Tuesday 15 December 2009


Grand Finals
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (13 December 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 December 2009.

This year’s edition of the National Piano & Violin Competition drew a record number of entries: 215 for piano and 106 for violin. Thankfully quality rose in equal measure with quantity, and often surpassed it. The grand finals featured the best in the Artist categories, and a 4-hour-long concert with six concertos (three each for violin and piano) partnered by the indefatigable Singapore Festival Orchestra conducted by Chan Tze Law ensued.
Winners of the NPVC Artist category:
Li Zhen & Zhao Meng Chan (from L)
Photo: The Straits Times
Two artists emerged head and shoulders above the rest. Violinist Zhao Meng Chan (China), from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, had the most natural way with Sibelius’ ruggedly hewn Violin Concerto in D minor. He ran the full gamut of emotions, cutting through swathes of orchestral sound with a searing intensity that went beyond superficial brilliance. His brand of dare-devilry, coupled with an unusual charisma, suggests he is ready to walk onto any world platform.

Zhao was the undisputed first prizewinner, edging out Wendy Toh (Singapore), whose version of the same concerto was well-disciplined, textbook-perfect and ultimately safe. Her exercise in good taste had to be content with third place, trailing behind Du Shuaili (China), whose free-spirited, wild and wayward stabs at Dvorak’s folksy Violin Concerto in A minor threatened to derail the proceedings on more than a few occasions.

On the piano, Shaun Choo (Singapore, left), who studies in Salzburg, cut the most elegant and aristocratic figure. His Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto was a wonder in self-restraint and control, erupting into full-blown passion and unabated poetry right when the music demanded it. His expansive vistas in the slow movement which spoke of love and regret, contrasted with of the febrile excitement of outer movements, was easily the evening’s revelation.

Choo’s relegation to third place will be a cause celebré for time to come, but that should not diminish the achievements of Maria Immaculata Setiadi (Indonesia) and Li Zhen (China), both Conservatory students, who finished second and first respectively. Both punched way above their weight in Liszt’s fearsome concertos, exulting in salvoes of octaves while delicately filling in the pretty bits. It was Li in the First Piano Concerto in E flat major who packed in the tauter and more exciting performance than Setiadi, who was slightly less immaculate in the Second Concerto in A major.

Controversy is the stuff of musical competitions worldwide. However winners and also-rans can always remind themselves that true artistry is not a horse race, but a lifelong quest.

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