From Beethoven to Taylor Swift, meet Piano+, the piano-centred company designed to help you fall in love with the instrument, no matter your taste.

By Sophie Davis.

In late 2022 the Sydney International Piano Competition (The Sydney), led by Chief Executive Marcus Barker took up tenancy at the City of Sydney Creative Studios operated by Brand X. Despite arriving in a brand new building, The Sydney has a long and impactful history on the fabric of the arts in Australia, coming up for its 50th anniversary in 2027. 

The Olympics of the piano world, the Sydney International Piano Competition has occurred every four years, putting the international spotlight on some of the world’s best young pianists from every corner of the globe. “These are young artists who are already playing on the concert stages of the world like Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, and with major orchestras like the London Philharmonic” Marcus explains to me. “(They are) young artists who are already forging their careers.” 

“It’s like a live reality program,” says Marcus, laughing. The competition happens over 3 weeks with 32 young artists selected from 250 applications. Competitors are flown into Sydney from all around the world, arriving on the 1st of July. As Marcus breaks down the competition I realise, he isn’t exaggerating at all, this really is like a reality program! The competition is made up of three stages, all in front of a live audience and jury, these stages include the preliminary finals, semi-finals, and the finals which are held at the Sydney Opera House. There are two rounds within each round, all as unique and challenging as the next.  

Let me break it down for you: 

The preliminary stage comprises a twenty-minute recital and a thirty-minute recital; competitors can’t repeat the same music and it all must be recalled from memory. From this point, just twelve competitors make it through to the semi-finals, there, competitors play a seventy-minute solo recital followed by a chamber music round with works selected from a prescribed repertoire of piano & violin sonatas and piano & cello sonatas. Just to make matters more complicated, competitors won’t be told what sonata they will be playing until two days before they have to perform it. Only six competitors are voted through to the prestigious finals at the Sydney Opera House and are tasked with performing an 18th-century (or earlier) concerto and a 19th or 20th-century concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra…all from memory. 

“The audience just love it, they want to see all thirty-two from the start and everyone has their opinions on who should get through and who shouldn’t,” says Marcus, and I can see why audiences are so invested. The winner claims the ultimate prize pool of over $200,000 in cash, digital and CD recordings with Universal Music, concert engagements with world orchestras alongside other touring engagements, and mentoring, all organised by Piano+. “We also bring back the first prize winner to do a national tour in Australia which goes to regional areas around the country as well, not just capital cities.” This is one of the reasons why the Sydney International Piano Competition is one of the most prestigious in the world, “it’s the only one in the Southern Hemisphere of its kind and of this calibre.”.  

A pianist himself, Marcus has been working in the arts sector for over twenty years. With an extremely impressive career stretching across multiple countries and art forms including Belvoir Street Theatre, the Sydney Opera House, the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London, and the National Portrait Gallery in London. Marcus then landed in the world of festivals at the Dublin International Theatre Festival for five years and Ten Days on the Island in Tasmania. He eventually found himself in Sydney in what can only be described as a full-circle moment when a job at the Sydney International Piano Competition came up offering him a one-year contract “And now I’ve been here for eight years!”. 

But it doesn’t end here for Marcus. This is just the beginning. Coinciding with the 2023 competition, Piano+, an exciting new organisation, is emerging to take the Sydney International Piano Competition under its wing, which it will continue to present triennially, as well as produce and offer brand new programs, opportunities, and education resources for pianists of all ability across all styles and genre. 

“The organisation has shifted significantly, not just in name, not just in brand, but in terms of its strategic outreach, strategic intent, and strategic vision.” Piano+ has three main objectives. 1. To celebrate the piano across Australia, spanning from major cities to tiny rural communities. 2. To encourage people to play the piano, “whether that be solo piano, classical piano, or contemporary, you know, It could be for little Johnny who is playing Taylor Swift, whatever it could be, we just want people to play the piano.” Which leads to 3. Education. “Not just piano education, but music education as a whole,” Marcus tells me how Piano+ will pick up on what the Sydney International Piano Competition already offers in terms of masterclasses, mentoring, festivals, and competitions, but amplify these further. “We will also have a new series which is our international concert series, so we will bring in international concert pianists from around the world to perform in big concert halls like the Sydney recital centre and the Melbourne recital centre, to provide an opportunity for audiences to hear some of the world’s greatest international pianists in big concert platforms.” 

Piano+ will continue to present ‘Composing the Future’, a competition for Australian composers of piano music, to encourage entrants to write for the piano, of which, that entry has the opportunity to form part of the Australian piano library for the future. “We also run an award called ‘Piano Lovers’, which is for amateur adult piano players. So if you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a bus driver, and you want to start playing again, this is an online award encouraging you to do so.”  

Under the banner of Piano+, ‘Out West Piano Fest’ will return to Bathurst after its inaugural success. An immersive festival at Blackdown Farm, four pianists play to audiences on two concert grand pianos paired with exquisite food and wine celebrating central west providers against the backdrop of beautiful farmland settings. Marcus also tells me that Piano+ has plans to create new festivals in other parts of the country where you typically won’t expect to find piano “…so it may be as an example that we combine piano and visual arts with Bendigo because there’s a strong connection with visual arts in Bendigo. All of these new opportunities will come under Piano+.” 

The charm of the Piano+ re-brand and the use of the ‘+’ symbol lends itself to be all-encompassing. “We can look at pairings of the piano, for instance, jazz, so one of our ideas is to create a late-night jazz series down at Mary’s Underground at Circular Key. We can also create Piano+violin, and tour under Piano+violin, Piano+festivals, Piano+education, Piano+competitions” Marcus says with delight. As long as the piano is involved, the pluses and the possibilities are endless.  

Tickets are still available for the Sydney International Piano Competition with the first preliminary round kicking off from midday on the 6th of July at Verbruggen Hall. You can find tickets here:

Or, find out more about Piano+ on their website