As founder of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, Adam Gatehouse has an unequalled record of spotting young, talented artists, of whom a surprisingly high percentage go on to achieve international stardom. Since 2015, jointly with Paul Lewis, Gatehouse has been the joint artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition. He talks to Bachtrack about talent spotting in general, and the Leeds Competition in particular.

Adam Gatehouse © Simon Jay Price
Adam Gatehouse
© Simon Jay Price

DK: When you see a young musician for the first time, what are the things that are most likely to strike you?

First and foremost, I'm looking for someone who speaks to me, who has something to communicate and has a passion to communicate it, someone that will make me sit up and listen. There's incredible talent out there and the technical level is extraordinarily high, but I still think those people who have a hotline to the listener are a rare commodity. In some ways, you can sense them very quickly when you start listening – not always, but often. You also hear it in a hall when there's a special sort of intense silence created around a performance, when an audience is sitting up and thinking “My goodness, there's something here that I really want”.

Many people try to spot talent but don't do it reliably. Do you think you are particularly in tune with general listeners?

I go by my own instincts, so I can't really say whether I'm in tune with the general listeners. I was and still am a conductor but I spent 17 years of my career as a performing musician. so I've seen a lot of performers from the inside as well as the outside. I clearly remember the first time that I really took cognisance of what a great soloist was: I was about 21 or 22, I was conducting an orchestra and we had the great clarinettist Gervase de Peyer. Standing beside him, I could not believe the incredible power and the projection that this man had and that made me realise "my goodness, yes, that is what you need to project to an audience". But I just hope that what speaks to me will speak to others as well.

At what age is it possible to be sure that you're seeing real star quality and not just a precocious kid?

Again, it's difficult to make hard and fast rules. Generally, in my experience, violinists come out younger than virtually anybody else, maybe pianists as well. One of the first New Generation Artists I took was Lisa Batiashvili and she was only 17. Normally, I would not even have considered taking anybody that young for that scheme, purely because at 17, they haven't had enough performing experience and repertoire under their belt to cope with the demands of the scheme: we gave them a lot of opportunities to perform so they needed a lot of repertoire. But Lisa was of such extraordinary quality. I first heard her when I was at home cooking: I turned the radio on and it was the slow movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. When the soloist came in, I said to myself "Who is this? This is a real old soul"; I imagined somebody in their late 60s or 70s, I had to stop everything and listen right to the end. When they announced that this was a 17 year old making her UK debut, I was just flabbergasted. But she was an exception. Of course, there are incredible people who come out very young, the Barenboims and the Menuhins and all of them, but generally speaking, I would say that there's no harm, however brilliant and talented they are, in waiting before they are catapulted into that fast lane. Because unless you're a very rare human being, particularly in the business as it is now, you're not really ready for it at sixteen, you've just not had the life experience you or the knocks. Actually, with the Leeds competition, we've raised the lower age to 20, just because Paul Lewis and I believe that if they're good at 17, they'll be better three years later.

Most conservatoire students, it seems to us, think they should wake up the morning, practice, eat occasionally, go to sleep and repeat. It worries us that this schema doesn't leave any space or time for gaining those life experiences...

You're absolutely right. To me, those musicians who enter that upper realm of truly inspirational performers are people who have a broader basis on which to draw from their life experiences. Music is about life, those composers put all of life into their work, and if you don't experience any of that, falling in love, sorrows, betrayals and the rest of life's baggage, you're cutting yourself off from a whole part of the very thing you're putting across.

When you were running New Generation Artists, or at the Borletti-Buitoni Trust today, talk us through the process of how you assess people to take on?

Once New Generation Artists got going, people came to me, but at the beginning, I went to a lot of concerts, kept my ear very close to the ground and consulted widely as to who the talent was. I always went to hear musicians live before I would consider taking them, preferably in concert in front of an audience. Occasionally, that wasn't possible, in which case I would invite them to come and play for me. The criteria were those I spelt out at the beginning of this discussion: the music has to speak to me. Sometimes it takes a while: I heard Pavel Haas Quartet at an early stage in their career and they had talent, lots of zest and go, but were pretty rough. Two years later, it was a quite different experience and then, I took them on. Another occasion was probably the only time when I could almost say I took somebody before I even heard them play a note: Alexei Ogrintchuk, one of the greatest oboists I've ever heard, came to me to audition at BBC Maida Vale Studios. As I watched him get out and prepare his instrument, he was standing with his legs slightly apart, like an absolute rock, he held his insturment in front of him, he took an incredible deep breath and as he approached the instrument to his mouth, I knew that it was going to be gold that came out. Within two or three bars, I knew that this was absolutely extraordinary. But that's the exception.

