Since its formation in 1991, the Keyboard Trust has helped to launch more than 250 young pianists, organists and players of historic instruments. Founder, John Leech MBE, looks back on the charity’s evolution and celebrates its coming of age.
‘We must make music together!’ The great Maestro beamed at the young Italian virtuoso who had just delivered an impressive recital for the Keyboard Trust at New York’s Steinway Hall. As good as his word, barely two years later, Alessandro Taverna did indeed perform with Lorin Maazel and his Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, first at the Gasteig, then in the Musikverein in Vienna.
Not all the Keyboard Trust’s exhibitions of major young talent achieve their objective in one simple move. But all are based on a quarter of a century of building partnerships with venues in the major music centres of the countries of primary importance to musical development. Over time, this has allowed the Trust to map out an intensive international career development plan for those it selects.
‘Discovered’ originally by Duilio Martinis, a piano enthusiast who created the AlaPiano project outside Verona, Alessandro Taverna had already received all-important opportunities for performing in public alongside a growing success in international competitions. His career inside Italy thrived – he was eventually invited to play for the President of the Republic at the Quirinale in Rome – but, like many others elsewhere, had lacked the opportunity to gain international recognition. The Keyboard Trust was able to offer him not only performances in the UK but also its tour path in Germany, from Hamburg to Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich and other venues besides; and then the Trust’s US tour which brought him before Lorin Maazel. His swansong for the Trust, on reaching the age of 30 and about to play in the Leeds International Competition, was the 2012 Keyboard Trust Prizewinners Concert at Wigmore Hall.
Selecting those who should benefit from the Trust’s intensive but short-term support is no easy task. The American composer, Ernst Bacon, once expressed the problem: ‘There are today so many good musicians that it is becoming increasingly hard to find a great artist. We are all able to recognise one when we hear one… but the artist has first to have a platform to make himself heard.’
That is what the Keyboard Trust exists to provide, not once but on an international circuit of now some 50 platforms in Europe and the Americas. Here, they can gather renown and begin to enlist a loyal following while making the vital transition from formal education into a fully professional life. Most important of all, they are invited back and their career can develop independently of the Keyboard Trust. Hardly one of these presentation concerts goes by without the offer of some form of benefit that will secure their future. Shining examples of that go from Paul Lewis – almost the first ever to play for the Trust – to those like George Lazaridis and Alessio Bax who have become major figures in their own or adopted countries. There have been public successes like the Brazilian, Pablo Rossi, whose 12 Keyboard Trust recitals within a few months produced six recalls and seven further concerts offered to the Trust; and Stefano Greco, the Bach scholar, who played in Florence and was promptly invited to tour all the campuses of the University of California. And then today’s greatest developing talents to watch, Mariam Batsashvili and Vitaly Pisarenko, both now already famous for their victories in the Utrecht Liszt Competition, and the Alkan and Thalberg authority, Mark Viner, who performed in the annual Keyboard Trust Prizewinners concert at Wigmore Hall on 2 March 2018.
… and its Evolution
It all began as a birthday tribute to Noretta Conci-Leech, a former student of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who began her married life in London grooming young concert pianists and helping to prepare their careers. Conceived as a concert by some of her best, it would also give them the chance to shine in public. The three Model D Steinways on the platform would accommodate the seven artists headed by Leslie Howard; but what of all the others out there, perhaps equally gifted and deserving? Even as a diplomat with a self-evident talent, how do you get onto a concert platform to build up a public? And if doing the circuit of music societies and prize concerts begins to establish your name, how do you make it known to the world outside? What was needed was an organisation that offered a wide range of international appearances, coupled with the funds to get to them.
By the time of the birthday concert, Claudio Abbado had agreed to head a body of Trustees, which enabled Alfred Brendel to announce the creation of The Keyboard Charitable Trust for Young Professional Performers. Two years later, it had its christening at the Royal Festival Hall when Abbado, Evgeny Kissin and the then European Community Youth Orchestra (now European Union Youth Orchestra), with Assistant Conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, provided it with the silver spoon. This also allowed it to register a respectable identity with the Charity Commission. Steinway & Sons offered the hospitality of their Hall and its glorious instruments; that privilege later spread to Steinway Halls in Berlin, Munich and now Cologne, New York and, at one time, even into the Hamburg Factory itself.
