SUMMITAS, The Philanthropist and the Arts
A Tale of Two Entrepreneurs John Leech MBE* – Noretta Conci-Leech MBE
and The Keyboard Charitable Trust
I am writing to you about The Keyboard Charitable Trust, an international organization headquartered in London, dedicated to supporting talented young pianists, and shepherding them into professional careers. The Trust has an international outreach with offices in London, New York City, Germany and Italy. It is supported entirely by donations. It is a bright star in the world of classical music funded solely through philanthropic generosity.
I became associated with The Keyboard Charitable Trust in 2000, when my production company produced a telecast of a recital as part of a series that presented chamber recitals at Steinway Hall for NHK-TV for airing in Japan and parts of China. The artist of the evening was pianist, Wu Qian, a Keyboard Charitable Trust awardee. The performance was world-class and well worthy of the expense of a professional taping. It was quite spectacular. Wu Qian continues to have a career as a soloist and a founding member of the Sitkovetsky Trio.
John and Noretta Leech, who founded the Trust, were both in attendance, traveling from London to be there. John hosted the event with words about the Trust and then an introduction to the artist of the evening. He has a refined presence, which added to this special event.
John Leech MBE* – Noretta Conci-Leech MBE
“The Keyboard Charitable Trust’s mission is to help young keyboard players in building a professional musical career. The Trust identifies the most talented young performers (aged 18-30) and assists their development by offering them opportunities to perform throughout the world. For the most gifted, this means débuts in London, New York, Mexico, Berlin, Rome and other music capitals.
The Keyboard Trust has developed a circuit of some fifty venues in seven principal countries, from the most prestigious concert halls to locations where classical music is rarely heard. Over the past twenty-five years, the Trust has presented over 200 young international pianists, historic keyboard players and organists in concerts worldwide.” (from the Trust’s website)
John Leech and Noretta Conci-Leech being presented with
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Prince William
There are two parts to this tale – The founders of the Trust, John Leech, MBE – Noretta Conci-Leech, MBE, and the stories of their pianists, in this case represented by Mark Viner, (born in 1989), who was the featured artist at the recital at the new Steinway Hall on October 25, 2016. Mark is an astute interpreter of Franz Liszt; he is known for performing little known piano repertoire. He is also the Chairman of the Alkan Society in the U.K. to commemorate Charles-Valentin Alkan,(1813-1888), a French composer, who lived in Paris. During the 1830’s and 1840’s Alkan was considered one of the leading virtuoso pianists in the Paris, performing alongside his colleagues Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. I attended this superb performance, which inspired this article.
There is a long-time ongoing relationship between The Keyboard Charitable Trust and Steinway and Sons. Steinway donates their centrally located, prime Manhattan performance space for concerts presented by the Trust in an ongoing long term relationship. Steinway has provided a concert space to the Trust for many years for concerts by their winners.
Caroline von Reitzenstein hosted this year’s event. She is the US Administrator for the Trust and the third in our trio of elegant presenters.
Mr. Viner’s program consisted of repertoire by Franz Liszt and Charles Alkan. His performance demonstrated the passion and artistry of a young man, who has a great career in front of him. Viner played Liszt with a fluidity that lesser pianists can only dream about.
It was a stroke of musicality, for Mark Viner, to program Alkan and Liszt together.
When I asked him to tell me about the relationship between Alkan and Liszt this is what he told me.
