Friday, 22 August 2008

Singapore National Piano Competition 2007: Piano Artist Category

(5-9 December 2007)

So we have reached the Grand Finals of Singapore’s biennial national competition for pianists and violinists. For many of the young musicians involved, it was an arduous journey, beginning with hours of practice, lessons, and the sheer nerves of playing in front of an audience and a watchful international jury. Some take to this ritual so easily that it becomes second nature. They are the “natural born artists, musicians and entertainers”. For others, the “March to the Scaffold” would seem more appropriate.
Piano Artist Category Quarter-finals: Misses and Hits

At the quarter-finals of the Piano Artist Category, the variability of the participants continued to baffle. There were a number of withdrawals, thus longer tea-breaks for both jury and audience.

One Friday morning was particularly frustrating; having missed the only decent performer, I was subjected to three no-shows, and merely 15 minutes of poor playing. One pianist had little clue as to what she was doing in Granados’ El Amor y la Muerte from Goyescas and plodded through Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511) unimaginatively. Worse was to follow when another offered an aborted attempt at Bach’s Italian Concerto, replete with a hard unyielding sound, mistakes and memory lapses galore. At least she had the decency of committing musicus interruptus in the first movement, walking off stage after three minutes of agony. And this was supposed to be the crème de la crème, the Artist Category?

The Saturday sessions fortunately reaped a better harvest, but there were still awkward moments that smacked of American Idol (or Singapore Idol) desperation. For example, why would any sensible person begin his or her programme with the quicksilver finale of Ravel’s Sonatine? A sure-fire recipe for failure. This same pianist deluged Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata (Op.31 No.2) with over-pedalling, a whirlwind of wrong notes and memory lapses.

There were also some entertaining moments. An undistinguished performance of Chopin’s Ballade No.1 (Op.23) with obligatory raspberry at the end for effect was fully compensated by a wholly outrageous outing of Percy Grainger’s In Dahomey (Cakewalk Smasher). And smash the piano he did! Not Marc-André, but the lobby bar of the Mandarin Oriental could do with more of this kind of thing.

Now for the real performers, and there were several that merited serious attention. Here was the beginning of artistry, the first steps taken by young people who would choose to make music a career, and who would hopefully go on to enliven and enlighten our impoverished, empty souls.

Wang Haijie (No.26)

Opened with a very competent performance of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor, one imbued with a variety of colours and shades. He gave the impression of a very serious artist, and yet one without a single dull moment in his playing. Able to ease into Godowsky’s transcription of Albeniz’s Tango, a reading that was sensitive, somewhat deliberate in tempo but with the inner voices carefully teased out.

Shaun Choo Yung Sheng (No.32)
At 16, the youngest participant in the Artist category but he does not look it. Instead, the demeanor is one of a seasoned virtuoso who seems totally at ease with himself and the music. His Bach-Busoni Chaconne is rock-like in its technical security, yet one filled with fantasy and imagination. A meister of nuance and colour, this playing grabs one on the lapels and proclaims, “Listen! And you shall see!”

Nguyen Nhat Quy (No.36)
In one of the more satisfying recitals, this sensitive young lady brought colour, clarity and feeling in a Bach Prelude and Fugue (BWV.853), reaped a whirlwind in a Rachmaninov Etude-tableau (Op.33 No.5), both works in E flat minor. This surely cannot be a coincidence. The bittersweet and violent elements in Prokofiev’s Sonata No.2 were also brought out in a very accomplished reading of the first movement.

Among the other pianists, Benjamin Lim Tiong Han (No.25) brooded on Liszt’s Ballade No.2 in B minor in between moments of serenity and introspective, and rightly let loose on York Bowen’s Toccata. Sun Miao (No.27) brought a big sound to Granados’ Allegro de Concierto but was less distinguished in her Beethoven sonata.

Having missed the semi-finals of the Piano Artist Category, thanks to a short trip to Hong Kong for The Joy of Music Festival, it was anybody’s guess as to who the finalists were. As it turned out, only one pianist I had heard, Wang Haijie, made it to the Grand Final.

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