Wallace International Piano Festival: Education and Appreciation at all levels

Tony Yan Tong Chen

Tony YanTong Chen, Student Blogger, 2018 Wallace International Piano Festival Festival-goers were treated with a feast of piano music by two international recitalists: Avan Yu thrilling us with a platter of beloved classical favourites and Marta Zabaleta transporting us with a colourful showcase of Spanish flavours. Upon reading the biography and the ‘popular’ works in this prizewinning pianist’s recital programme, I expected Avan to deliver simply dazzling technical mastery and an array of scintillating sounds. He certainly delivered, but it was his ability to create the most nuanced variations of sound in poetic moments of his programme (in particular, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and the Liszt Sonnets) that was communicated most effectively in his performance. This brimming palette of tone colours made his pyrotechnic finger work and musical climaxes all the more effective and breathtaking. Marta’s performance took our breath away too but in a completely different way. The intimate opening captured our attention from the very first note, followed by an unforgettable evening filled with lush, warm tones contrasted with some of the most colourful virtuosic playing I have ever experienced. Marta’s sound never felt forced; though bursting with variety, it wasn’t ever harsh, and she maintained such respectable poise and elegance in her physicality throughout the evening. It felt as if I was teleported to Spain and could view the bustling atmosphere through a caramel lens.

In the days following the recitals, I had the utmost pleasure of delving deeper into the musical intentions of these international pianists through observing and performing in their insightful masterclasses. Presented with a variety of composers and styles to work with, Avan and Marta masterfully responded to each student’s performance with their musical personalities and character, which were conveyed in their recitals. Avan’s keen eye for detail changed my perspective of Liszt’s Dante Sonata from a superficial and relentless showpiece to a purposeful programmatic work based on great literature. Leaving no stone unturned, we explored every change in harmony, texture, and register (this was a hallmark of Avan’s playing), which immediately increased my variety of sound. Marta used her knowledge of flavourful Spanish tones to breathe new life into my Tchaikovsky concerto. Seasoned and sought-after pedagogue Douglas Humpherys comprehensively analysed the textures, harmony, compositional devices and the structure of Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 to make sensible yet profound decisions about my phrase direction.

The most valuable achievement of this festival was its ability to offer opportunities for all stages of piano playing and appreciation. Inspiring junior masterclasses presented by WIPF Artistic Director, Dr Rae de Lisle and University of Auckland’s Senior in Lecturer in Piano, Stephen de Pledge, biennial WNJPC which gave young pianists the platform to compete at a national level, public masterclasses for tertiary piano students, and worldclass recitals of both beloved classical favourites and rarely-heard Spanish compositions. Lixin Zhang’s stunning closing recital highlighted the role this festival and its supporters continually play in nurturing and developing young musical talent. It was inspiring to see someone who has come through both the Junior and National Competitions over the years make substantial advances in his career, such as the release of his first CD with Rattle Records and participating in international music festivals. For me, the highlight of Lixin’s recital was his sensitive yet fearless Chopin Ballade No. 2. Lixin presented all four of Chopin’s Ballades over WNJPC 2014-2016 and WNPC 2017 – a tangible measure of his musical development to date. This inclusive and nurturing environment was highlighted by the bustling excitement in the Music Theatre foyer before and after each recital, and the beautiful musical catastrophe that was 40 pianists attempting to sight-read duets simultaneously at the Multi-Piano Event at Lewis Eady.

The Wallace International Piano Festival aims to raise the standard of playing piano and appreciation in New Zealand and connect piano lovers through performances and education. WIPF has certainly made and will continue to make a positive contribution to the cultural life of Auckland and beyond. Impressively, the festival managed to jam-pack a breadth of events into one long weekend. The conclusion of the festival had me feeling much like the ending of the movie, Avengers: Infinity War: Completely satisfied yet desperate for more!

WIPF: Wallace International Piano Festival
WNJPC: Wallace National Junior Piano Competition
WNPC: Wallace National Piano Competition


WNPC 2017 student blogger Callum Blackmore holds a Bachelor of Music with Honours in musicology from the University of Auckland. He won the 2017 Drake Medal Prize for the best musicology essay and will be travelling to Leeds later this year as the 2017/18 Pettman DARE Fellow in Music Education to work with Opera North and the University of Leeds. His research interests include the performance of opera in the digital age, and how modern performances relate to the original context of the work. 

