30 July - 4 August 2012

It’s a strange fact, but Singapore has organised more Formula One Grand Prix races than international piano competitions. That sad stat is set to end with the conclusion of the 1st Ars Nova International Piano Competition organised by MW Events Management, with an aim to bolster Singapore as a venue for the meeting of Asia’s (and hopefully the world’s) best pianistic minds. While the National Arts Council has been forever dithering on the pros and cons of organising an international competition, somebody had finally the guts and gumption to make it a reality.

To be honest, the competition was much low key in its publicity (no banners flying on street-lamps or major news in the national dailies) and the performances were held in unlikely venues like small studios in Thomson Plaza, Chinese Swimming Club and the Japanese Association, before moving to better known premises as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. There were five categories in Solo Piano (Junior under 9 years, Junior under 12 years, Intermediate, Senior and Open) and three in Piano Duet (Junior, Senior and Open) performances attracting 204 international competitors and a further 270 non-competitive performers. Not bad for a first-time competition.

Time only permitted me to attend the Open category Piano Solo finals held on a Saturday afternoon at NAFA, and it proved time well spent. By this stage, the eight finalists (out of 17 who participated in this category) had overcome two virtuoso etudes (Round One), mixed repertoire (Round Two), and had now one major sonata to perform. Only in a piano competition can one sit through six Beethoven sonatas played consecutively without a break. With the exception of one shambolic performance of Op.110 from a Japanese lady who had more memory lapses than Rudolf Hess, it was pretty much pianophile paradise. 

Zheng Qingshu's very competent Op.101

First up was the androgynous Zheng Qingshu (China), a lanky young lady attired like a man in blazer and long pants, who gave a solid and competent reading of Op.101. Hers was a well-chiselled, accurate account that traversed the emotional highs and spiritual depths without much fuss or apparent effort, yet for me did not seem to unlock its more elusive secrets. Where was the aching nostalgia and that friendly face of recognition when the retiring first movement theme returns in the third movement’s interlude? This is one work that will surely grow with her in due time and further study. Much promise and potential displayed, it must be said.

A more feminine performance of Beethoven, Op.109 from Cai Ying.

I preferred the playing of Cai Ying (China) in Op.109, which revealed more of the music’s lyrical beauty and mystique through the ruminative first movement and the agitated prestidigitation of the second movement. The third movement’s chorale theme was well projected, and even if some of the variations came across cut and dried, there was enough variety and colour to sustain its entire duration. This culminated in the clangour of bell sounds and trills at the close of a very satisfying outing.

Li Ti's Op.110 was by far the more successful of two readings.

The one performance of Op.110 that did not come to grief came from Li Ti (China), whose grasp of its idiom and overall conception was a very strong one. She produced a robust but very musical sound in the varied first two movements, but these were almost undone by brief lapses in the slow movement’s dirge, ironically the least technical part of the work, and its return midway through the final movement’s fugue. In the fugue and its inversion, she produced an organ-like sonority that were easily some of the best moments in the afternoon.

Beethoven's Waldstein Thai-style from Thanakarn Limtham.

There were two young men who performed Beethoven’s Middle Period sonatas. Thanakarn Limtham (Thailand) gave a solid if not too subtle account of Op.53 “Waldstein”. He had the chops, power and the passion to do the music justice, and even the slightly unkempt facial hair and funny glasses to make the outing more Beethoven-like. There were some slips here and there, and the sort of rough edges to rule out a top three finish, but enough spirit and verve to make his performance an interesting one.

Appassionata from Malaysian Tang Der Chang. 

Tang Der Chang (Malaysia) perhaps tried too hard to vary the nuances and colours for his performance of Op.57 “Appassionata”, which resulted in some parts sounding too soft and mincing, and others just too plangent for comfort. These swings between extremes, though Beethovenian in character, came close to being a caricature of “mad old Ludwig” himself. The tempestuous finale was exhausting because of an over-reliance on speed and volume. If that did not engage me more than it should, it was because the performance of one and a half dimensional.

Best in the afternoon, Wan Jing Jing's Prokofiev Seventh.

My favoured performance of the afternoon came from Wan Jing Jing (China) who gave a close to perfect performance of the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. Hers was not a one-dimensional relentless assault on Stalingrad, but one that was well conceived and with hammer to anvil, forged to just the right degree of steeliness. She knew exactly when to pile on the dissonances, when to relax, and these combination of contrasts made the piece truly work. The mock-Romanticism of the slow movement gave way to an unbridled escalation of violence, and when the machine-gun Precipitatofinale came upon us, there was simply no let up. A magnificent performance this was, one that consigns Freddy Kempf’s frantic rendition at the 2001 PianoFest firmly into the shade.
There was one Singaporean in the finals to make up the numbers. That he gave a patent demonstration how not to play Liszt’s Sonatain B minor (misguided, pedantic, self-indulgent, vulgar and tasteless are adjectives that come to mind) is probably worth a passing mention.

For the record, the four man international jury (comprising Joseph Banowetz, Manfred Fock, Robert Chamberlain and Francis Yang) awarded First Prize to Zheng Jingshu, Second Prize to Wan Jing Jing and Third Prize to Li Ti. It certainly does begin to look like an Olympic roll call of medallists in the solo badminton or table-tennis events. I was later told that Cai Ying had placed fourth. Four out of four (but not necessarily the same placings) was not too bad for this arm-chair judge, I guess.

Overall, this was a very encouraging attempt to bring Singapore into the world of international music competitions. The next competition has been scheduled for 2014 and might up the ante to include a concerto segment. I (and Singapore's musical community) wish it all the greatest success.