“Alkan’s relationship with Liszt was, for the most part, amicable. Despite early rivalry, these two giants soon reconciled. Incidentally, in later years, Liszt never failed to pay Alkan a visit when in Paris. Although these two remarkable men stood on different sides of the platform aesthetically – Liszt leading the way alongside Wagner with the New German School – an aesthetic which Alkan, alongside many others, rejected, both were remarkably innovative in terms of their actual piano writing and both foresaw what was to come in decades after their passing. Though of course, in this respect, Liszt was the one who made a lasting impact due to his meteoric fame. These were among my (many) reasons for coupling them in a recital. I should also say that, ultimately, when presenting music as strange and beguiling as Alkan in a programme it is important to put it into context with other music, particularly that of the romantic era. Liszt, with his own distinctive voice and and tireless exploration of the instrument’s resources, not to mention, as with Alkan, a penchant for virtuosity, fits the bill amply. Both are ultimately orchestral composers at the piano too, which is another reason they fit so well together. “
In 1991 John and Noretta Leech Founded The Keyboard Charitable Trust. John presented Noretta with the idea of a philanthropic entity, which could make a significant difference in the life of gifted young pianists. In a sense, The Trust was a gift from John to Noretta. This enabled her to support young pianists working to advance their careers in a highly competitive market. The undertaking is multi-faceted including performance opportunities and financial and emotional support.
I asked John Leech about creating the Trust and what his expectations were at the very beginning. This is his answer.
“Like any ‘entrepreneur’, I set off with a mixture of conviction and hope: Conviction that the formula was original, cost-effective and viable; and the hope that its logic and simplicity would gather support from fellow benefactors as well as the right venues and partners across the Continents. The rise was not quite meteoric, but it did take off once that foundation had been laid.”
A concert pianist and venerable teacher herself, Noretta Conci had been the student and assistant to one of Italy’s most famous pianists, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. This association translated into many friendships within the music world that became helpful to the newly formed non-profit organization.
I asked Noretta Conci-Leech MBE to tell us examples of how the Trust supports artists in different situations.
“Almost the first candidate was Britain’s Paul Lewis; he was so brilliant that his career took off straight away, without much further need for Trust support. Perhaps the best early example of developing recognition with the Trust’s sustained backing is Alessio Bax. Coming from Bari, Italy, he first played for us in London in 1997, went on to win the World Power Competition the following year, played for the Trust in Germany, Italy and finally the USA, where he settled in New York after winning the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009 (and married the highly gifted pianist Lucille Chung). These two examples illustrate the range of benefits the Trust can bring: From the quick launch, to several years of supporting the artists’ international progress to the peak of their profession – we are there to nurture the right talent.”
John found support through his contacts at European and Atlantic organizations that he developed in his career with the Commonwealth Development Corporation.
The major point is that John and Noretta by using a life time of contacts were able to reach deeply into the philanthropic and artistic community to muster support to create an ongoing high quality institution to support young pianists. As one can see from their Trustees, they attract high-level philanthropists and world-class musicians.
John and Noretta each used their relationships in two distinct but complimentary areas. They wove them into a web that underwrites a Trust to support young musicians. Brilliant!
In 2016, the Trust celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary.
In 1993 a special benefit concert in support of the Keyboard Charitable Trust took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall, given by Claudio Abbado with the then European Community Youth Orchestra and pianist, Evgeny Kissin. Together with Alfred Brendel, Claudio Abbado became one of the earliest trustees of the Keyboard Trust, endorsing the Trust’s high standards of artistic endeavors. The financial support of big donors like the late Marion Frank and Nicola Bulgari are directly responsible for the sponsorship of 140 outstanding young talents.
(source: My Voice – GetClassical.org)
Alfred Brendel Claudio Abbado
Sir Clive Gillinson is a Trustee of the Keyboard Charitable Trust. He has known John and Loretta Leech for many years. In this quote, he speaks about their commitment to young artists.
“I have been fortunate enough to know John and Noretta since my very early days in management at the London Symphony Orchestra, initially through their great friendship with Claudio Abbado. John was a member of our Advisory Council and provided a very valuable sounding board for discussions as well as offering insightful advice. Noretta is, of course, a great piano teacher and has a remarkable instinct for identifying talent, so the combination of their dedication and skills has provided an extraordinary boon for the most talented young pianists seeking to fulfill their talent and develop their careers. It is absolutely typical of John and Noretta that they are totally modest and self-effacing about their commitment, and everything they do is about the young artists they support and never about themselves. I can’t think of any philanthropists or supporters of the arts anywhere who are a better example of how to give in a way that is totally about the receiver and never the giver. It’s certainly been one of my great honors to count them as friends throughout so much of my life.”
