Thursday, 31 March 2016


Lee Foundation Theatre
Wednesday (30 March 2016)

It is to my discredit that I had missed attending the annual Lucien Wang Piano Competition for all these years, until this time around. The competition serves as a platform for piano students of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and was named in memory of Lucien Wang, one of Singapore most prominent piano teachers.

Lucien Wang (1909-2007), who was originally from Canton, served as a vital link between generations of Singaporean pianists and the French piano school. During the 1930s, she had studied with Alfred Cortot and Nicholas Tcherepnin in Paris, before settling in Singapore. She was widowed when her husband was murdered by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore in 1942. She devoted her entire life to the teaching of the piano and lived humbly in an apartment on Loke Yew Street, off Armenian Street. Her prominent students included the late Ong Lip Tat, and the very much alive Benjamin Loh, Lim Jing Jing and many others.

There was very little publicity for this event, and the audience was a tiny one. I had hoped the organisers had written something about Lucien Wang in the programme leaflet, so as to initiate the listeners (and young pianists themselves) to the uncommonly rich heritage she had bestowed to Singapore. Also, piano students of all levels (including the NAFA School of Young Talents) could have been invited or coerced to attend, which would have made it less of a low key affair.  

There were 14 candidates for this year’s competition, of which 5 were selected to perform in the final round. Each pianist had to play up to 20 minutes of solo repertoire, and was judged by a panel formed by Lim Yau (Dean of NAFA’s school of music) and Japanese concert pianist Noriko Ogawa.

The first to perform was Liu Qingqing who offered Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (D.537). She gave a technically accurate account of its three movements but kept within a rather limited dynamic range. Sounding brittle and clipped in her phrasing, the lack of aural allure and singing tone diminished the reading. The central movement in E major, which was later reworked in the finale of the great A major Sonata (D.959), came across as perfunctory. She sounded the best in the finale, which suggests a much better future performance is a real possibility.

The decision of Andren Koh to play pieces of Godowsky and Scriabin, both late Romantics, seemed unnecessarily narrow in the choice of repertoire. Nevertheless The Gardens of Buitenzorg from the former’s Java Suite was beautifully performed, with very well-phrased legato lines and excellent pedalling. The latter’s Fantasie Op.28 had colour and nuance, building up to a big chordal climax. Only a small lapse towards the end blotted his copybook somewhat. 

Chio Jia Le gave the most varied and interesting programme but one wished he had been better prepared. Beethoven’s Sonata in F sharp major Op.78 is far more difficult than it sounds or its two short movements suggest. His articulation was good in parts but the phrasing was prosaic, and a major lapse in the second movement did this reading in. Brahms’s playful Capriccio in B minor (Op.76 No.2) was an absolutely wrong piece for him given his plodding and cheerless reading, but the Prokofiev Suggestion Diabolique (Op.4 No.4) was more of his kind of thing. By this time, one wondered what the point of it all was.

Soh Wei Qi gave a most spirited account of the 1st movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C minor (K.457), full of robust stürm und drang and symphonic bluster, a portrait of rude health. This big-boned playing continued into Chopin’s Scherzo No.1 in B minor (Op.20) where its crashing chords and prestidigitation were well served. He was unafraid of mixing it in, however the slow central section based on a Polish cradle song should have been sung in a less matter of fact manner.

Donald Law was the most confident of the five finalists and his playing showed it. The 1st movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major (Op.110) revealed playing of real stature, a warm sound, singing tone and meticulously crafted filigree. This was likely the most satisfying performance of the whole evening. His view of Debussy’s La plus que lent, the “slower than slow” waltz, is still unformed. He has not decided how to spread his rubato about, and was not helped by a stilted approach and several unintentional blues notes. York Bowen’s Toccata provided the final tour de force, in a breathless reading that closed the evening on a real high.

Donald Law receiving the First Prize
certificate from Maestro Lim Yau.

Personally I would not have awarded a First Prize, in a hope that the young piano continue to better themselves through inspired study, industrious application, and that axiom on how to get to Carnegie Hall: Practise, Practise and Practise. The judges were in a generous mood, awarding 2nd prize to Andren Koh and 1st prize to Donald Law. Hopefully this will spur them (and the others) on to further artistic heights. I am certain the spirit of Lucien Wang would have looked on fondly and lovingly.

Guest judge Noriko Ogawa spoke breifly
and encouragingly to all the finalists.
All the pianists, their teachers and judges.


Donald Law said...

Dear Dr Chang, thank you for your insightful critique on my piano performance during the Lucien Wang Piano Competition 2016. Indeed I could not agree any lesser than it is100% perspiration and there is still a lot of room for further improvement. I'm sure we will continue to reflect and work harder on those areas of weakeneses.
Once again I will like to record my sincere appreciation for your very good and critical review.

Chang Tou Liang said...

Donald, I think we've just heard a fraction of what you are capable of! You are very sensitive and musical, and have what it takes to be a true artist. Continue to work hard, listen to all sort of performances, and challenge yourself and your teachers! I Hope to hear you perform again sometime!

weiqi soh said...

Dear Dr Chang ,
Thank you for such a wonderful review and critique (: your reviews about my playing was extremely insightful , one of my
biggest takeaways from this competition (: I'll definitely incorporate your comments and reviews into my piece and will keep working on it to improve and be a pianist who understands and perform music (: Thank you once again (:


Chang Tou Liang said...

Wei Qi, continue to work hard and strive for your art. Being a pianist / musician is a tough calling and lifetime commitment. The more you invest your heart and soul in it, through immersing yourself in music and all forms of the arts, the better your art will become. Hope to hear you again soon!