Friday, 22 August 2008

Singapore National Piano Competition 2007: Quarter & Semi Finals / Part One


The biennial National Piano and Violin Competition (5 to 15 December 2007), organised by the National Arts Council, has come and gone. As expected, it generated loads of interest among music students and teachers here, not to mention rekindled the unspoken rivalry between our two very successful music education institutions – the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

The number of entries almost equalled that of the previous competition in 2005, with 274 entries in all four age categories (Junior, Intermediate, Senior and Artist). The pianists outnumbered the violinists by 2 to 1. With such figures, one should be mightily heartened. However having attended parts of the quarter- and semi-final rounds of the Piano Competition and witnessed no less than 88 would-be pianists, I am left with mixed feelings.

The reason was this: the standard of playing was wildly variable, and one had to sit through a parade of mediocrities and no-talents before encountering someone with genuine ability to communicate. I was not even on a lookout for future Abigail Sins or Jonathan Shins, overwhelming local talents; even modestly endowed beings were hard to come by.

For example, what possessed one individual to make mincemeat of Bardarszewska’s A Maiden’s Prayer? The maiden in question could have filed for outrage of modesty, such was this wanton assault to the senses. When the young man was stopped and asked to play the fourth piece of his sorry excuse of a programme, he did not know where to begin. So ended his five minutes of infamy, next…
The piano jurors (from L to R):
Mary Wu (Hong Kong), Paul Pollei (USA) and Roberto Plano (Italy)

The tedium continued and it was a great credit to the jury, an august panel of Paul Pollei, Mary Wu and Roberto Plano, that they gave every participant ample time to prove themselves … or hang themselves. They needn’t have, but they did so, with infinite patience and forbearance.

There was also an issue with kids with special needs who performed. Two years ago, the hearing-impaired Azariah Tan distinguished with his plucky and ultimately musical performance of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. He had since gone on to give a highly credible solo recital and joined the ranks of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. Bravo! This year, I heard two students with learning disabilities perform; they were terrible. They had no iota of musicality and struggled in vain to even register the notes. The poor boy even lost his way getting off the stage, and ironically, received three rounds of applause, more than any other participant. There is a place for these acts of courage too shine (such as the Performers Festival, organised by the Singapore Music Teachers Association), but surely not our national music competition. What were their teachers thinking?

The performers could fall into three classes: good, bad and misguided. The first class, the genuinely good, was desperately in short supply, but it gave me pleasure in naming them. Bearing in mind that I did not hear everyone, here goes:

Piano Junior Category:

Elysia Widjaja (No.16)
Seems very mature for her age. Her Bach Toccata in E minor (BWV.914) was fluid and showed a good understanding of counterpoint. There was genuine cantabile in Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major, with lots of nuance and colour, and not a note out of place.

Tay Wei Ling (No.22)
Having first spotted her in 2005, I was pleased with her progress. Her Bach Prelude and Fugue in D minor (BWV.851) was confident, with the fugue a model of consistency. She kept a fine musical line throughout the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major (K.333). Will further mature with time.

Clarence Neoh Kai Yang (No.30)

Already looks like a veteran performer, the way he is suited to the hilt. Packed a punch to Debussy’s Prélude from Pour le piano, while his Haydn Sonata No.50 in C major was fluent, crisp, and approximated a true interpretation. The slow movement of Grieg’s Sonata in E minor (Op.7) was an unusually inspired choice, with the folksy elements well brought out. Wang Yu Shi’s Sunflowers served as a well-crafted encore. Remember that dictum EGBDF: “Every good boy deserves favour”? Here was a well-deserved First Prize in the Junior category.

Nicole Ong Shu En (No.31)

Cute with a capital C! One of the younger performers, she surprised by bringing so much music out of four dances from Shostakovich’s Dances of the Dolls, when one least expected it. Lots of personality and clarity in Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in D minor (BWV.851), but made her Beethoven Bagatelle (Op.33 No.1) sound a bit too much like Shostakovich. Has a smile to melt hearts.

Jessica Tan Yu Jia (No.33)
Could have had a more beautiful tone and nuance in Mozart’s Sonata in D major (K.576) but was confident and fluent enough. Displayed sensitivity in Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat major, a full range of colours in Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie and dexterity in the sewing machine drolleries of Shishido’s Toccata.

Erica Ngiam Hian Kim (No.72)
All dolled up to impress, and impress she did in Martinu’s waltz-like The Puppets’ Dance No.5, treating it like a true classic with lots of nice touches. Beethoven’s Sonata in G major (Op.31 No.1) is too big and ambitious a piece for her, but she will no doubt grow into it.

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