Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
For the second time in three years, the biennial Steinway Asia Pacific Regional Finals for pianists under the age of 17 was hosted by Singapore. As with the event two years ago, this competition brought together some of the most talented young keyboard talents in East Asia to vie for a residency in the Steinway Music Festival in Hamburg, Germany, to be held later this year.
Each pianist had been judged on a 20-minute solo programme by an international jury earlier in the day, and the gala concert was a showcase of a sample of their prowess. Quite predictably, most of the eight finalists selected virtuosic music from Russia and Eastern Europe, almost guaranteed to strike awe in the hearts of listeners. At stake was a Most Popular Pianist prize, voted by a live and Internet audience in the manner of Singapore Idol.
On that count alone, Feng Yi Chen, 17, from Taiwan, should be lauded for selecting the first movement from Haydn's Sonata No.25 in E flat major, the least showy work on display. His playing was crisp and light, full of nuances befitting the ebullient humour of the music. The other pianist who played non-Slavic music was Malaysian Celestine Yoong, 13, whose fluency and clarity in two movements from Ravel's La Tombeau De Couperin, the Prelude and Rigaudon, were a total delight.
The evening's fare was opened spectacularly by Teofilia Onggowinoto, 14, from Indonesia, with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.11. She brought out the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) effects very well, and went on a thrilling free-wheeling course to its outlandish end. Not to be outdone was Singaporean Nicole Tay Wan Ni, 12, also the youngest participant, who was totally polished and all smiles in Glinka's transcription of Alyabiev's The Nightingale, a set of florid variations on a Russian folksong.
Three pianists chose to play pieces not in their competition repertoire. Nathan John Torento, 15, from the Philippines, illuminated Arensky's Etude in C major with romantic insight even if he has yet to feel completely at home with it. South Korean Chae Won Kim, 13, had the full measure of Tchaikovsky's popular Dumka, confident and buoyant but retaining every bit of Russian melancholy and angst.
Kant Kosoltrakul, 17, from Thailand, pulled off Arcadi Volodos's manic transcription of Mozart's Turkish Rondo with stunning aplomb, completely unfazed by its fiendish machinations. Do Hoang Linh Chi, 17, from Vietnam, attired in a startling poppy red dress with spectacles to match, gave, to this reviewer's ears, the performance of the evening.
She had substituted a Beethoven sonata movement with Liszt's Tarantella from Venezia E Napoli (Venice And Naples), a vertiginous swirling dance which was accorded a grandstanding treatment, so full of poise and Mediterranean colour that one imagined a seasoned veteran at play.
First prize was awarded to South Korea's Kim, with the petite Viet Do placing a close second. There was a tie for third prize, shared by Thailand's Kant and Singapore's Tay. Home advantage also saw Tay garner the audience prize, which was no big surprise. Awards and accolades ultimately mean little in a career musician's long journey, but these provide a source of encouragement and affirmation for the young, one that will remind them of the hard work and sacrifices ahead.