Thursday, 10 December 2015



It isn't always a habit of mine to go stalking piano competitions, but this one held just outside Kuala Lumpur seemed to be a convenient getaway from Malaysia's busiest city after my obligatory spot of sightseeing. I had crossed the Causeway to attend the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's debut concert at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas on Tuesday 8 December 2015 and had one extra indolent day to spend, so why not be in the company of piano music?

Getting to the Experimental Theatre of Universiti Malaya (notice the use of the nation's old name, rather than Malaysia) was the tough part. A light rail ride from Masjid Jamek in the historical heart of KL to Universiti station, a taxi ride into the laid back campus (which does remind one of the old Bukit Timah Campus in Singapore), with some help from a friendly cab driver and a young student, I finally made it to the concert venue. And not a minute too late to attend the semi-final round of the Open Category, which was the most advanced of the five categories.

Pianists practising on a "silent" keyboard.
Notice the crests of the King Edward VII
Medical College and Raffles College,
the fore-runners of Universiti Malaya.

This competition, organised by the Persatuan Chopin Malaysia (Malaysia Chopin Society), is in its sixth edition and appears to be the most prestigious of piano competitions in Malaysia. I had learnt about it during one of the breakfast meetings of the Chopin Society of Hong Kong, thanks to its regular attendee, Mrs Snezana Panovska, the Macedonian piano pedagogue who has trained some of Malaysian's top young pianists. She also happens to be the society's Music Director and founder of the competition.

The 8-member jury is a rather august one, comprising past winners of the Warsaw Chopin Competition (Li Mingqiang, China), Tchaikovsky Competition (Natalia Troull, Russia), Marguerite Long Competition (Jania Aubakirova, Kazakhstan) top teachers from Vietnam (Tran Thu Ha, Dang Thai Son's elder half-sister), Malaysia (Ng Chong Lim and Panovska), Italy (Flavio Turissini), and Montenegro/Singapore (Boris Kraljevic, who else?). However it seemed such a waste of pianistic and pedagogical talent to be judging only four pianists in the most advanced category. Of these four, only two seemed worthy of the competitive process.

Fifteen-year-old Hannah Shin (Australia) was a revelation. Oozing total confidence and control, she put the polish on Beethoven's Sonata in F sharp major Op.78, and its tricky repeated figurations in the second movement proved  not much of a challenge to her fingers. In Chopin's music, she found the right blend of passion and restraint with totally musical accounts of the Second Ballade and Fourth Scherzo. Nothing was vulgar or over-the-top; idiomatic and well-judged, her playing was clearly a paradigm of superior teaching. She was also the only pianist to perform the specially commissioned work, Lee Chie Tsang's atonal Sympathetic [Re]sonance, from memory.

Veronika Issajeva (Estonia) almost did not make it to the venue after making that long flight from the Baltics. Marooned in a Petaling Jaya hotel and without transport, she was fortunate to have the Chopin Society President save the day by chauffeuring her in time for the semi-finals. And I was fortunate to have heard her accounts of Chopin's Barcarolle, the rarely-programmed Bolero and a nocturne. She is tasteful and musical, although not possessing quite the utter confidence of Shin. Her programme was completed by Schumann's Second Sonata in G minor Op.22, which was more than secure despite some rough edges.

The less said about the performances by the two Malaysian pianists (both men), the better. Both were totally unprepared for the competition, with multiple wrong notes, memory lapses and just plodding through each work desperately to the end. The only relief for them was that the number of people in the audience just about equalled the number in the jury. My summary of the afternoon's fare was: Girls Good, Boys Bad. Panovska corrected me by adding: Boys Very Bad.

The jury included (from L):
 Flavio Turissini, Boris Kraljevic, Li Mingqiang
and Ng Chong Lim. I went native for the day.

Photo: Snezana Panovska

The lady jury members and Boris and Flavio
with members of the Chopin Society Malaysia.

Nightfall soon arrived, and I was invited to a lovely buffet dinner with the jury members at a neighbourhood community centre. What hospitality and neighbourliness! Panovska always assured me that in her book, Singaporean music lovers will always be made to feel welcome! New acquaintances were made, and old friendships rekindled in the happy hour, everything halal, of course. For me, it was back to Singapore the next morning, while the jury continued their quest to find the next top pianist from Malaysia and the region.

For the record, both Shin and Issajeva made it to the Grand Finals, where they performed the Chopin piano concertos with a international string quartet. No first prize was awarded. Shin won 2nd prize with Piano Concerto No.2, while Issajeva 3rd prize with the First Concerto. Both deserve every bit of success in their young but surely budding musical careers.  

How some jury members and music reviewers
try to relax after piano competitions!

Photo: Milan Stevanovic

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