To achieve some level of fairness, are you a real musical omnivore? There are so many styles, repertoires, approaches that you're going to be comparing apples with oranges all the time, so what happens if you don't like oranges?

That's absolutely true, and inevitably, there are going to be certain instruments that are going to be at a disadavantage. Just today, I was listening to a percussionist. Now, the percussionist is very good, I can tell that. But the repertoire is dire, which makes it very difficult to make an absolute judgment. On the other hand, when you're faced with a Colin Currie, as we were with the New Generation Artists, there's just no doubt in my mind. Even though Colin still played dire repertoire, he's so amazingly good that you can't help but be dazzled by it. I'm as omnivorous as I can be, but inevitably there are areas where I'm weaker than others, I can't deny that.

I'm interested in the difference between assessing achievement and looking for the signs of what they can become in future...

In the last Leeds Competition, there were two 17 year old pianists, from Taiwan and Korea, who clearly had talent. One of them did a Mozart sonata that was absolutely lovely. But then it came to something that needed more maturity, experience, thought, like a late Beethoven: that was beyond their capabilities and experience. I don't blame them: at 17, nobody can plumb the depths of Op.109 or Op.111, and that's where one's antennae need to be very well tuned to see what is and isn't there and make a swift judgment as to whether you think that what's missing now could be there in future.

It's a difficult process, and I would be the last person to flatly say “X will not have those qualities in four years”. I have seen people who, quite honestly, I found extremely boring; four years later, they really made me sit up and I took them on the scheme.

Have you ever found out why that happened - did something happen to them?

I never asked that, it's an interesting point. What I can say is that it nearly always had to do with communication and projection – it was to do with a musician who had a lot to say but didn't really know how to put it out to the audience. Particularly the singers could perform for the front row instead of aiming for the back of the hall. I remember one singer who looked down, rather stiffly; three years later, I was sitting near the back and he was standing up, looking out and communicating – a totally different experience.

Paul Lewis (left) and Adam Gatehouse © Simon Jay Price
Paul Lewis (left) and Adam Gatehouse
© Simon Jay Price

Let's move on to competitions and the Leeds in particular. What do you think makes a great competition?

Ha! If I knew that! Listen, you're speaking to somebody who has never actually entered a competition, although I have been on the juries of several. Paul Lewis and I both have a healthy respect for competitions but also a healthy suspicion of them: they are one way for a career to be furthered, usually quite a fast track way, but they're nowhere near absolutely reliable. Having said that, Paul and I do think that we could make the Leeds into something more meaningful for both competitors and audiences, and also a little more humane for the competitors. Because it can be a pretty rough experience, particularly for younger ones who are not used to that sort of high competitive spirit.

After the first round, with 60 competitors in Berlin, Singapore and New York, we will invite 24 to Leeds for the second round, after which 14 will be eliminated. In most competitions, when you're knocked out, you're quietly but firmly asked to leave your room the next morning and go home. That was the case in Leeds as well, but for the next competition, we wil keep all 24 competitors right through to the end of the competition; we will house them, feed them and also involve them. Apart from the competition, we're going to have masterclasses, discussions, films and so on taking place in the mornings and we will be doing education work across the city and beyond. We want to involve those people who were knocked out so that although they will inevitably be disappointed, they will feel valued and still feel that there are things that they can take away from Leeds.  

The other important thing is that the prize winning package should be as meaningful to them as we can make it. We offer quite generous cash prizes, admittedly not as big as some competitions, but on top of the cash prizes, we offer a very rich set of activities and experiences. For instance, we partner with Askonas Holt, one of the world's leading artist management companies, who will take one of the three prizewinners onto their books and give them proper planned management.

The five finalists will also be mentored by Paul Lewis and one or two other pianists, and they will get coaching in the non-musical sides of the business: how you manage a manager, how you market yourself, how to make a website. We will try to help them with all those things which a modern musician needs. On top of that, we've partnered with a growing number of promoters, festivals, organisations: BBC Radio 3 will give enhanced concert and recording opportunities to one of the winners as well as broadcasting the semi finals and the finals. We are also streaming the whole competition on Medici TV, so they will have the possibility of reaching out to an audience that is so infinitely bigger than they will achieve either in the flesh or just through putting something up on Youtube. All three winners will get a recital at Wigmore Hall the year afterwards; the winner will get a recital in the Southbank in 2020, we work with the Hallé as our partners, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are going to offer a concerto engagement to the winner and also a recital. We're developing partnerships with various other promoters and organisers and festivals, so that the sort of package we can offer is not all crowded into the first year but over a decent period of time. It's a broader and more meaningful package than any other competition that I know.

