Wednesday, 30 January 2019



Several years ago, I lamented that Singapore had held more Formula One Grand Prix events than international music competitions. To date, Singapore has had two international violin competitions (the Singapore International Violin Competition, held in 2015 and 2018), much trumpeted events organised by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and involving Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Esplanade and the National Arts Council, pretty much the heavy machinery of the local arts scene.

Quietly and without any fanfare, an entity called the Singapore International Piano Competition 2019 appeared on the horizon. I was alerted to it by the Alink-Argerich Foundation (AAF) website, and also checked out its own webpage. Organised by the Global International Musicians Association (GIMA) based in mainland China, it appeared to have few Singapore links other than the Singapore Nanyang Educational Research Centre, to which participants wired their entrance monies into a local bank account.

The four-day event which included the competition proper, masterclasses and recitals was held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. Participants ranged from children to adult professional pianists, and were judged by a jury which included several well-known concert pianists and well-regarded pedagogues from China, Hong Kong and the ASEAN nations.      

Sunday 26 January

The first day’s competition was held in three venues at the Conservatory. On an indolent Sunday afternoon, I wandered between these to get a sampling of piano artistry on display. It appeared that the older and more mature participants got to perform at the main Concert Hall, while children packed the cramped confines of the Stephen Baxter Recital Studio. A third category held at the Orchestral Hall saw performances limited to works of single composers.

The kiddies’ competition held little interest to me, appearing little more than an assembly line of cute, prettily attired children trotted out to perform very short pieces, watched (and filmed) by proud and concerned parents. This was more like those “music festivals” held in the name of outreach and community participation that commonly appear all over the continent. It took me almost a minute to realise that one little girl was banging out Edward MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose, so lacking was her guidance in phrasing and dynamics.

Slightly better were the Composer categories. I stumbled upon a rather good performance of the 1st movement from Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata by an older student, probably in his late teens or early twenties. That was the “Prokofiev Class” category, then came the “Tchaikovsky Class”, which comprised three girls playing Harvest Song (August) from The Seasons, each worst than the last. This was followed by the “Rachmaninov Class”, this time three girls playing the stormy Moment Musical No.4 (Op.16 No.4). Suffice to say, there was more proficiency than actual inspiration or artistry.

The most time was spent at the Concert Hall. Here the students, mostly teenagers, performed short recitals, which consisted of one to three works. The standards were wildly variable, from very good to “American Idol” laughably bad. One unfortunate girl gave a perfunctory Chopin “Aeolian HarpEtude followed by a Bach Prelude and Fugue in the same key of A flat major. She got lost in the fugue, and after several attempts at re-entry, abandoned it outright. Awaiting her were the terrors of Chopin’s Second Scherzo, which needless to say was downright awful. I can imagine Simon Cowell saying, “You are the worst pianist I’ve ever heard”.

Saving the day were two Singaporean youngsters. Jem Zhang Yifan (above) who gave a very polished account of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, appearing absolutely fearless in its finger-twisting cadenzas, crunching chords and coruscating octaves. Just as good was Loh Peiyi (below) in Chopin’s Ballade No.2 in F major. She clearly understood its sharp contrasts of placidity and tempestuousness, and had the fingers to make it happen.

The young man who had earlier impressed in the “Prokofiev Class” (above) now performed all three movements of the entire Seventh Sonata. Here was a real performance, one of blood and guts, peaks and troughs. He was not going through the motions but actually living out the music’s angst, toils and excesses. He would certainly be ready to take part in some major competition.

Other than in the kiddy category, the competition was sparsely attended. The players received hardly any applause, deserved or otherwise, and some segments of the audience were just terrible. One father stormed into the hall chasing after an errant son, creating a terrible ruckus, oblivious to the Mozart Rondo in A minor (the quiet one) being performed. And he was shouted at by an official before he piped down. Whoever said piano recitals were not dramatic?

As crowded and noisy as a Shenzhen marketplace.

Monday 28 January

The venue was now the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, where the concert artist category of the competition was held. I only had time to attend the Gala Recital by Chinese pianist Jin Ju, a member of the competition jury. Based in Imola (Italy), she had been a 3rd prizewinner at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition before the Gergiev years. That alone seemed like a guarantee of quality, and she did not disappoint.