The Three Appassionatas and the Problem of Performance

How does one write about musical performance? The question is not as simple as it sounds, and yet it is a question I was forced to confront when asked to write about the 2017 Wallace National Piano Competition. I am not solely referring to an historical or critical discussion of performance (although these inevitably play a crucial role). In many ways, every piece of writing on performance is a kind of historical excavation, for musical performance is inherently ephemeral: by the time I have come to write about this competition, it is already over. Because the act of performance is so fleeting, there is a sense that one can never capture its essence in writing; the transient nature of musical performance seems to run counter to the relative permanence of the written word. Even video recordings of performances omit something of the experience of the performance: the limited scope of the camera lens and microphone reduce the dynamic spatiality of performance (which renders the visual and acoustic experience of the same performance distinctly different for each audience member) to something flat, reproducible, and commodifiable. What is sacrificed in these recordings is what philosopher Walter Benjamin, in his famous monograph The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, calls the “aura” of the performance, the “strange tissue of space and time” that constitutes its liveness.[1]  

Watching the Wallace National Piano Competition, I was forced to confront the concept of the “aura” head on. With every performer, there was so much that contributed to the sensory effect of the performance that can never be truly captured in writing or on camera: from the subtlest pursing of the pianist’s lips, to the way the pages of my programme seemed to buzz with every fortissimo chord, the idiosyncratic constellation of reflections across the piano lid (only visible from my angle of view), and the bright halo of sound that echoed around the ceiling of the Music Theatre in every caesura. This litany of ephemera is what constitutes Benjamin’s “aura” in performance. There is the feeling that even if I wrote a million pages of prose, I could not come anywhere near doing justice to the unique presence of these remarkable performances. Thus, the dilemma of writing about musical performance is that of approaching the ontology of a phenomenon so momentary, so seemingly intangible. 

Perhaps the moment in the 2017 Wallace National Piano Competition where the “aura” of performance was most striking was in the preliminary rounds. On the first day of the competition, three performers all gave renditions of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata”, almost back-to-back in the programme.  At first, the prospect of hearing the same twenty-five-minute work three times in the space of two hours seemed daunting: surely by the third airing, the Sonata would have lost its charm? Yet nothing foregrounds the very act of performance like hearing the same piece performed by three different performers in quick succession. One became very conscious of every performative decision, every little quirk each performer brought to the piece. One came to see Beethoven’s Sonata not as an historical masterwork, fixed in time like some relic in a museum, but as the conduit through which the dynamism and creativity of performance could emerge. It became almost impossible to separate Beethoven’s work from the intoxicating presence, the “aura”, of each performance.

For example, on the first page of the sonata, there is a series of subito fortissimo chords that rise up the range of the piano. These chords represent a kind of dilemma for the analyst; the thickness of the texture and the sudden syncopation of the rhythm contrasts so radically with the earlier music that the ascending chords seem somewhat irreconcilable with the music that precedes them.


However, the three performers in the Friday preliminaries seemed to offer their own answer to this analytical problem through performance. For Lixin Zhang (who won first place in the competition), the string of chords seems to erupt from nowhere, roaring up the piano like a violent paroxysm. It seemed that, in Zhang’s performance, the irreconcilable chords are a true gear change in the sonata, an incendiary glimpse of the Sturm und Drang to come that tears through the gentle fabric of the exposition. The sudden vitality of Zhang’s playing thus reimagines the chords as a hot-blooded compositional rupture.

By contrast, Frank Chen’s lighter approach to these chords suggests that the gesture emerges more fluidly from the music that precedes it. Frank’s gentler rendition of these chords, with a slight rubato towards the apex of the ascent, paints the sudden syncopation as more of a rhythmic ornament than a sudden shift in tone. The ascending chords, and the descending arpeggio that immediately precedes it, feel like two sides of the same coin; a gestural ying and yang which, with Frank Chen’s effortless flow, form a dialectical relationship. While Frank plays down the dynamic and textural contrast of the phrase, he brings out a subtle game of mirrors in Beethoven’s Sonata.

In Tony Yan Tong Chen’s performance, a slight decrescendo towards the top of the ascending chords, coupled with a whimsical tilt of the head, give the phrase a searching quality. Tony presents the phrase as a burning question, the ascending contour mimicking the rising tones of speech. A very nuanced rhythmic push-and-pull, varied ever-so-slightly in subsequent repetitions of the syncopated chords, added to the speech-like effect. This has the effect of reimagining the exposition as a kind of musical conversation; not so radical, given the Enlightenment’s obsession with music qua rhetoric.

Thus, through the phenomenon of performance, we have three different analytical approaches to this passage, suggesting, perhaps, that the key to understanding Beethoven’s work lies not in pouring over the score, but in the “aura” of the performed work. It is in the performed repetition of the work that these analytic possibilities surface. As philosopher Henri Lefebvre writes “there is no identical, absolute repetition.... There is always something new and unforeseen that introduces itself into the repetitive: difference.”[2] Lefebvre proposes to extend the analysis of rhythms beyond the realm of notated music, and into all aspects of everyday life where there are difference and repetition. In Lefebvre’s model, these three repeated performances of the ‘Appassionata’ constitute a kind of ‘rhythm’ in and of themselves, and, therefore, deserve close analysis. Certainly, the performances at the Wallace National Piano Competition have offered up fascinating insights into Beethoven’s work. This implies that, while the ephemeral nature of performance seems to evade the written word, writing about performance may yet prove an analytic necessity for the musicologist.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, et. al (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), 23.  

