The Leeds Pub Piano Competition is a Winner

The revival of the Leeds Pub Piano Competition exuded talent, warmth, excitement and pleasure for everyone who packed out The Tetley on 13 September.

The last live gig I went to was Jools Holland just before last Christmas. I didn’t think that I would ever be as impressed by virtuoso piano playing but I have to say that some of the entrants in the Leeds Pub Piano Competition came close, and a performance during the interval whilst the judges were deliberating just about matched it.

This event has been resurrected after almost thirty years to run in parallel with the world famous Leeds International Piano Competition and utilises one of the pianos sited throughout the City Centre for its duration. You cannot have failed to notice them in the railway station, Corn Exchange, Trinity Centre and other prominent places. Should you have an urge to sit down and give a rendition to the good people of Leeds then please go ahead.  It doesn’t matter whether you are a professional concert pianist or just a plonker (no offence) the idea is that everyone is involved.

Photographs by Stan Graham

Speaking of being involved, this event would not have been possible without the participation of Leeds International Concert Season, Leeds College of Music, The Leeds International Piano Competition, The Tetley and, last but not least, Tetley’s Brewery who sponsored the event. The prize money was very attractive, with the winner receiving £500, the runner-up £250 and the third-placed contestant £100.

There were eight pianists vying for the title and each brought their own take on what pub piano should be. Within their allotted time slot the entrants covered everything from modern jazz, through tunes by the Eagles and Pharrell Williams, to First World War songs and even The Flight of the Bumble Bee. Most were done in a light-hearted way and some added a vocal performance to their keyboard work. Sadly there was only one woman pianist, Gilly Bean, but what the distaff side lacked in quantity it more than made up for in quality as she was brilliant and earned third place.

The compere for the night was Gwyneth Herbert who, along with a wicked sense of humour when introducing the artists, gave us the most unbelievable vocal performance accompanying herself on ukulele.

Gwyneth Herbert

You can’t have a competition without judges and we had the cream of the crop here. There was Emily Hudson, who works at Tetley’s Head Office in Northampton and has been the driving force behind the marketing of their beer. (For those of you who think that Tetley’s Brewery has deserted Leeds, think again as they have instigated a joint venture with Leeds Brewery to produce the recently launched No.3 ale back in its spiritual home.  After extensive market research of this brew during the performances I can highly recommend it.)  Byron Wallen who is a London based musician and one of the most exciting trumpet players in the world and whose credentials include being on the judging panel of the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Final.  Finally there was the Yorkshire-born Clare Teal who is the premier jazz singer in the country and Radio 2 presenter who makes the prospect of work on Monday morning so much more bearable with her jazz and big band show between 9.00 and 11.00pm every Sunday night.

As this was a pub piano competition, the drinkers were as much a part of the event as were the pianists and the huge turnout gave the evening an incredible atmosphere. Fuelled by one or two small libations and wanting to encourage the competitors in their performances, there was none of the forced audience participation embarrassment, instead of which everyone belted out the songs they knew with mucho gusto. Some of us were also giving full voice to the songs we didn’t know. I told you that the No.3 was good. All of the players were given the loudest of ovations at the end of their sets and quite rightly so.

John and star student entertain.

During the interval whilst the judges retired to reach their decision, we were treated not only to Gwyneth Herbert’s magical performance but also to a short set by John who won the ‘old’ competition three times. He now teaches piano and was joined by one of his star pupils to perform a version of the classic Tiger Rag. The gasps from the crown told the tale that this was the most flawless and accomplished piano playing it has been my privilege to witness, and that includes the aforementioned Mr Holland for whom I have the highest regard. The roar of applause at the conclusion of the piece was almost deafening.

Once the cheering had died down, Gwyneth announced the results, with the top spot going to Kevin James. In second place was Des McLernon and, as already mentioned, Gilly Bean was third. An extra prize for the pianist who doesn’t realise when he has outstayed his welcome went to Karl Mullen who considerably exceeded his allotted time slot despite several ‘hints’ that he should wind the set up. After the results had been announced and in time-honoured Eurovision Song Contest fashion, the winner, Kevin, took to the piano once again and played us through to closing time.

This was one of the most amazing evenings I have ever had, exuding such a feeling of warmth throughout the room with every single person becoming involved.  It was like the best night ever in your fantasy pub. I sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait another thirty years for the next one.  It is just a shame that the main Leeds International Piano Competition is only held every three years.

Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living.  He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds.  He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.

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