Inevitably, there are more losers than winners. Are there things you can do for the losers?

Of course, you're never going to take away that disappointment. But Murray Perahia's advice to competitors is "go into it more as a spirit of sharing something with an audience, of reaching out to an audience, of communicating, this is what you come into this business for". And I think that we you can offer some of things that we're offering and make them see that coming to Leeds has not been in vain, that they will have been seen in the early rounds, have experienced a masterclass with Alfred Brendel or similar, have worked with children in a particular community: then we have contributed to their career, and that's crucial to our view of what the Leeds does and represents.

Competitions are always subject to accusations of judging which is either poor or downright biased, with teachers pushing their pupils. How do you combat those accusations, valid or otherwise?

On one level, the accusations are valid. In the final of the last Leeds Competition in 2015, three out of the six finalists had three of their teachers on the jury. They were not allowed to vote for their pupils – the rules are absolutely clear and I'm not saying that there were any shenanigans going on at all – but just that very fact, to me, feels very uncomfortable. So we have now have a smaller jury than those of recent times: our jury will have nine members who are mostly international performers.

Inevitably, though, people will have done masterclasses, because the people we've got – Lars Vogt, Imogen Cooper, Paul Lewis, Simon Trpčeski – all do master classes. You can't get away from that.

As regards false judgments: our voting is anonymous and there's no discussion – that's always been the rule since the days of Nadia Boulanger back in the 60s. Otherwise, you can have a dynamic in a jury where there's one very forceful personality who can try and influence other people's judgments, if only by the force of their convictions. We're even debating whether we should go completely public and put the jury's votes online so the whole thing is completely open. The Warsaw Chopin Competition did that recently; I haven't discussed it yet, but it's a possibility.

What other ambitions do you have for the competition?

The competition is every three years, so every three years you get this incredible peak of activity, and then nothing. And it struck me and Paul that in some ways, that's a slightly self-defeating way of doing it and so we thought about how we could keep the interest of both the public and the music world going in between competitions.

So in May 2018, we're having our first Leeds Piano Festival, which will become annual, taking place in Leeds and London. For the first festival we have invited three past alumni from the Leeds Competition to give recitals in the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds and Wigmore Hall in London, and at the same time we're inviting three of the Young Scholars from the Lang Lang International Music Foundation. They're brilliant pianists hand picked by Lang Lang, mainly from the US and China, and taken on for a two year period of mentorship and profiling. We will bring them for a fortnight to the UK and give them a fairly extensive programme of education work, in schools, care homes and other communities, ending up with a recital in the Howard Assembly Room and then an appearance in a big jamboree we're planning in Leeds Town Hall with six or seven hundred schoolkids.

We also thought that there was a whole area around The Piano that we could be actively involved in. Up to about the mid 1970s, the piano was a central thing in many people's homes; that has kind of disappeared, partly due to the lamentable fallout of free teaching, but also because of the expense and interest moving towards drum kits, electric guitars, saxophones, whatever. So we're going to start an extensive programme of learning and engagement, locally and nationally: we're going to be talking to the BBC about a national piano day or even a national piano week.

These are just some of the ideas. During the competition in Leeds, we're going to have a piano trail, with pianos all over the city in the pubs, on the streets, in the station, in the shopping malls, you name it. And we're talking to a production company about doing a film about the alternative pianists, who morph out of the crowd and come and play those pianos, because there are some who are really talented. We'll have cameras on them and invite them to film each other and upload them to our website – who knows, we'll maybe even have a little competition for the best street pianist! We want somehow to get a buzz and an awareness around the piano which will be an ongoing programme, of which the Piano Competition every three years is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Of all the artists who have come through your tutelage, who are you proud of? 

I'm not going to name just one, that would be so invidious. But the thing that I am proudest of is that in the 14 years that I ran New Generation Artists, nearly 100 musicians or ensembles came through it, and the number of them who have what you'd call international careers is about 70%. Actually, that is of value! Our first intake included Paul Lewis, Stephen Osborne, the Belcea Quartet, the Jerusalem Quartet, Christopher Maltman, Lisa Batiashvili, Alban Gerhardt, François-Frédéric Guy, Natalie Clein, the Leopold String Trio: that's quite a crop! It was very much finger in the wind, but somehow or other we seem to have picked some winners.