Steinway Piano Competition 2016

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I tagged along with a friend to the Steinway Gallery at Palaise Renaissance, Singapore on Tuesday for the launch of the Steinway Piano Competition 2016.

This competition is held once every two years (sort of alternates with the National Piano and Violin Competition) and this will be its third edition. The purpose of this competition is to select a deserving Singaporean to represent Asia in the International Steinway Festival in Hamburg, but there has been no Singaporean so far. The General Manager, Ms Celine Goh, wondered aloud if there is a derth of talents in Singapore and invited Prof Yu Chun Yee, an experienced adjucator and ABRSM examiner of more than 25 years, to give his take.

Prof Yu began by pointing out the four parts of an ABRSM exam which embraces a more holistic approach than a competition –

(1) Scales – This is ususally at the start of the examination so that the candidate can get used to the  piano. He advocates aiming for full marks here by (a) not just playing well (as accuracy and eveness, though important, are not enough), but having a sense of musical rhythm (and not just accents) and (b) responding reasonably quickly as promptness to scales must be in the blood of every good pianist.

(2) Pieces – The three pieces would reflect the different styles and periods. It is a given that timing, rhythm, balance and tone are expected. What is important is for the candidate to play from the heart, and not just churning out what the teacher has said/taught. Candidates must devote slightly more time to stylistic matters, especially in the higher grades. This is unlike in the lower grades where candidates can perform well as long as they have been well-taught by their teachers.

(3) Aural – This is another section where the candidate can score full marks. Aside from accuracy, promptness and naturalness of response is very important. Candidateds must not think too long before answering/responding.

(4) Sight Reading – This is one section where obtaining full marks at the higher grades is extremely difficult. What is demanded of the candidates is the musical understanding or message, not merely the accuracy.

Overall, according to Prof Yu, Distinctions are awarded to 15% of the candidates, Merit to over 20% and most will Pass.

Now, again according to Prof Yu, competitions are completely different from examinations. Here, contestants must know their strong points, what they know best and what their natural gifts are, for eg fingerwork, musical sounds or nice big chords. Two important points to note are therefore (a) the choice of pieces and (b) to ‘be yourself on stage’.

At this point, two budding pianists and potential contestants of the Steinway Piano Competition took to the stage to perform pieces for Prof Yu to critique.

The first piece was performed by a young boy of perhaps 7. All Prof Yu commented was that this boy had a fantastic personality, his finger jumps were not very accurate and the voicing in the left hand needed more focus to give it colour.

Then a 6-year-old girl who started to play the piano only a year ago so impressed Prof Yu that he declared she was a raw talent with a fantastic natural response.

Prof Yu’s final comments are that too many young talents burn out because they do not have enough patience to sit at the piano to do very uninteresting work for long hours every day in order to build up a solid technique. He reiterated that it takes a lot of hard work and effort to be like Fu T’song or Lang Lang (who is famously known to have practised 3 hours when he was 3, 5 hours when he was 5 etc).

In answer to Ms Goh’s question earlier, Prof Yu remarked that Singapore definitely has talent; it depends on what we do with them.

At this point, a past winner was invited to share her experience in the last two Steinway Piano Competitions.

Ms Nicole Tay was 12 years old when she was declared the joint-first prize winner of the Intermediate Category in 2014. She had taken part in the Junior category in the first edition where she reached the semi-finals. This motivated her to work harder. She was preparing for her PSLE and piano diploma when  she reached the finals of the Intermediate category. It was a stressful period but an unforgettable experience. She learnt to manage her time and her strategy was to do her school work first. She became more self-disciplined juggling studies and piano and this has been a very rewarding experience because it opened doors for her. She was then asked to performed “any piece” she ‘has practised’. She chose to play two of the pieces in her repertoire of works for the recent National Piano & Violin Competition (NPVC). I enjoyed the first piece very much, though neither my friend nor myself recognised it (perhaps a lesser-known work by Debussy?). Her second piece was Schumann’s ABEGG Variations, Op 1. It was very well-played but I was not surprised to find out that she did not even make it to the semi-finals of the NPVC.

Still, it was a fruitful and enjoyable session. I hope I get invited to the Competitiion (from May to June 2016)!