According to their last count, 38 percent of Charitable Keyboard Trust’s artists are having substantial careers as performers. The Keyboard Charitable Trust mentors, advocates and helps launch the careers of these pianists chosen solely for their talent. The finished, polished young concert artist is delivered to the professional concert stage as a world-class performer with an impressive resume.
This unique system of personal management and nurturing demonstrates how intense it is to administer the personal care each artist needs to succeed. It illustrates the importance of support groups, starting with the performers’ teachers and patrons. We salute John Leech, MBE – Noretta Conci-Leech, MBE for the important service that they have provided to the music world. They have lovingly developed young talent into world-class performers. Theirs is a legacy that will endure into the future.
Nicola Bulgari (Hon. President) Geoffrey Shindler OBE (Chairman) John Leech MBE (Founder)
Claudio Abbado † (1991-2014) Alfred Brendel KBE Moritz von Bredow Richard Bridges
Noretta Conci-Leech MBE (Co-Founder and Artistic Director 1990-2013) Sir Clive Gillinson
Dr Leslie Howard Sir Geoffrey Nice QC Nicholas Snowman OBE
Dr Leslie Howard Dr Elena Vorotko Christopher Axworthy
Moritz von Bredow (Germany) Christopher Axworthy (Italy) Caroline von Reitzenstein (USA)
*MBE – Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire
Part 2 by John Leech:
The snow had begun to fall softly that February day in 1991. By early evening its loose mass became treacherous under a brittle and doubly slithery crust. The car descended the slope to the Old Banking Hall in Old Broad Street almost under its own weight. Especially on her 60th Birthday, it had been more difficult than usual to enthuse Noretta to turn out for an event, which I had been at pains to describe as one of my ‘City functions’, making it clear that I expected to share her boredom. It would be a duty call for us both.
All that changed in a flash, literally of flashlights, as we walked through the door. Instead of the City Beagle there was a sea of friendly faces, well-wishers with ‘Happy Birthday’s’, embraces and high expectancy. They had been bidden to a concert to honour Noretta’s 60 years and to listen to some of her advanced students. Assembled in the oriental splendour of the original National Bank’s Banking Hall, amid solid marble columns proclaiming that institution’s wealth amassed in Empire and beyond, was some of the cream of London’s music world, together with our music-loving friends and those for whom we wanted it to become a habit. On the stage stood three Steinway concert grands, enthusiastically prepared by Leslie Howard, himself one of Noretta’s star students.
It had begun with an idea for a birthday tribute, to honour Noretta’s work in grooming young concert pianists and helping to prepare their careers. Surely she deserved a public concert by some of her best, as would they the chance to shine in public. Only as I realised that most were not the ones who any longer needed that exposure did I think of all the other brilliant talents out there who lacked such an opportunity.
Even as an accomplished diplomate with a self-evident talent, how do you get onto a concert platform to charm your public? And if doing the circuit of music societies and prize concerts begins to establish your name, how do you make it known also in the important music centres of the world outside? Only the rare winner of a major competition will be offered a chance of concerts outside the home patch. What it needed was an organisation that offered a wide range of international performing opportunities, coupled with the funds to get to them. And only that could enable the really talented to make the transition from formal education to a professional international career.
By the time of the birthday concert, Claudio Abbado and Alfred Brendel had agreed to head a body of Trustees, which there enabled Alfred to read out a message from Claudio announcing the launch of the new Keyboard Trust for Young Professional Performers. Two years later it had its Christening at the Royal Festival Hall when Claudio Abbado, Evgeny Kissin and the then ECYO, 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 new Trust the hospitality of Steinway Hall and its glorious instruments. Once the level of excellence had been established, that privilege spread to Steinway Halls in Berlin, Munich, now Cologne, New York, and even into the Steinway Factory in Hamburg itself.
