Monday, 13 June 2016


Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (11 June 2016)

The 3rd Steinway Youth Piano Competition culminated with a Gala Concert at Victoria Concert Hall, following two elimination rounds that involved almost 150 young pianists from Singapore. There were three categories based on age-groups, with the finals of each taking place earlier in the day. The Gala Concert featured three pianists from each category performing a chosen showpiece that best highlighted their abilities.

First, there were the usual speeches and pleasantries involving Steinway Singapore and major sponsor Bank Julius Baer, and slick video presentations featuring each of the nine finalists spouting sweet nothings and platitudes. When asked who their favourite pianists were, one cited Liszt, and another Mozart and Kabalevsky (really?). Had they heard Mozart or Liszt perform on Youtube, or knew that the Soviet composer Dmitri Kabalevsky was a politically-connected apparatchik and rather unpleasant personality? Others named Lang Lang (always a dubious choice) and Krystian Zimerman (much better), but no Argerich, Horowitz or Rubinstein? Let us hope they played better than they talked.

First to perform were the Category 1 pianists, essentially children, with 8-year-old Jolene Chow, also the youngest finalist, opening the show with the 3rd movement from Kabalevsky's Sonatina in C major. Highly confident, she displayed a most fluent and fluid of techniques. Her very crisp articulation stood out in this rather banal music, and was able to bring out more dynamic shades and colours thought possible. An excellent start to the competition.

Next was Chan Yan (10 years old) whose choice of Tchaikovsky's May from The Seasons was not an outright showpiece. Its slow opening was however well-handled, with a certain nobility in her phrasing avoided tedium that often comes with more leisurely pieces. The faster central interlude which flowed lyrically also provided good contrasts with the outer sections.

Jaden Tan (10) was the only pianist in the evening to play Mozart, the 1st movement from his Sonata in B flat major (K.333). It is said that professionals find Mozart too difficult and amateurs find Mozart too easy. There was an outright facility to Tan's playing, which flowed like oil (Mozart's favourite description) and he produced a pleasant sound. With time, he will learn how to make Mozart's fast movement come across less like like “sewing machine music”.

My pick: Jolene Chow, for her natural flair and complete lack of nerves.   

Category 2 featured the tweens to early teens, and Yap Hwa Sheng (12) opened with an excellent account of Albeniz's Castilla (Seguidillas). His rhythmic accuracy, pin-point articulation and placing of accents in this tricky number was a joy to behold. A stronger and more sparkling performance was be hard to find.

Elizabeth Tan (13) followed with Mendelssohn's Andante and Rondo Capriccioso Op.14. The slow introductory section brought out a singing tone, leading to the scherzo-like fast section with its fairy-light flittering of wings. There were some minor mistakes and the pace slagged a little in the centre, but she finished strongly with a flurry of octaves and chords.

Standing heads and shoulders above the competition was Lim Shi Han (14), both physically and figuratively, whose choice of the Hymne and Toccata from Poulenc's Trois Pieces was an inspired one. The was muscular heft in the opening chords of the Hymne, bringing to mind the pomp of Poulenc's Gloria, was balanced by a mastery of dynamic changes in the contrasting quiet moments. She unleashed a tour de force in the clattery Toccata, for which she lacked nothing in agility and endurance, bringing her performance to a brilliant conclusion. Here, her advantage of age and maturity clearly showed.

My pick: Lim Shi Han, for an excellent and wonderfully nuanced show in music not commonly heard.

Category 3 was the most mature age-group, and the competition also seemed the keenest here. First to perform was Joel Tan (15), whose choice of Albeniz's Triana from Iberia ranked as the technically most difficult work on show for the evening. He coped very well with its rhythmic and dynamic intricacies despite starting off tentatively, bringing the work to boil in the climax of a polished and accomplished reading. With time, he will get better in this masterpiece which for some years was a compulsory set piece in the demanding Hong Kong International Piano Competition.

Nicole Ng (16) displayed the maturity required for a work not as obviously showy as Brahms Capriccio in G minor (Op.116 No.3). There was an appropriately passionate and impetuous response for its opening, which was well-contrasted with the chordal slower central section. There were a few wrong notes, bought that should not diminish the stature of this performance.

The last pianist to perform was Wang Huang Hao Jia (15), whose choice of Granados' Allegro de Concierto highlighted all his strong suits. A more outwardly showy but less challenging work than the preceding Triana, it seemed like putty in his hands. The glittering opening fluorish was not just a blind display of flying fingers, and the slower bits were played with a knowing sense of drama and expectant emotions before unleashing a final ebullient salvo to close the evening on a high.

My pick: Wang Huang Hao Jia for a consummate mastery of a how a brilliant showpiece should sound.

The international jury headed by Mina Perry (extreme left on photo above) awarded the following prizes:

Category 1
1. Jolene Chow
2. Jaden Tan
3. Chan Yan

Category 2
1. Lim Shi Han
2. Yap Hwa Sheng
3. Elizabeth Tan

Category 3
1. Wang Huang Hao Jia
2. Joel Tan
3. Nicole Ng

Bingo, on three counts! The pianist selected to represent Singapore was Wang Huang Hao Jia who will competed in the East Asia regional finals in Kuala Lumpur in July. The winner of that round will go on to perform at the Steinway Festival in Hamburg later in the summer.

Well done, young pianists! The future of piano music in Singapore looks very bright indeed.

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