Thursday, 14 October 2010

Some Words with SOFYA GULYAK, 1st Prizewinner of the 2009 Leeds International Piano Competition

Some Words with SOFYA GULYAK,

1st Prizewinner of the 2009 Leeds International Piano Competition

At 30, Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak is done with piano competitions. Her first competition was at the age of ten in her home city of Kazan, Tartarstan, some 800 kilometres east of Moscow. “I won the first prize,” she smiled and added, “but there were many competitions which I did not win.” At her last estimate, the soft-spoken, almost reticent brunette participated in nearly 50 competitions, local and international. There were top prizes in USA, Finland, South Korea, Italy, San Marino, and then in 2009, at the “ripe old age” of 29, she netted the biggest one of all – First Prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition.

In doing so, she made history by becoming the first woman pianist to win that prestigious competition since its inception in 1962, whose roll of winners included Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Dmitri Alexeev and Artur Pizarro. When asked about that distinction, she coyly said, “I never thought about that, as it has nothing to do with music. I was very prepared, played the pieces which I was most familiar with – nothing new or unusual – and did my best.”

In the international circuit of piano competitions, as in sports, invariably the same names crop up, with rumours aplenty as to who would win, or which judge’s student might get an unfair advantage in an industry not known for its impartiality. “I was irritated by these things, but I was pleased that the public liked me. They were even pianists who did not make it to the finals but stayed back to support me. I was touched by their sincerity,” she added. For the record, she performed Brahms’ First Piano Concerto with the Halle Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

Gulyak is in a way unusual that she did not pass through the big Russians musical centres of Moscow or Saint Petersburg during her studies. “I had a wonderful teacher in Elfiya Burnasheva and did not need to look elsewhere. There are many great teachers in the provincial cities of Russia whom nobody had ever hears of,” she remarked. Moving to the West, she has also studied in Paris, London and Imola, Italy. These days, she divides her time between London, Bologna and Kazan. “I love Russia, and I always want to go back home!”

Her present Asian tour is organised by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong, playing concerts in Hong Kong, Manila, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. In Singapore, she will perform Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, in a chamber transcription by Uruguayan composer Carlos Levin, and Schumann’s Carnaval on 24 October at the University Cultural Centre. Tickets to the 6.30 pm concert are free of charge.

What does Chopin’s music mean to her? “It’s like asking what does music or life mean to me. I have begun playing more Chopin. His music is so special, so necessary.” The first Chopin pieces she learnt as a young student were a Nocturne and the “Black Key √Čtude”. However it does not mean she will play everything Chopin has written. “My teacher said it took her 40 years to learn the four Ballades, so I have lots of time left!”

When asked whose music moved her more, Chopin or his close contemporary Schumann, her reply was, “It’s not for me to judge. Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) is a new piece for me, but as I play it more, the more I understand and enjoy it. It’s become such a masterpiece for me. Music is a very personal thing, and that will change with time.”

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