3RD HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
Finals Day 2, Saturday 29 October 2011
TSAI MIN HAO (Taiwan)
Much had been said about the sheer prodigiousness of the 14-year old Tsai Min Hao from Taiwan, but nothing quite prepared me for the sight of one so full of self-confidence and poise. The way he bestrode the stage as if he owned it could be attributed less to chutzpah than to the fact he has yet to learn about anything as mundane as nerves or stage fright. The sparkles in his hair and the pin-striped suit were also part of an extroverted personality.
Of course he performed Howard Blake’s Long Speech After Silence from memory. The wonder about musical interpretation is that a given piece can be made to sound so different in the hands of different artists. Young Tsai is probably familiar with the sounds of New Age piano, film music and popular idioms, and his view reflected that slant. Sometimes dirge-like, he wallowed in pregnant silences, slowing the music down to savour its fragrances and even ponder on the facts of life. Then, within a twinkling of an eye he brought it to a spectacular climax before closing emphatically. It was very different from last night’s performances, but equally valid.
Tsai again revealed absolutely no nerves in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. His entry after a long tutti was emphatic, truly making up one sit up and listen. Clearly and meticulously articulated, he made every note count. Yet there was none of that young or youthful exuberance about his reading, and no concessions need to be made on account of his age. There was both subtlety and flexibility in his conception, making one wonder if he were 24 or 34, rather than merely 14. In 1997, the year he was born, Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese. Lan Shui had just been appointed Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and I had just written my very first Straits Times music review. Hardly ancient history.
Having said that, Tsai will have to learn to give up his excess bodily movements, head shakes, rolling of eyes and side glances into the audience. He certainly reminded one of a young Lang Lang before it all went to his head. The slow movement also benefited from a rapt understanding of the music, so graceful that one will easily forgive a wrongly placed chord that showed he was human after all. Some less than subtle brass playing near the end was irksome, but that soon dissipated with the Rondo finale which was a joyous ride from start to finish. Here being young was an asset, as the music sparkled with Tsai’s imaginative prestidigitation. His timing was spot-on, synchronising those runs perfectly with the orchestra’s phrases, bringing on plenty of smiles from an energised Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium (I was seated close enough to see and sense the body and facial language of those onstage). Both pianist and conductor were clearly enjoying themselves, and should that not be the raison d’etre of all musical activity?
My verdict: Tsai is a name to watch. He has talent to burn and time is on his side. He might just be the second coming of Lang Lang.