Friday, 22 August 2008

Singapore National Piano Competition 2007: Grand Finals

Piano Artist Category Final (14 December 2007)

Just to reminisce, the 2005 final was distinguished by not one but three performances of Saint-SaĆ«ns’ Second Piano Concerto (!), each performance being less distinguished than the last. To be safe, SS2 was not on the list of fifteen concertos offered to the participants, and this year’s final proved to be a boon with three different concertos played by three very different pianists.

First off was Kwon Cheo Yong, a Korean from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466). Here is a thoughtful musician, one of much poise and polish who had much to say in his concerto. Uncommonly mature for his age, his reading was one of utmost musicianship, one which blended seamlessly with the orchestra. While this had all the hallmarks of good chamber music, Kwon was also not afraid to exert himself when necessary, running the full gamut of Mozart’s emotional output. His cadenza for the first movement was unusually dramatic, Romantic in spirit and full of surprising harmonic turns, yet dovetailed perfectly into the performance as a whole. (I later found out from Kwon’s teacher Albert Tiu that the cadenza was by no less than Brahms!)

His reading of the slow movement was elegant and graceful, with the turbulent central G minor stylishly handled. The finale was again full of spirit and brio, with yet another totally idiomatic cadenza (this time by Mozart’s student Hummel, thanks again Albert!). It is said that Mozart often exposes the musician (or absence thereof) in a pianist, and this performance revealed Kwon to be a supreme artist in the making. He also reminds this observer of a much more mature Asian pianist whose musicianship has never been in doubt – Dennis Lee. Have we found this year’s winner?

In complete contrast, the performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Op.16) that followed by Cheng Shih-Wei from Taiwan, another Yong Siew Toh student, was a smash and grab job. There was little doubt that this young man with funky-looking eyeglasses is a talent, but his was an untamed soul, one whose bestial instincts towards the instrument negated whatever musical vestiges he possessed. His opening cascade of octaves was fast, brilliant and impressive enough but what about beauty of tone or equanimity of temperament? He had little of the latter, as his assault on Grieg was as subtle as a Viking berserking, with little more than two dynamics – faster and louder.

To be fair, Cheng did not undo the orchestra’s rapt and lovely introduction to the slow movement, and he did exhibit enough poetry and expression to show what he was truly capable of. However he was back to the bad habits in the Halling-inspired finale, by racing ahead of all and sundry, with nary a care to proper music-making. If this were to be an imitation of the wayward but phenomenally popular Lang Lang, it was a poor one to be certain. While the Langster is accurate at the very least, Cheng was often messy. The fact that he managed to finish a second ahead of the orchestra in the three final chords (yes, all three chords) also spoke volumes. He neither listens nor anticipates, and for that he should be sentenced to two hundred hours of community chamber music making.

This feast of concertos concluded with the afore-mentioned Wang Haijie, a China-born student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Instead of a tired and badly flogged warhorse, Wang’s sounded like a breath of fresh air. The opening chords were well and accurately punched out and the first cadenza hit no stumbles. Steadiness and sturdiness were his hallmarks, and while no new insights were revealed, his self-assured way was always reassuring. The octave passages were stunning for their desired impact, and he added nuance and a wide range of colours to his already considerable solo part – no mean feat. There were coordination problems with the orchestra at the beginning of the coda but like a true pro he is destined to be, shrugged it off without any fuss or bother.

The second and third movements flew through effortlessly, with no hint of any stress or strain, certainly a good thing. Again Wang’s rock-steady and unflappable technique ruled while others might be frantically clutching for straws. To be sure, the tumultuous applause began even before the last chord finished, signally the close of a highly charged performance.

So which performance won the day? Kwon Cheo Yong’s poise and polish, or Wang Haijie’s endurance and bravado? Mozart and Tchaikovsky were as alike as apples and oranges, but who wins? It was never to be a level playing field has Wang pipped Kwon to the top spot, with the bellicose Cheng a distant third, several parsecs behind. For this listener, it was a dead heat, but I would give the nod to Kwon. For me, it is far more difficult to be convincing in Mozart than in Tchaikovsky. Give me brain over brawn any day.

Clarence Noeh with his teacher, a proud Miss Tay.

Also heard this evening were the first prizewinners of the Piano Junior and Intermediate Categories. Clarence Neoh Kai Yang showed that age was no object as he exercised brilliance and sensitivity in Wang Yu Shi’s Sunflower. Zhang Aidi was more deliberate in the opening of Liszt’s Liebestraum No.3, but rightly let her instincts take flight in the rapturous middle section. Another two for the future, one hazards a smart guess. No first prize was awarded for the Piano Senior Category, and judging by what I heard earlier, was probably the right thing.

Wang Haijie’s triumph marks a distinct landmark for Professor Yu Chun Yee of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, with a hat-trick of First Prizes in this competition to his name. His two previous charges John Chua Gheng Hong (Singapore) and Yao Xiaoyun (China) came up trumps in 2003 and 2005 respectively. How this gentleman, formerly a professor at London’s Royal College of Music, finds these talents, brings them to the Academy, and hones them to near perfection is nothing short of a revelation. Is he Singapore music’s Arsene Wenger? Give the man a medal, and a Tiger!

With two first prizes, the mainland Chinese have dominated this year’s Piano and Violin competitions again. In contrast, there was only one Singaporean to feature in the finals. I do not see this as a bad thing, firstly because the standard of the competition has skyrocketed, and secondly Singapore music education institutions, namely the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and Nanyang Academy, have made the aspirations of foreign talents come true. This is a true testimony of the high standards of our schools and the Singapore system of meritocracy. That surely cannot be a bad thing.

The advent of the Singapore Festival Orchestra under Chan Tze Law, formerly a pick-up orchestra of professional free-lance musicians, is the other heartening development. Their overall high standards and providing musicians with a five-star collaborative experience has raised the bar of this competition, a very worthy institution that we have much to be proud of.

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