Audiences, too, were built initially on our widely assorted circles of friends, colleagues and relations, then multiplied with their own. Among our most loyal helpers and followers from the early days have been our Cousins Sibylle (née Reitzenstein) and Patrick Rabut in Frankfurt, John and Ursula Langton (ex-CDC) in Munich, in New York Caroline with Paris as ever-obliging bartender, and the irreplaceable Danny Danielli. This mixture of friendship and generosity has allowed the Trust to acquire a wide range of other venues, now with formal seasons and calendars, and above all devoted publics, based on a partnership principle under which costs and inputs are shared equitably.
Among this category – now the majority – are splendid venues such as the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg, the Sala Maffeiana in Verona (home of Europe’s oldest concert society), the Teatro Ghione in Rome, and the late Lorin Maazel’s Festival Theatre in Virginia. In London, an agreement was reached with the Brazilian Embassy for regular cycles of concerts in their splendid former Banking Hall in Trafalgar Square. A matter of great pride in recent years has been the annual Keyboard Trust Prizewinners Concert at the Wigmore Hall, at the initiative of Moritz von Bredow, who became a Trustee in …. and has been responsible for expanding the Trust’s reach throughout Germany, in Turkey and even to Baghdad.
The Trust’s growth has also been particularly vigorous in Italy where, in addition to Rome, its traditional platforms include the northern circuit of Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Venice and Trento, and a more recent one with the Orchastra Filarmonica Marchigiana covering the Adriatic cities of Ancona, Pesaro and Fabriano. In 2013 the Trust was invited to hold a ‘Keyboard Trust Festival’ for the consolation of the people of L’Aquila, still shell-shocked by the then recent earthquake which destroyed most of the old town.
Regular tours are available to Keyboard Trust artists throughout Germany, including Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich, Dresden, Leipzig and provincial centres like Rheda-Wiedenbrück. At one point the Trust was even allowed to hold a concert in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. Another circuit covers the eastern side of the USA, where twice-yearly tours take in New York, Philadelphia, Delaware and Virginia – with past sorties to Bard College on the Hudson and Palm Springs in Florida. There are also two annual concerts in Monterrey and Torreòn in Mexico.
Concerts have been held in Ankara and in Cyprus, and in the North Highlands of Scotland. There are also organ recitals at the famous Temple Church in London, and now a new branch of activities for players of Historical Instruments. Concerts on instrument collections like Finchcocks, Fenton House and Hatchlands have been extended also to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, through collaboration with St Cecilia’s House.
The Trust has active arrangements with some 50 venues in seven principal countries, which now enable it to hold at least that number of concerts each year, or even up to 60 when augmented by an on-off arrangement with the Italian CIDIM which operates in a further five countries of Latin America.
The main benefit for the artists is, of course, the ability to exhibit their prowess before international audiences and to create a wide following; but the partnership concept has also allowed them to be paid fees far more in line with commercial rates than the Trust itself could afford, and through the partners’ public concerts to reach greatly increased audiences. More significantly, it has enabled the Trust to operate with extreme cost-effectiveness: its total expenditure has consistently equated to an all-up cost of a surprisingly low £1,300 per concert, including most of the artists’ travel.
The fact that the Trust was able to invest even this small amount in its artists’ future has been due wholly to private donations, which make up the entirety of its income. The generosity of the noted radiographer Marion Frank, who made over to the Trust most of the restitution moneys she had received from Germany for the seizure of her family’s property, established a solid financial base. This was extended by other wellwishers, notably the great goodwill of Gabriella Bassatne, until the extraordinary beneficence of the world-renowned Italian jeweller and philanthropist Nicola Bulgari (now its Honorary President) began to give the Trust a firm annual donation income.
As to the beneficiaries, one of the very first in 1991 was Paul Lewis, now one of the top British artists and Artistic Director of the Leeds International Piano Competition. On an equally steep rise came the Ukrainian Alexander Romanovsky; among the more recent are the Australian Jayson Gillham, winner of the Montreal Competition; Alessandro Taverna, honoured by the Italian Head of State; another Ukrainian, Sasha Grynyuk’ who has now also taken charge of the Trust’s 25th Jubilee project, internet broadcasting of artists’ recordings; the Russian winner of the International Liszt Competition, Vitaly Pisarenko; the British Alexander Ullman and Alkan specialist Mark Viner. Drawn from currently 35 different nationalities, many others have over time gone on to win coveted prizes in major competitions, and just on half to make substantial careers as soloists or in academia, or both. Bearing in mind the vagaries of artistic endeavour, that must rank as a handsome outturn.