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (London: Continuum, 2004), 6.


Carnal Musings: Conceptualising the Pianist’s Body

Piano performance is often highly deceptive; the apparent effortlessness with which the pianist’s hands glide across the keys obscures the raw physicality of the act. Watching the 2017 Wallace National Piano Competition, it certainly seemed as if playing the piano was second nature to these performers.  One often forgets that playing the piano is a decidedly carnal phenomenon, especially when observing performances that seem to flow so naturally, as I saw in abundance in the Wallace Competition. Yet anyone who has ever attempted to learn the piano will know just how sluggish the untrained body seems in the face of all eighty-eight keys. In one particularly memorable moment, winning pianist Lixin Zhang closed his eyes during a particularly elegiac phrase in Edwin Carr’s Concert Studies. Between the serenity of his expression and the placidity of the phrase, he could have been sleeping; it was difficult to see the sheer physical control required to execute that passage.

While there is little doubt of the importance of the pianist’s body, one might question the nature of its role within the performance event. When writers discuss piano performance, they often invoke a Cartesian dualism, which establishes a distinction between the pianist’s body and mind. Franz Liszt, for example, hints at a Cartesian split when describing mind and body as separate entities during a particularly demanding practice session: “my mind and my fingers have worked like two damned ones”.[1] For Liszt, the mind and body seem to work in tandem, equal partners in the act of performance. However, Robert Schumann, while still proposing a mind/body split, attributes a special agency to the mind, describing it as the “internal organ of music” which controls the pianist’s body: “the fingers must do what the head desires; not the contrary.”[2]

Thus, two conceptions of musical agency emerge, one which views mind and body as equal agents in musical production, the other which gives weight to the agency of the mind, the body a mere vehicle for the mind’s musicality. Certainly, in Liam Wooding’s performance of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a gamut of facial expressions accompanying every flash of the fingers seemed to suggest a mind and body as symbiotic agents. Yet, occasionally Wooding’s facial expression would shift ahead of the music, prefiguring one of Haydn’s many musical volte-faces. Here, the mind seems to the be the instigating agent, every thought translated into a physical gesture.

Yet some seem to invert Schumann’s model, attributing agency almost entirely to the body: rock and roll sensation Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, famously said that his fingers “got [sic] brains in ‘em,” asserting that “you don’t tell them what to do; they do it.”[3] This certainly seemed the case in Wooding’s performance of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. The ecstatic cascade of chords which open the thirteenth movement, ‘Noël’, were performed with such primal vigour that Wooding’s body seemed to take on a life of its own.

Therefore, framing piano performance in terms of a Cartesian dualism immediately prompts the question of agency: does the pianist’s mind control the body, or the pianist’s body control the mind, or do mind and body coexist as equal partners as the pianist plays? Or, perhaps, one might imagine the mind and body locked in a struggle for power, railing against each other in the act of performance. Certainly, when I play, as a musician who reads music well but, sadly, gave up the piano at a young age, it often seems as though my mind reads the music faster than my fingers can play it: it is as if my body refuses to do what my mind tells it to.

But what if the agency of piano performance lies not with the mind, nor the body, but with some sort of external force? One understanding of musical performance views the pianist’s body merely as a conduit for the musical work itself. The musical work, as a separate agent, seems to animate the body of the performer. Music historian Carolyn Abbate describes this as the “hand-within-the-puppet” effect, the “idea that a musical work… physically animates and controls the performer’s inert body”.[4] One certainly got a sense of this in Leon Chen’s performance of John Elmsly’s Three Pieces for Piano. The sonorous open fifths which slice across a pianissimo style brisé seemed to propel Chen’s body into action, suddenly wrenching the fingers away from their arpeggios.

As I watched the competition unfold, it occurred to me that there might be another agent to consider when discussing the ontological status of the performer’s body. It is so often forgotten that the piano itself, the physical instrument, has a kind of agency of its own in the act of performance. The material attributes of the piano greatly affect, not only the sonorous qualities of a piece, but the way it is played. The piano keys, the interface between performer and instrument, have a slightly different weighting instrument to instrument; any pianist will tell you that these subtle variations in construction have the power to completely transform a performance. One even gets the feeling that the piano stool, which so many of the pianists took such pains to adjust, has some form of agency in the shaping of a performance.

