didn’t. The Leeds International was already fully formed by that time, with Fanny Waterman, but the Dudley Competition just started as a piano class at the Dudley Music and Drama Festival.
“Then it became an independent competition in its own right, with a concerto final, with Orchestra da Camera conducted by Ken Page, then latterly Peter Donohoe conducting the Corinthian Orchestra. It was held annually until 1989, when it became biennial, and from 1991 to 1995 it was open to competitors from overseas, though it’s now gone back to just being for specialist students who study in this country.”
Right at the end of the last century the enterprise suffered from internal difficulties, as John explains.
“There was a break in the competition from 1995 to 2000 when someone was trying to take it over in his own direction; but he hadn’t counted on that tough, indomitable Black Country spirit! It all blew up in his face, but the competition then collapsed.
“In 2000 I was approached by Arthur Mould of the Dudley Recorded Music Society, and we met in the Crown, next door to Symphony Hall, and he said how could we get the competition going again?
“And we decided to set it up from then, with just me and the pianist Gordon Fergus-Thompson, and it continued as a biennial event up until 2011, until now it’s become triennial.”
What was the thinking behind now holding the competition every three years?
“Triennial to avoid clashing with Leeds! The period between when it collapsed until 2009 was just recital only, no orchestra. But I got a member of the CBSO, Michael Seal, to come and sit on the jury for the recital-only competitions, with a view that if he recommended the winner to the CBSO they might give them a concerto somewhere.
“And they agreed to that, with no commitment, though. And then in 2009 I persuaded the committee that we should hire the CBSO and go back to Dudley Town Hall with one of the greatest orchestras in the country.
“In 2011 we repeated that, so we had two experiences in Dudley Town Hall with the CBSO, where at one time they used to visit regularly. But the audiences were pretty pathetic, and I eventually persuaded people that we should move on to Symphony Hall, and the result was ‘We’ll do it!’.
“No cost to us, as it’s part of the CBSO concert season. This is the unique factor: the CBSO is the first British orchestra which has taken on a piano competition as part of its concert season. We know other orchestras in the UK play for competitions, but as far as I know no orchestra has taken on a piano competition as part of its programme.”
There are some who would like to rechristen the event, moving the emphasis from Dudley to Birmingham, or even to the CBSO, but John disagrees.
“I like the name of Dudley Yamaha International Piano Competition, Dudley because it’s got a good local ring to it, and International because we attract students from all over the world, as long as they’re based in this country when they enter. And then the name of Yamaha is recognised as a strong global presence.”
The spread of entrants attracted to participate includes competitors from Ukraine, China, England, Russia, Syria and Japan among many other places. From the opening elimination and semifinal rounds three finalists have emerged: Marina Koka from Japan, playing Chopin’s first concerto; Mishka Rushdie Momen from the United Kingdom playing Bartok Three; and Russia’s Natalia Sokolovskaya playing the awesome Third Concerto by Rachmaninov.
They will be expertly judged by a panel including some pianists much respected in the concert-world: John Humphreys himself, Mark Bebbington, Peter Donohoe, Mikhail Kazakevich, Paul Lewis, Noriko Ogawa, Lucy Parham, Martin Roscoe, Allan Schiller and Andrew Wilde, some of these previous winners themselves of this competition. The panel is completed by conductor Michael Seal and Siva Oke, herself a pianist and owner of SOMM recordings, offering the possibility of a CD release from the winner of what is rapidly becoming a prestigious event in the competition calendar.
*The concerto final of the Dudley Yamaha International Piano Competition is held at Symphony Hall on Sunday, November 16 (3pm). Details on 0121 780 3333. www.thsh.co.uk or www.cbso.co.uk