National Piano & Violin Competition (Senior Category)

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The contestants of the Senior category are not as impressive as those of the Junior and Intemediate categories. Perhaps one reason is that the judges only picked two or three pieces from the submitted repertoire to be played at the finals, otherwise the duration would be too long as each contestant had a list of six pieces, including one movement of a concerto. I did not attend the quarter finals and semi finals so I did not get to listen to all the pieces. Still, my guess for the top three was spot-on!

The first prize winner is perhaps 16 years old, and he is enrolled in the Young Artist Programme (Year 1) at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. He is also a veteran of piano competitions and has performed in a ticketed concert with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The three works he played at the finals are – Clementi’s Sonata in F minor Op 13 no 6, Falla’s “Andaluza” from four Spanish Pieces and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 2 in D minor Op 40 No 2. He has good fingerwork and good tone control, and his technique is solid. He obviously plays beautifully with ease and gives intricate treatment to complicated stuff.

I enjoyed the second prize winner’s performance of Debussy (“Reflets dans l’eau” No 1 from Images Bk I), Ginastera (Sonata No 1 Op 22) and Grieg (Concerto in A minor Op 16). The Debussy was effective in its quiet, relective moments as well as the sonorous and rich brilliant passages: fluttering, floating, cascading and sparkling. The leaps and double octaves in Ginastera were given virtuosic treatment, but there were also moments of elegance contrasting with the stormy mood. The Grieg concerto was played with a steady confidence and the interplay of hands was a sight to behold. This boy impressed with his calm and cool demeanour as his fingers merely glided up and down the keyboard, as though he had been doing this for decades (though he’s a mere teeanger).

The third prize went to a young girl who was asked to play only a Chopin piece (Etude No 4 in A minor Op 25) and Saint-Saens’ Conceerto No 2 in G minor Op 22. She was competent and technically sound and was able to maintain a pristine sound in spite of a riot of notes that at times crashed into one another.

National Piano & Violin Competition (Intermediate Category)

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Of all the sessions of the Piano competition held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore, it is indisputable that the Intermediate Category was the most interesting. Many of the contestants are deserving of a place in the finals, but in a very stiff competition only the very best will emerge among the top.

The moment this 14-year-old boy started playing, I was mesmerised. Well before the end of his four pieces, I was sure he would win. I was so impressed I even wrote a poem of how I felt during the intermission (which was posted earlier). He chose as his first piece Beethoven’s Sonata in D major Op 10 No 3, a piece not very popular in competitions. Yet he played with such enthusiasm that hope and joy ozzed through his fingers,not to mention the sheer control and mastery of a varied gamut of emotions and technicalities. His energy was so infectious that he swept the listeners along, floating with the clouds or immersed in a fiery storm. It was impressive, like a maestro had performed.

The Allegro de Concierto Op 46 by Granodos was played with such verve and confidence that it was obvious the pianist was totally immersed in the music. The gentle sections were very touching and moving and the lively sections made the listener want to dance, or at least sway with him. The technical prowess displayed was an indication that this was an artist-in-the-making. He was also at times crying and pleading with his fingers to take the listener along with him to the wonderful world and sonorous sounds of music while he was clearly having a grand time enjoying himself. There was a lot of sensitivity and artistry in his playing, one of the best I’ve ever heard. He also clearly had abundant confidence and the mannerisms of a real artist.

Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” No 12 from Preludes Bk 2 brought out an entirely different mood. Again, here we saw an ample display of pianistic prowess. The endless streams of cascading and crushing notes amidst well-executed motifs of this Impressionistic piece were really impressive. The very gentle and elegant glissandos of both hands (whether separately or together) gave the effect of magic oozing from the fingers.

There was no doubt that Filippenko’s Toccata sealed the the deal. The juxtaposition between the two hands was simply incredible. The rapid movements caused both hands to appear in a blur but great musicality was projected. The fingers seemed to fly or glide over the keys to produce magic. This was the first time I heard this piece, and I wondered if it could be too technically challenging for most people.

The second prize winner was a surprise, as I did not think that he would be among the top three. This was a 15-year-old boy who was flawless in his playing and was often lost in his own world. He was a competent pianist who obviously had worked hard, but he did not impress me with any of his pieces – Beethoven’s Sonata No 23 in F minor Op 57, Tchaikovsky’s Dumka Op 59 and Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” No 1 from Images Bk 1. In fact, I noticed a few (at least three) with their eyes closed and nodding away (with boredom, perhaps?)