It may seem somewhat bizarre to attribute agency to an inanimate object, yet contemporary critical theory is becoming increasingly fixated on the power of the physical thing. Actor-network theory, for example, posits a theory of social construction which views the world as a complex assemblage of “actors”, which include both animate, and inanimate objects. Bruno Latour, one of the greatest exponents of this theory, posits that objects play a crucial role in determining social relations, and thus have an agency of their own: “the apparently reasonable division between the material and the social becomes just what is obfuscating any enquiry on how a collective action is possible.”[5] Perhaps piano performance can be understood as a kind of collective action between human and object, in which the piano itself is afforded a similar puissance to the performer. Certainly, seeing so many breath-taking performances on the University of Auckland School of Music’s magnificent Steinway in the space of two short days, one cannot help but wonder if the piano has a life of its own.

[1] Franz Liszt in Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 164.

[2] Robert Schumann, Advice for Young Musicians, trans. Henry Hugo Pierson (New York: Project Gutenberg, 2009), 7.

[3] Jerry Lee Lewis in Lepota L. Cosmo (ed.), 5000 Quotations on Rock ‘n’ Roll of Legends, Bands, Producers, Instrumentalists, Writers and Leading Vocalists ( United States: Lepota L. Cosmo, 2016), e-book.

[4] Carolyn Abbate, In Search of Opera (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), xiv.

[5] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 74.


This years Lewis Eady Junior Music Contest (LEJMC) for GROUPS was held on the 19th September at Ponsonby Primary School. 

With 350+ musicians, their teachers and support crew, performances were spread over two sessions. The day was jam packed, with many smiling young faces (all eating Mr Whippy ice cream) and a wonderful array of musical genres. 

Thank you to all involved and a 'special thanks' to our Adjudicators; Mary Cornish, Stephanie Lees & Drew Hutchinson, and Ponsonby Primary School - what a great venue for the contest!

We look forward to doing it all again next year.

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LEWIS EADY JUNIOR MUSIC CONTEST for GROUPS is open to all primary and intermediate school children.

The contest is a performance opportunity for children at all levels of musical achievement, which aims to encourage young musicians to perform and to gain valuable experience and increase confidence.

Deserving performances are acknowledged with gold, silver or bronze certificates.
The contest adjudicators also provide constructive and encouraging written comments for all performances.


With the ink barely dry on his Royal Academy of Music Master of Arts in Piano Performance (complete with the highest distinction award DipRAM), Jason Bae is returning from London to perform a piano recital at the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, Tuesday 15 September 2015 and to release his first CD.


Liszt - Etudes de Concert, S.144
1. "Il Lamento"   2. "La leggierezza"   3. "Un Sospiro"

Britten/Stevenson - Fantasy on "Peter Grimes"

Puccini/Mikhashoff - Portrait of Madame Butterfly


Chopin - Four Ballades

BUY TICKETS:  www.ticketmaster.co.nz  |  0800 111 999
Adult $29.90  |  Gold Card $25  |  Student $15

15 September 2015  |  7.30pm  |  Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber

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LECT proudly announces...

Emerging Artists Series 2013

  - WINNER - 



Sylvia wins a cash prize of $1,000 and the opportunity to travel to Sydney to perform next year.

CD recordings simply numbered one to six (one CD for each recital) were couriered to the University of Otago in Dunedin for Professor Terence Dennis, Head of the School of Music, to adjudicate.

Professor Dennis remarks on the winning performance…

The candidate presented a very wide-ranging and challenging programme, and the performance displayed a sophisticated and consistent musical response throughout, with superb technical control, and a most impressive understanding of artistic nuance and subtlety of pianism.

 And adds:

Congratulations to all the pianists for their highly impressive recitals, all were testaments to immense preparation and represent significant achievements. 

Our congratulations to all performers.  Thank you for participating in the Series.  We hope you gained valuable experience to support your musical career. 

Many thanks to Professor Dennis for providing his time, care and expert opinion.  Thanks to the Schools of Music throughout New Zealand who forward nominations of their most promising students and many thanks to our appreciative Concert Club audience who keep coming back for recitals presented by these talented young musicians.

Finally, thanks to our loyal sponsors who offer the Lewis Eady Charitable Trust vital support.  We recognise them here and encourage you to support them when you can.

Dawsons   .   Cloudy Bay Vineyards Ltd   .   Spikemail

The first EAS concert for 2014 will be on Wednesday 9 April. 

Details will be on the website in February.  Visit www.lect.co.nz


LECT Emerging Artists Series Winners
2012 Matt Steele (jazz) of Auckland . 2011 Lucy Zeng of Auckland . 2010 Anna Maksymova of Canterbury
2009 Jason Bae of Auckland . 2008 Tony Lin of Christchurch