In an all-Chopin recital, she opened with six Mazurkas (Op.56 and 63), revealing a fine touch supported by an ever-present pulse in these short folk dances in three-quarter time. Using pedal sparingly, her right hand filigree was crystal-clear, and when more pedalling was needed, the rustic drones came out sonorously. Tempos got a whole lot faster in the three Waltzes of Op.64, which included the ubiquitous “Minute” Waltz, which ironically does not often get heard in recitals. The petit chien chasing its own tail has hardly been better portrayed in this swift and slick reading. The first half closed with the Barcarolle Op.60, with its cantabile melody gloriously relived.

The second half’s Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58) was a tour de force. Often played to death, this warhorse however received a new lease of life in Ju’s hands. Her technique was totally secure, and yet she brought out the opening movement’s second subject with disarming beauty. The etude-like scherzo flew like the wind, while the slow movement’s gravitas provided the sonata’s spiritual heart. The rondo finale was thrillingly built-up, culminating in the most thunderous of finishes. In short, this was an electrifying performance where true technical virtuosity was unfailingly in service of the music.

There were three encores, the posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor, its seamless beauty contrasted with the ferocious triplet runs of the Étude in G sharp minor (Op.25 No.6). The recital closed dramatically with the Prélude in D minor (Op.28 No.24), the pianistic equivalent of a fireworks display. If Ju has been hailed as the “Argerich of the East”, that is not far from the truth.     

Parents doing what proud parents do best:
photographing and filming their kids!

Tuesday 29 January

Work had prevented me from attending much of the competition and recitals of the preceding two days, thus my assessment of the pianistic goings-on thus far have been unfortunately incomplete. The final evening’s prize-giving ceremony and recital more than adequately provided the gaping lacunae of my experience of the competition.

Former Cliburn laureate Wang Xiaohan
is the competition Artistic Director.

There was the usual speech-giving, award presentations and obligatory photograph-taking which distended the event to nearly three-and-a-half hours. Thankfully the music made up for it. There were performances from some of the jury members, and more importantly the prize-winners themselves. Jury members Raymond Young and Hui Ling (both from Hong Kong) were delightful in all four movements from Debussy’s Petite Suite, while Singapore-based Elaine Wu Yili (below), in her late 80s, gave a feisty reading of the Schumann-Liszt Widmung, undimmed by age or frailty.  

From the new generation of young pianists, there were very assured performances of Kabalevsky, Liszt, Chopin, Kapustin and Carl Vine. The last came from the most prodigious of youngsters, Xu Leyu, who showed that extreme youth was no impediment to extreme virtuosity. She had the fiendishly difficult music down pat, toying with it as if it were playdough. One wonders what she would accomplish in a few years’ time.      

Jem Zhang Yifan in Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2.
Chen Zhenxi with the finale of Kabalevsky's Third Sonata.
A young Thai girl impressed with two short pieces
while playing with a pedal extension.
The prodigious Xu Leyu in
Carl Vine's First Sonata 2nd movement.
Loh Peiyi in Chopin's Second Ballade.
More fireworks in a Kapustin Etude
from Op.40 by Luo Jie.

The final three performances came from the winners of the Concert Artist category of the competition, the most senior category and the crème de la crème. 20th century music was on the menu, and no prisoners were taken in works like the Fugue from Samuel Barber’s Sonata, Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata and Ravel’s La Valse. These were close to flawless performances, exactly to be expected in a competition of international stature.

Winners of the Concert Artist category
walk home with their well-deserved cheques.
3rd Prize: Chung Hok Chun (Hong Kong)
in Samuel Barber's Sonata: 4th movement.
2nd Prize: Hsu Ting-Chia (Taiwan)
in Scriabin's Sonata No.5
1st Prize: Liu Ziyu (China)
in Ravel's La Valse.
I foresee the Singapore International Piano Competition to be a fixture in the Singapore arts calendar for years to come. Although it is organised outside of the island-state, it has the support of local partners and sponsors. For it to grow, it needs to further collaborate with local educational institutions such as the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and/or Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the National Arts Council and a local professional orchestra in order to have a piano concerto grand finale. With all other organisational structures in place, the SIPC can hopefully stand tall alongside the Singapore International Violin Competition. The growing arts scene in Singapore deserves nothing less. 

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