Monday, 11 December 2017


Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday & Sunday 
(9 & 10 December 2017)

The biannual spectacular that is the National Piano Violin Competition (NPVC) is now managed by the Singapore Symphony Group, having taken over the reins from the National Arts Council after the 2015 edition. Much remained unchanged in the format, performance categories and repertoire requirements, and the grand finals for the Artist Category culminates with concerto performances with the NPVC Orchestra. This generically named orchestra is none other than the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but shorn of principal players and augmented by free-lance professionals.  The conductor taking over Chan Tze Law's role (who had conducted the last six editions since 2005) was Joshua Kangming Tan.

There were only two finalists in this year's Violin Artist Category, chosen from a field of just four competitors.  It was notable that the two finalists were also the youngest, and neither of them were students of the local Conservatory.

It may be said that 12-year-old Yuri Tanaka from Japan (but resident in Singapore) has already won by making it to the finals after two gruelling earlier rounds. Her view of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor had much to recommend. She was quietly confident, extremely musical and produced a pleasing sound, topped with excellent intonation. She was on a reserved side in expression, and did not need to resort to extraneous gestures or movements to make her point. Her oh-so-correct demeanour is down to good teaching, as is her non-histrionic manner to rise to the music's challenges. There were rough edges in the heat of performance, such as in the mercurial finale, but she has many years ahead to polish and smoothen these out.

By comparison, 18-year-old Singaporean Ronan Lim Ziming almost seemed like an old master as he took on Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor. From the outset, one could feel his steely determination in this dark masterpiece. He produced a bigger and bolder sound, besides displaying a wider range of dynamics. His intonation was close to perfect and the first movement cadenzas, as with all the tricky articulation, were excellently dispatched. If there were a pinnacle to this reading, this took place in the slow movement which was scorched with a white hot intensity. By the finale, there were some frayed nerves but he overcame the quickfire dotted rhythms and relentless drive with astounding aplomb.

Having heard the Russian veteran Boris Belkin last week in Bangkok in the same concerto, I will not hesitate to add that young Ronan gave this listener a greater thrill and more spine-tingling moments. A shining future awaits. The jury of three adjudicators awarded 3rd prize to Yuri Tanaka, and 2nd prize to Ronan Lim, with the 1st prize gone abegging.     

One disappointing aspect was the utter lack of public interest in this competition. The Straits Times declined my offer to cover the concerto final rounds (although the later Prize-giving Ceremony and Final Concert was reviewed). And there could not have been more than 100 souls who attended the violin concerto finals on Saturday evening. The piano finals on Sunday afternoon saw slightly more people turning up, but the stalls of Victoria Concert Hall was filled with many gaping seats. Should there have been more publicity for what is supposed to be a marquee event celebrating young local musical talent?

There were three finalists in the Piano Artist Category out of a field of nine. Their performances with the all-but-in-name SSO made for an absorbing afternoon of piano concertos. First up was Lily Phee who performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K.466). She gave a totally musical account even if she did not project her limpid lines with the same power and force as the orchestra, which was for most part quite relentless in the driving opening movement. Her playing was however sensitive, with clarity and transparency being strong virtues. This was most apparent in the Romanze which was played most beautifully even if the central stormy G minor segment could have been better contrasted. The cadenzas were well-developed and the finale skipped with lightness and daintiness as it miraculous morphed from D minor to joyous D major. There was simply nothing to dislike in this performance.

Serene Koh, dressed in a glittery dark red sequinned gown, offered a strong Chopin First Piano Concerto in E minor, making a grand entry after the long orchestral tutti. Now we are now well and truly in the Romantic era, where passion and ardour rule over reserve and restraint. She delivered all this and more in a no-holds-barred reading that was also reliably accurate – with very few or no missed notes! The central Romance passed like a dream, taking its cantabile fully to heart.  The Rondo finale also came to life in a most ebullient manner, with her fingers flashing brilliantly its multitudes of notes. Have we found our 1st prize winner?

Jeong Han Sol, who hails from South Korea but studies in a local institution, had no problems projecting in Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. His has a tendency to over-project, with loudness and brazenness, bordered on being pain-inducing. He is however capable of poetry and lyricism in the softer and slower parts, which provided relief from the aggressiveness that pervaded. That said, it were the many mistakes and slips that dogged this performance as a whole. On another day, he would have given a note-accurate account, so this rough and ready outing was most probably down to sheer nerves.       

It came as a surprise to me that no 1st prize was awarded (again!). Serene Koh placed 2nd (still the top placing) while Jeong Han Sol should be satisfied with coming in 3rd

Lily Phee in the Quarter-final round
performing Chopin's Second Ballade.

That the totally musical Lily Phee was not placed, and not even given an Honorable Mention has to be the scandal of this year's competition. Has it not mattered that she had passed through two tough rounds and bested six other players to make it to the finals, and all her hard work in Mozart K.466 had counted for nothing? While I note that the jury’s decision is final, this non-acknowledgement was not only discouraging, but also downright cruel.

One only hopes that a true musician will through his or her experiences - both good and bad - learn to overlook such rejections and become a stronger and wiser person in the long road ahead which we call life.  

Yuri Tanaka with her teachers
Alexander Souptel and Masako Suzuki.
Serene Koh with her
childhood piano teacher Angelyn Aw.

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