New entrants are now selected by a body of three Artistic Directors: the doyen Prof. Leslie Howard who judges numerous competitions and is renowned for his lectures and masterclasses; Dr Elena Vorotko, specialist in baroque music and instruments who also guides the period section; and Christopher Axworthy, the immensely helpful owner of the Teatro Ghione in Rome who, together with the music broadcaster Valentina Lo Surdo, has done a major service in promoting the Trust’s work throughout Italy.
Thus each year the Keyboard Trust launches a stream of sublime music that would not otherwise be heard, played by the ablest of the younger generation who would not otherwise be performing. And it brings together annually some 15,000 people to hear them.
Now, 1,000 concert performances by some 250 young masters later, Noretta and I are delightfully surprised to receive a double MBE, ‘for services to music and to young musicians’. Its real significance, however, lies in the public recognition of the Trust as an instrument of value and merit. Nothing vainglorious, but the proud insignia of ordinary people whose labours give the daily plod some meaning by impacting directly on the lives of others. We received the honours with the same humility that Claudio Abbado had towards his life’s work, including the nurturing of the Keyboard Trust.
An equally proud recognition came in 2015 when, after the immense loss of Claudio Abbado, we approached Sir Antonio Pappano to become the Trust’s Patron and continue its link with the great conductors. Both of them had, after all, begun their illustrious careers as pianists.
The MBE Ceremony
It was a calm and luminous affair. From the brightly lit Long Gallery, emblazoned with the cream of the Queen’s collection of Old Masters, the Great – soon to be touched by the sword – and the unknown Good relaxed their tensions, then were briefly tutored on procedure by an affable Equerry who brought it all into the realm of the possible. As double investitures are less common, Noretta and I were taken into a sideroom for a brief instruction on how to approach and retreat from the Royal Presence. Then into a shuffling queue towards the great Ballroom, full of ceremonial uniforms, the blaze of light from the chandeliers reflected from an infinity of shining toecaps. The Presiding Royal was revealed as the most gracious, almost hospitable and warmly welcoming Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge. To his great credit, and our surprise as the citation had not explicitly mentioned the Keyboard Trust, he began lauding all the excellent work it was doing for young musicians. A remarkable young man himself, with easy and intelligent communication. Quite clearly cut out one day to become an effective and highly popular Monarch. Noretta’s Mother was a great Royalist (Vittorio Emanuele, of course, who did not necessarily deserve the favour), but I had not quite expected that her daughter would be so moved as to clasp the Prince’s hand in two of hers! From there into the Courtyard under the grey sky of reality. We had each been allowed to bring three guests, made up of the young of our various families. The sixth place we allotted to the person most unlikely ever again to be invited to Buckingham Palace, our Polish housegirl. Her smile was there to ignite the most luminous part of the whole magical procedings.
Tradition almost demanded that we should then bask in the admiration of our closest over a private lunch at the Travellers which has hosted so many of our significant moments – from wedding anniversaries to Noretta’s 80th Birthday concert and dinner and, ironically in view of what has happened since, a celebration of the UK’s entry into the EEC. This time we were supported by Johnny and Caroline, Guy and Juliette with their offspring Jess and Matt, Patricia Beesley and Bob, our beloved physician Trevor Hudson and Sue, the guardian angel of the Keyboard Trust, Gabriella Bassatne, and the marvellous crew who are now steering it forward with remarkable energy, Geoffrey Shindler, Sarah Biggs (with Phil) and Sarah Moyse.
Friendship marked the origins of the Trust and its development. It fashioned our affectionate relations with relays of its young artists. And it continues to be the foundation and keynote of its work.