The third prize winner, though perhaps only 13 years old, is a veteran of piano competitions, and I’ve witnessed her coming up tops on several occasions. She had good posture, her playing was mature, she had the confidence of a seasoned performer and impressed me to the core. I thought she should have gotten the second prize, but well, competitions are subjective.

The Prelude and Fugue in C sharp major BWV 848 from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier I by J S Bach was flowing, had clear articulation and nice voicing; the Sonata in E flat major Hob XVI:52 by Haydn had a majestic opening. It was bright and well-articulated, with rich tones. There were fine nuances – gentle and subtle at times and playful at others. There was a good interplay of hands in the running passages. The Chopin Berceuse Op 57 was brilliant and sweet at the same time, with the left hand keeping a regular pulse and the right hand having a life of its own. In Debussy’s “Toccata” from Pour Le Piano, her fingers took turns to float of fly across the keyboard or overlap each other while the main motif remained hauntingly clear and lingering.

National Piano & Violin Competition (Junior Category)

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The National Piano & Violin Competition is a biennial competition that celebrates music excellence and is a unique platform to develop the performing skills of our young musicians, improve music standards and identify potential music talents. This year, the competition is in its 10th edition. Over 91 pianists vied for a place in the finals of the four piano categories – Junior (age 6 to 12), Intermediate (age 13- to 15), Senior (age 16-18) and Artist (age 19 to 24).

The finals of the Artist category is tomorrow, at the Victoria Concert Hall, but I won’t be able to attend due to a prior commitment. However, I know that it will be exciting as two of the finalists are playing Schumann’s Concerto in A minor Op 54 and the third will play Saint-Saens’ Concerto No 2 in G minor Op 22. They will be accompanied by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra, the only fully independent professional symphony orchestra in Singapore. The other pieces these contestants played in the quarter finals and semi finals include J S Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in D minor BWV 903, Clementi’s Piano Sonata in F sharp minor Op 25 No 5, Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op 111, Chopin’s Ballade No 4 in F minor Op 52, Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses Op 54, Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op 16, Bartok’s Suite Op 14, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Debussy’s  Douze Etudes, Massiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus and Granados‘ Quejas o la Maja y el Ruisenor.

Junior Category

There were six finalists. The winner is a boy (perhaps 11 years old) whose playing was arresting from the start of J S Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in F minor BWV 881 from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier II. He may not have been the oldest contestant but he definitely displayed the most maturity in his performance. When he played the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata in A flat major Hob XVI:46, he was totally involved and engaged; and the clarity and crispness are beyond compare. He played the Schubert Impromptu in G flat major Op 90 No 3 with a totally different flair, but it was no less impressive. There was more fire and fervour than I’ve heard in other interpretations of this piece, and his gentle playing of the lyrical melody makes it a most effective combination. He was totally engaged with the music and displayed the competence of a professional. The “Castilla (Seguidillas)” No 7 from Suite Espanola Op 47 by Albeniz was so captivating and enthralling that it was without dispute that he would be the winner.

The second prize winner is a petite 7-year-old girl whose feet dangled about 8 inches from the floor when she sat at the piano stool to play her Two-Part Invention No 14 in B flat major MWV 785 by J S Bach. Her Viennese Sonatina No 4 in B flat major by Mozart was impressive, considering her age. In order to reach the pedal, she slid from the stool before playing Chopin’s Waltz in A minor Op Posth. Leaning against the piano stool, half-standing, she played sweetly and elegantly. Her rubato was simply beautiful; how could such a  young girl play a Grade 6 piece with such maturity? Her “Etude” No 5 from Pictures of My Childhood by Khachaturian was attractive and charming. It was unbelievable that such a tiny tot could convince the audience to sway with her rhythmically! Martinu’s “Columbine Dances” No 1 from Puppets Book I H 137 is technically demanding even for a Grade 7 pianist but this little girl played it with great energy, stamina and abandonment.

The third prize winner is another little girl of 8 years old. She also had to lean against the piano stool in order to reach the pedals. Her French Suite No 5 in G major BWV 816 by J S Bach was clear and crisp, with good voicing, good fingerwork and ornamentation. Her small hands seemed to bounce and skip endlessly over the keyboard. Her Mozart’s Sonata in C major K545 was far better than my Grade 8 distinction student’s! It was indeed beautiful and impressive. Tchaikovsky’s “April” No 4 from The Seasons Op 37a is normally not a popular choice for competitions, but this little girl was able to bring out the essence and there was good juxtaposition between the melodies in both hands.