Monday, 11 August 2008


Here I go again. The Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia (SIPCA) 2008 has been done and dusted, the winners named and duly rewarded with cash, concert tours and the like. The success of SIPCA, having completed its ninth edition, is a reflection of Australia’s own spirit and psyche – a celebration of invention and diversity.

Never has a competition so embraced the pianistic riches offered by its visitors (the Russians and Chinese have benefited the most) while shunning the temptation for jingoism. The pride of the Ozzies is in organising the event well, and offering hospitality and friendliness to all comers, rather than in crowning an Australian winner. To date, no Australian pianist has gotten better than third place (Duncan Gifford in 1992 and Daniel de Borah in 2004).

The roll-call of 36 young pianists.

There were 6 Australians (including a Viet, Ukrainian and Pole) out of the 35 that participated. That’s a far better yield than the measly 2 Brits out of 70-odd pianists that greeted the Leeds Competition in 2006. The top Ozzie was Hoang Pham, who should have advanced further than the semis, an exceptionally fine musician whose intellect also matched his touch. Who could forget his stylishly nonchalant, full-of-cheek take on the Schulz-Evler Arabesques on the Blue Danube (a transcription of a transcription which should now been known as the Strauss-Schulz-Evler-Pham) or the mysterious sound world conjured by combining Andrew Ford’s Thin Air with Bartok’s En plein air (Out of Doors)?

The Russians yielded a predictably strong field, clinching the top two places. Konstantin Shamray was a worthy winner, combining a stainless-steel technique with a human touch, a far cry from the Soviet automaton stereotype that used to chew up piano competitions like a combined harvester on a commune. I expected Tatiana Kolesova to grab the goanna Audience Prize with such stupendously disarming efforts in Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka and the insouciant Kapustin Intermezzo, but 2nd place is some consolation, I reckon.

The Japanese were a revelation in this competition – such polish and poise from Takashi Sato (now studying in Hanover, Germany) and at a mere 17 years, the competition’s youngest Tomoki Kitamura. There is nothing routine or formulaic in their playing, just aural beauty to the nth degree. Their unusual repertoire choices also showcased an innate sympathy for music that can neither be taught nor prescribed. Whoever plays Couperin, Clementi and Poulenc (Sato), Sibelius, Grieg, a Schubert Moment Musicaux or a Beethoven Rondo (Kitamura) in a competition? They did, and wow they did too.

Four pianists hammering out Chopin's Etude in C major
(Op.10 No.1) simultaneously at the Sofitel Wentworth.

The Chinese did not emulate their Olympic counterparts with a gold haul, but they are beginning to show an increasing level of sophistication in repertoire choice. Quarter-finalist Hao Zhu’s best showing was in Spanish repertoire – Joaquin Turina’s Danzas Fantasticas. And young Feng Zhang was totally delightful in two Godowsky transcriptions of Schubert Lieder, Liszt’s Feux follets (despite his burly built) and Alkan’s phantasmagorical Le festin d’Esope, so deceptively titled as Etude in E minor! May they continue to smash that typecasting as Chopin-Liszt-Rachmaninov-Yellow River Concerto millers.

Americans in competitions these days tend to be American-Chinese, American-Japanese, American-Korean and American-Russian, so it was refreshing to see the likes of Ryan McEvoy McCullough and Eric Zuber distinguish themselves in core and non-core music. You can catch RMM on performing Milosz Magin’s Five Preludes and other music by that French-Polish composer (1929-1999) who happens to be buried next to Frederic Chopin in Paris. The fourth piece for left hand alone is truly beautiful. Zuber’s playing was big hearted in the Van Cliburn sort of way, which rewarded him with a place in the finals.

Pianists from different corners of the globe also presented their native musical heritage to best effect. Spaniard Jose Menor was unimpeachable in Granados’ Goyescas selections and Ginastera’s First Sonata, yet was so persuasive in Carl Vine’s First Sonata, the only Australian work performed at the competition other than the commissioned morceaux de concours. The super-serious Hungarian Balazs Fulei played Bartok’s Improvisations of Hungarian Peasant Songs in the manner born. American Charlie Albright impressed with American opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s only piano work, the Ricercare and Toccata. Canadian Sergei Saratovsky set the ears buzzing with Alberta-born David McIntyre’s Butterflies and Bobcats, a toccata-like work composed as recently in 2004. I missed Korean Yoonsoo Rhee in Isang Yun, but one gets the idea.

The glory that is piano literature was exploited to the hilt in SIPCA. The required set pieces were not prohibitive Рvirtuoso etude in Stage I, Debussy Pr̩lude (23 to choose from) in Stage II, Australian commissioned work and Haydn/Mozart sonata in Stage III, and Beethoven/ Schubert sonata in stage IV Рand gave ample room for pianists to flex their creativity in solo repertoire. How else could one sample the length, breadth and depth of a wonderfully musical soul like the Israeli Ran Dank, who performed with equal authority Bach, Bartok and Boulez (Douze Notations) alongside Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin?

The latest bunch of SIPCA commemorative CDs cannot come soon enough!


John said...

I enjoyed reading your blog throughout the competition. As an Aussie, I was thrilled to follow the progress of Hoang Pham. I saw him perform live with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra last year and he absolutely brought the house down! He has some videos up on YouTube for anybody who is interested. I and many others would have loved to have seen him in the final.

MickDunndee said...

Greetings from our General Practice in sunny Sydney!

No doubt about the worthiness of the SIPCA winner! Shamray was magnificent!

I picked him as far back as Round 2 and when i saw that he had chosen the Prokofief 2 I was certain that he was going to nail it! The young Japanese second place getter in SIPCA 1996 also played it magnificently!

I play Shamray's performance through my earphones at least twice a day while I work...can't get enough of it!

I must say that Shamray was very ably supported by the SSO and its conductor on the day. Superb teamwork!

Shamray's comment (in charmingly Russian accented English..."The orchestra come with me") They surely did!