Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Conservatory Piano Concerto Finals / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (10 November 2009)

Some of the best things in the world are free. Top of the heap has to be the free student concerts at the Conservatory. Four piano concertos in one evening, performed at a very high professional level, are the stuff of dreams. Remind me not to wake up. This year’s piano concerto competition final was unique – all four of the soloists were Singaporeans, an unprecedented event in the short history of the Conservatory. That’s our tax dollars being put to good use, I have been reminded.

First was Azariah Tan (left) performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1. Has there been a more sensitive musician than this young man who is afflicted with progressive deafness? His problem might explain why certain flourishes in Chopin’s florid writing sound louder than they should, but there is no doubting his ability to carve out flowing lines and achieve a singing cantabile. The slow movement’s Romanza was a prime example of this poetry put into practice. His mastery of prestidigitation – and there were many instances in the Rondo finale – was also awe-inspiring. This was a performance, aided by Bertrand Lee on second piano, that lacked nothing in colour or nuance.

With all the orchestral tuttis truncated, the Chopin concerto played for over half an hour. Cesar Franck’s Variations Symphoniques is only half that length, but what a compact masterpiece it is. Jonathan Shin (left) exhibited great subtlety and suppleness in its unshowy but nonetheless virtuosic piano writing. There were minute changes in dynamics within each extended phrase, and he was instinctual in realising these, varying the colour and shade accordingly. There was nothing superfluous or routine in the playing, which also benefited from very coherent and tight ensemble from the second piano by Zhang Aidi.

After the interval, Khoo Hui Ling (left) in her “Bandung pink” evening gown blew the audience away in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. She was totally at home in its urbane jazzy idiom, and allied the silky touches with fingers of steel. How her slender presence was able to surmount second pianist Akkra Yeunhattaporn’s beefy orchestral reduction was some feat of sound production and projection. In the bluesy slow movement, excellent pedalling lent the simulated portamenti and blues notes much tonal allure. The coruscating finale showed she totally possessed that all-important swagger and swing. Like the song that goes “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”, Hui Ling has got lots of it, and a bit more.

The last item was Chopin’s rarely performed Fantasia on Polish Airs (Op.13), a work which only makes an appearance in Chopin integrales on recordings. It is early Chopin, full of his over-elaborate decorative writing and sometimes unabashed note-spinning. To Zhang Aidi’s (left) credit, she makes a wonderful case for this unashamedly folksy music. Her technique is close to flawless and even the most parochial of moments are made to sound heartfelt. Kudos to her for even including this in her growing repertoire.

Oh, the woes of having to choose from Azariah’s courage and musicianship, Jonathan’s virtuosity and subtlety, Hui Ling’s brawn and bravado, and Aidi’s finesse and adventurousness. Thank goodness I don’t have to play judge and jury here. For the record, the coveted First Prize went to Khoo Hui Ling, who goes on to join the string, wind, brass and percussion winners in the Grand Concerto Concert in February next year.
The finalists with their teachers Thomas Hecht and Albert Tiu,
conservatory dean Bernard Lanskey and guest judge Anna Sleptsova
(Photo by Julie Tan)

Whoever said “There’s no such thing free lunch” has not been anywhere near the Conservatory.

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