Part 3 – Mark Viner – an auto biography
I’ll start at the beginning. I think it’s fair to say that my entire musical upbringing was an unusual one. I am not from a musical family and was a late starter. I started playing the piano at the age of 11 (three months before my 12th birthday, if I’m not mistaken). I took lessons with some local teachers for a year or two before it became pretty clear that music was something I should pursue seriously. I should also point out that I was more or less entirely self taught before these lessons – I taught myself to read music – and to my first piano lesson I brought the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata, op.27/2 ‘Moonlight’ after a few months. I was also composing around this time too and had developed a keen fascination in pianos, how they work etc. Much time was also spent scouring rural charity shops for old scores – anything I could get my hands on. After feeling like a square peg in a round hole (to put it mildly!) in regular schools, my family investigated the possibility of sending me to a private music school and the one, which we went to audition, was the Purcell School. Here I was offered a scholarship under the government’s Music and Dance Scheme and in September 2002 I began my formal musical training there with Tessa Nicholson – a miraculous lady and wonderfully talented teacher. In many respects it was back to square one where technique was concerned and I was explained firmly how I had to ‘learn to walk before I could run’ (!) – I had all these aspirations of playing Liszt already. However looking back I couldn’t be more grateful for the technical – and musical – foundations I received there under Tessa Nicholson. I quickly made up for lost time, though and after I saw how much the work was paying off, practising became infectious! It was actually during this first academic year (spring 2003) that I encountered Alkan. It was the annual piano department project in which we focused on a particular area of the repertoire, eventually showcasing it, after masterclasses with renowned professors, in an end of term concert. This year it was Chopin and Alkan. The études, op.25 of the the former and the Douze études dans tous les tons majeurs, op.35 of the latter (which, incidentally, I have just recorded in Rotterdam). Alongside these were included miscellaneous pieces of the two composers. I was given one of these as by this point I was no where near able to play any of the études of Alkan. Initially, I was far from impressed – I found it far too difficult and unappealing. On hearing the études, however, my mind was completely changed and I was absolutely spellbound. The visiting artist who came to coach us and who also played a generous selection of this music in a recital in our school was none other than the great Ronald Smith – Britain’s answer to the great American, Raymond Lewenthal – another Alkan advocate. Some months after this revelation I was intent on playing as much of this music I could, sometimes to the consternation of my professor at the time. However, we were always careful to balance my repertoire and I was always playing a great amount of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin etc. which is always vitally important and especially so when one ventures off the beaten track. I soon ended up entering some internal competitions and, as a result, ended up making my Wigmore Hall debut in 2005 playing Alkan and Liszt. I eventually ended up auditioning for the main conservatoires and was admitted to the RCM with a scholarship to study in 2007 with Niel Immelman, a tremendous musician who has had a profound influence on me, with whom I studied for four years of Undergraduate Studies. Here I broadened my repertoire considerably and played much unusual repertoire by Thalberg, Medtner, Decaux, Mereaux and a host of other shadowy figures alongside ‘golden oldies’ such as the Grieg Concerto and Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ etc. I ended up receiving the highest mark in my year for the end of year recital then, depite a somewhat ambitious programme – Beethoven, Chopin, Mereaux and Alkan. In order to continue studying with Niel Immelman – (I’ve never been one for hoping teacher to teacher), I auditioned for a post graduate course in 2010, for which I was accepted. Most of these years were spent in deep excavation of the piano literature which briefly earned me the nickname, among friends, of the ‘Indiana Jones of the Piano Literature’ (!) In 2012 I won first prize in the Alkan-Zimmerman Competition in Athens – a really formative event in my career. Shortly after I finished my studies I made a few records with Piano Classics in the Netherlands who have been extremely supportive. My association with the Keyboard Trust has been tremendously helpful. It is a wonderful organisation which has helped me to branch out and play in all kinds of places I never thought I would ever go, and meet the most wonderful people. I am extremely proud to be affiliated with them and to have represented them at home and overseas.