Friday, 15 January 2010

THE SINGAPORE EXPERIENCE: Impressions of the National Piano and Violin Competition 2009 by BRYCE MORRISON

Bryce Morrison with a
rather familiar brand name.

The world-renowned music critic and authority on piano performance BRYCE MORRISON was in Singapore last December as one of the judges at the National Piano & Violin Competition 2009. Here are his impressions on his musical visit to the “Lion City”.

Your last visit to Singapore was over 15 years ago. How has Singapore changed since then?

I could hardly recognise anything. Everything in Singapore changes with a rapidity that is a testament to a people of astonishing energy and discipline.

You have judged in over 50 international piano competitions in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Do you ever tire of this activity?

The answer is no. The minute you hear genuine quality or calibre (and sometimes you have to wait a long time for that minute!) it is like the sun coming out; a moment of musical and poetic revelation.
With young prize-winning pianists of NPVC 2009.

The National Piano & Violin Competition in Singapore featured a record 215 pianists heard in the space of one week. Pianists were grouped under 4 categories: Junior, Intermediate, Senior and Artist. In which of these did you see the most potential?

Great potential and more than potential in all four categories. Naturally, the standard varied, indeed dipped and soared wildly, but the challenge of listening to such an array of talent was rarely less than stimulating, ofton moving and sometimes deeply satisfying.
Li Zhen takes a bow
after her winning Liszt Piano Concerto No.1

Were there any performances that particularly touched you?

Many, but I should like to single out Amanda Lee Yun Yee (Junior category). Her performance of Chopin's F minor Waltz in particular showed a freshness and instinct for poetry astonishing in so young a pianist. Also Li Zhen (Artist category, above) whose expressive beauty in Brahms Fantasy Pieces (Op.116) was as remarkable as her unfaltering confidence, accuracy and glitter in her first prize winning Liszt First Piano Concerto. Her performance of the Second Intermezzo from the Brahms was the highlight of the entire competition for me. Special mention, too, for Shaun Choo Yung Sheng for his enviably stylish and brilliant performance of Chopin's 24 Préludes (Op.28). There were, of course, many other instances of major talent, but these performances left an indelible impression that has stayed with me long after the event.
Asian pianists have been accused of being “all fingers, no tradition and no soul”. Was this the case here in Singapore?

There are indeed many examples of this sort of limitation. But as I have pointed out above, there are always exceptions to such a crude generalisation. True, I found instances of 'forced feeding' the result of over-ambitious and sometimes perverse teaching, but the general impression in Singapore was awe-inspiring.
The piano jury: Bryce Morrison,
Rae de Lisle and Logan Skelton (from L)

What was your relationship with the other judges like? Were there any battle royales between the three of you?

I was blessed to have such sympathetic jury colleagues. Even in moments of rare disagreement the terms of the disagreement were always understandable (Never was there, "You think that is great, and I think it is awful.") As on all these occasions I feared sudden dissent, only to find ourselves in such harmony, accord and once more on the level. There were no battle royals; very disappointing!
Literally conducting a masterclass.

What do you look for in young pianists in your masterclasses? What are the most important messages you like them to take home? What can be done to help young Asian pianists go beyond merely mastering the notes?

A secure technical foundation that allows them freedom to express themselves. As Rudolf Serkin(a great if hardly natural pianist) once said, "You can never have enough technique." I also look for - to put it simply- a sheer joy in music making, a natural love rather than fear of the concert platform expressed in an imaginative, daring and individual artistry. This is something very different to imitation or the parrot-like repetition of a teacher's ideas.

What are your suggestions to improve the running and standard of this competition?
It was a hectic and intense two weeks, sometimes too intensive to make for realistic and accurate listening. I think you could cut down the numbers by having a preliminary round before the competition commences in earnest.
Pianomaniacs in Malacca
at the ruins of St Paul's Church.

Amid the busyness, did you get to do any sightseeing?

As much as time allowed - Singapore Zoo, Sentosa and Malacca (above). So much to think about, the entire experience often humbling and enriching.

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