Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (28 July 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 July 2012 with the title "Young virtuosos playing to win".

How do you bring together the best young piano talent in Southeast Asia under one roof in celebration of the world’s most recognisable piano brand? Steinway Piano and sponsor Bank Julius Baer’s solution was to get each of the countries to organise a nation-wide competition and then invite the winners to compete in Singapore, with the overall champion getting the chance to perform in the grand Steinway Festival in Hamburg.

Like football World Cup qualifiers, it was not going to be the fairest of fights. After all, how could tiny states like Brunei or Singapore compete with the populous might of Indonesia or Vietnam? With Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos not involved, the geopolitics was also skewed to include Taiwan and South Korea, both nations with highly established Western classical musical traditions. China and Japan already have their winners booked to Germany and were thus excluded here.

The competition proper and adjudication had taken place in the day, and the Gala Concert just showcased nine finalists playing a representative piece each. Thankfully not everything on display was virtuoso fodder, but it gave fair indication who the winner was going to be.

Liszt was played by three pianists. Lorenzo Medel (16 years) of Philippines gave a loose and light interpretation of the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody, barely taxed by the fearsome right hand octaves that closed the work. Thailand’s Gun Chaikittiwatana (15) also relished in a flurry of notes, fluid and scintillating within the watery realm of Au bord d’une source.

However it was Hsieh Wei Ting (16, Taiwan) whose self-assurance and seemingly effortless note-perfection in La Campanella which truly stood out. Hers was the one reading that could stand tall in any international concoursaround the globe.

Chopin also fared well. South Korea’s Ha Gyu Tae (15) lent gravity and solemnity to the C Minor Nocturne (Op.48 No.1), even if the climax lacked certain tension. This made the reading of the B Major Nocturne (Op.62 No.1) by the diminutive Jennifer Chrysantha (10, Indonesia) all the more astonishing. Her luscious tonal colour and instinctive grasp of legatoand rubato were uncanny for one this young.  

Vietnam’s Nguyen Le Binh Anh (15) played a soulful Rachmaninov, whose Elegie(Op.3 No.1) was shaded with great sympathy and Romantic ardour. As a matter of contrast, the prestidigitation of Khachaturian’s Toccata was nailed with accuracy and proficiency by Singaporean See Ning Hui (16). Malaysian Audrey Siew (16) coaxed a silky sonority from Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, never mind the missed notes. In this company, the choice of Chiam Shian Li (13, Brunei) to play Jon Schmidt’s All Of Me seemed less appropriate, but she got the jazzy feeling just right.  

The judging was based on a full 15-20 minute programme, and so the deserving First Prize Winner Hsieh was obliged to perform an encore immediately after she was metaphorically crowned. Her stylishly lilting performance of Granados’s Los Requiebros (Flatteries), full of Spanish flourishes, was arguably even better than the Liszt. Unlike most football referees, the three-person jury from USA, China and Hong Kong got its decision spot on.