Audiences, too, were built on the founders’ widely assorted circles of friends, colleagues and relations, then began to multiply with theirs. Such generosity has regularly filled the Bechstein Hall in Frankfurt and elsewhere in Germany. In New York, daughter, Caroline, and other good friends have presided over an active concert calendar and its progressive extension to Florida, Delaware, Pennsylvania and the Maazels’ Festival Theatre in Virginia. An association with the Italian body for cultural co-operation allowed some of the Trust’s Italian artists to appear in five major Latin American countries under their auspices. Friends of friends have propagated the Trust in culturally rich countries such as Cyprus and Mexico.
Partnerships – the sharing of costs and responsibilities – brought artists to perform in splendid venues such as Brahms’ Laeiszhalle in Hamburg, the Sala Maffeiana in Verona (home of Europe’s oldest concert society, where Mozart delighted the guests in his time), the Teatro Ghione a stone’s throw from St Peter’s in Rome and the Brazilian Embassies there and in London’s Trafalgar Square. And since 2009, with generous support from its German Trustee, Moritz von Bredow, the Trust has been able to hold its annual Prizewinners Concert before enthusiastic London audiences in the Wigmore Hall. From these, the most prestigious concert halls, to other locations where classical music is rarely heard but all the more avidly appreciated, the Trust has steadily pursued its mission to develop new performing opportunities and new audiences. Never more so perhaps than when the same benefactor took Keyboard Trust artists to appear in two concerts in Ankara and one in Baghdad.
The New Era
2013 saw the end of the Trust’s long formative era with the semi-retirement of its Founders. It had finally come of age with the appointment of Nicola Bulgari as Honorary President, the Chairmanship passing to its Hon. Solicitor, Geoffrey Shindler, and – most importantly – the installation of the immensely able General Manager, Sarah Biggs. At the same time, a body of three Artistic Directors was nominated to share the greatly enlarged load of appraisal previously carried by Noretta Conci-Leech.
Following the sad loss of Claudio Abbado in 2014, Sir Antonio Pappano was invited to become the Trust’s Patron; his acceptance now preserves its important orchestral links at the highest level. And finally, Evgeny Kissin agreed to join the Trustees, thus bringing his involvement with the Trust full circle from the original 1993 benefit concert.
Thanks to the new Chairman’s involvement with the Manchester Camerata, a justly famous chamber orchestra, it has been possible to open an important new dimension for the Trust’s artists, giving them a first experience on the road towards playing with a full orchestra. Now in their second season, these collaborations between Camerata principals and Trust pianists have themselves opened up non-traditional venues in and around Manchester, drawing in new audiences.
Of equal significance has been the development of the Trust’s association with players of baroque music and historic instruments. Dr Elena Vorotko, a period specialist Honorary Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, has used her position as a Trustee to build a wing for the Trust which sends artists to perform on the famous instrument collections at Hatchlands, Handel & Hendrix in London and Finchcocks and at St Cecilia’s as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This represents a signal contribution to a sector which is under even greater pressure today than classical music itself and has met with considerable appreciation.
In all these ways, since its formation in 1991, the Keyboard Trust has helped to launch more than 250 young pianists, organists and players of historic instruments on an international career. Each year, as the Trust itself continues to widen its reach, it is able to take on up to ten new artists in these disciplines and present its new intake at over 50 concerts in 14 principal countries. In reality, it has become a formidable launch pad for those of Ernst Bacon’s ‘great artists’ on whom the future of classical music will depend to bring in the audiences of tomorrow.
Header photo: Mariam Batsashvili
The Keyboard Trust: www.keyboardtrust.org
About the author
John Leech is the Founder and former Chairman of the Keyboard Charitable Trust for Young Professional Performers. He has served on the Advisory Committee of the London Symphony Orchestra and has written on musical, international development and security subjects.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and on the Court of the Worshipful Company of Paviors. Together with his wife, pianist, Noretta Conci-Leech, he was awarded the MBE in 2014 for ‘services to music and young musicians’.