A Piano Battle Goes Global, and Discovers Its Sensitive Side


Between them, they have reimagined what a piano competition can to be. It is not a surprising move for two people who accepted the job having the same misgivings as Bartok.

Mr. Gatehouse previously ran the BBC’s New Generation Artists, a platform for talent that’s emphatically noncompetitive, and said he was approaching his new task with “a healthy skepticism.” Mr. Lewis has also kept clear of contests, apart from what he remembers as the “miserable” experience of taking second prize in the 1994 London International Piano Competition.

“You can’t really like the idea of them,” Mr. Lewis said, “because they don’t foster an environment where you can properly be heard as a musician. When you walk onstage as a competitor you should be thinking about music, but you’re actually thinking about being judged.”

He added that he did not like the way “competitions tend to exist for themselves, full of self-congratulation when a few prizewinners go out into the world and succeed. The goal should be to help performers whether they win prizes or not.”

But both Mr. Lewis and Mr. Gatehouse said they accepted that, like or loathe them, competitions are popular with the public and help launch careers.

“They’re part of the fabric — they’re not going to go away,” Mr. Lewis said. “So I thought, O.K., if I were 24 and entering the Leeds, what would I want it to be? How could I bring it closer to the reality of what it is to be a musician in the 21st century?”

Photo

Froreground, from left, Mstislav Rostropovich, Fanny Waterman and Murray Perahia backstage in 1972.

Credit
Leeds International Piano Competition

The answer was a series of reforms that transformed a blood-sports entertainment to a celebration of the keyboard, with, perhaps, a different sort of winner: somebody whose musicality runs deeper than the fire and flash of virtuoso brilliance.

After this month’s rounds in Berlin, Singapore and New York, the competition will return to Leeds in September. This is a much less punishing experience: In the past, 80 pianists flew into Leeds from across the world and played through the rounds and finals relentlessly, under pressure, for as long as three weeks.

“No one’s at their best in those circumstances — least of all the jury,” Mr. Gatehouse said. “By the time you reach contestant number 43 at 9 p.m. on day five you’re completely knock-eyed and can’t make meaningful comparisons.

“So splitting off the first rounds and locating them strategically in Europe, Asia and America — closer to where most of the contestants come from — seemed like a good idea, as well as giving the competition a more global presence.”

Those first rounds will reduce the number of candidates who end up in Leeds to 24, for a competition that lasts 10 days. The lucky 24 will have plenty of time for preparation. And they’ll find that some of the time-honored cruelties of competitions have been dropped.

“It used to be,” said Mr. Gatehouse, “that as soon as someone was eliminated they had to vacate their room and get the next flight home, their self-confidence in tatters. But now everyone will stay on to the end, and we’ll gainfully employ them — in pop-up recitals, educational projects at community centers, schools, anywhere we can get a piano. And they’ll all participate in master classes with the jurors.

“They’ll still go home disappointed, but it won’t be with that devastating sense of failure and rejection.”

Jurors will also mentor some participants, with continuing career advice part of what Mr. Lewis calls the competition’s “duty of care.” And prize packages for first, second or third place extends beyond the usual cash awards, engagements and recordings to include long-term management from a leading artists’ agency.

If all this reads like going soft on a snowflake generation that needs to be toughened up for life on the concert circuit, there are some respects in which the Leeds makes more demands than before. The rules now require performers to offer more repertoire, with more variety. They have to prove themselves in chamber music, collaborating with other instrumentalists. For the finals they must offer two concertos, with one from before the Romantic era — which means they cannot rely on churning out the standard virtuoso repertoire of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Grieg that often wins competitions.

Most interesting of all, performers have to put together a recital program with a written explanation of the thinking behind it.

“It’s not that we don’t value virtuosity,” Mr. Gatehouse said, “but we want to make the point that being musical is what will count.”

As the pianist Lars Vogt, a past winner of the Leeds and one of this year’s jurors, put it: “We’ll be looking for someone with a view of the world, not just fast fingers. Who can tell a story in their playing and make meaningful connection with an audience.”

If these promises are met, the Leeds will certainly be different this year. It will nurture and explore, dig deeper into what it takes to be a pianist. And perhaps it will be won by someone whose abilities extend beyond a knack for winning competitions.

Continue reading the main story

How to Spot a Nuclear Bomb Program? Look for Ghostly Particles


Dr. Bernstein said the United States will contribute $30 million over six years to the project.

Neutrinos, particles with no electrical charge and little mass that travel at close to the speed of light, are generated by nuclear fusion, as in the sun, where hydrogen atoms merge into helium, releasing heat and light. Antineutrinos are the antimatter version of neutrinos and are created when atoms fall apart in fission reactions like the decay of uranium. The fission of uranium also produces plutonium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.

Antineutrinos rarely interact with anything. That makes them very difficult to detect, but it also means there is no known way to shield a reactor and prevent antineutrinos from flying out.

Photo

An illustration of a cutaway view of the Watchman antineutrino detector.

Credit
Jim Brennan/Sandia National Laboratories

The vast majority of antineutrinos from the Hartlepool reactor would pass unimpeded through the new detector, but calculations by the scientists indicate that two to four a day would collide with a hydrogen nucleus — a proton — in a water molecule.

When this collision occurs, the proton transforms into a neutron and ejects a positron, the antimatter version of an electron. Because the positron moves so quickly through the water, it emits the optical equivalent of a sonic boom, called Cherenkov radiation. (Watchman is a shortening of Water Cherenkov Monitor of Antineutrinos.)

Mixed in the water will be the element gadolinium, which will absorb the neutron generated in the collision, emitting a second flash of Cherenkov light.

The demonstration will scale up previous work that was able to detect antineutrinos at a distance of about 80 feet from a reactor core. Detectors as large as the one at Boulby could be placed near the nuclear infrastructure of a state that had agreed to shut down its nuclear reactors, allowing international authorities to verify compliance. Potentially, much larger detectors could monitor sites hundreds of miles away in hostile nations that do not allow inspections.

The same apparatus would also assist astronomers studying supernovas, the explosions of distant stars. In 1987, several large neutrino detectors detected a few handfuls of neutrinos and antineutrinos from the explosion of a star more than 160,000 light-years away.

Watchman would similarly detect such cosmic explosions, but with improved acuity. The presence of gadolinium in the new detector would make it possible to differentiate neutrinos, which would generate just one flash of Cherenkov light, from antineutrinos, which would generate two.

“We couldn’t do that in 1987,” said Robert Svoboda, a professor of physics at the University of California, Davis and a member of the Watchman team.

For neutrino scientists, Watchman will also finance the development of improved technology to record the Cherenkov flashes. These are to be deployed in a second phase of Watchman and then could be used in other neutrino experiments.

“There’s this nice duality between basic science research and nonproliferation,” Dr. Bernstein said.

Continue reading the main story