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