- Stig Gilbert -
As Henry Meng sauntered off the stage from his final performance, the man on my right rapturously proclaimed: “Such talent! Wonderful!”.
Henry had just finished his 45-minute Grand Final programme with Liszt’s ever-popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. You’ve heard this piece before, if only from the delightful Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny shorts that feature it. It ends with the hands rocketing up and down the keyboard, firing off a dazzling storm of octaves and staccato bass bounces, thundering out the main theme from the friska movement of the Rhapsody at a dizzying pace. It’s a breath taking, virtuosic showstopper. Behind these thirty seconds stood hundreds of hours of focus; Henry had concentrated together sound, gesture and creative forces so that he could produce for us this delightful detonation of music. But the show did not stop; Henry played first and finished fourth.
I suspect this is partly what Charles Owen was referring to when he announced the prize winners at the Grand Final; he had some regrets about his judgments. All of the finalists have talent, and he felt sure that we would hear from many of the finalists as artists in our lives. But it takes more than talent to win this competition. It takes ears so sensitive to the different sonic arenas that the performers could be used as sonar. It takes fingers so sensitive to the varying weights and textures of the piano that they could replace the most accurate scales used in labs. It takes extraordinary endurance to maintain this incredible level of focus throughout a 45-minute programme to enrapture our fleeting attention. Talent is not enough, so it matters how well were these thousands of hours spent. When it comes to our time, it is the result that matters, not the preparation for it.
With that in mind, two moments particularly revealed how similarly talented pianists could create such different sound worlds through minute changes of intention, environment, and preparation.
The first is Haydn’s C Major “English” Sonata performed by Shuan Liu, Madeleine Xiao, and Tony Chen in their first round of the competition. Haydn is well-known for his humour and playfulness in his compositions, and this is no exception. The first movement of this sonata features an enchanting variation of the opening theme reminiscent of a music box, made jarring and even funny by its coming as an answer to an ominous barrage of emphatically menacing lower register chords.
All three pianists took this moment differently, demonstrating neatly how different techniques and approaches can reveal the depth of one's musical interpretation. Madeleine and Tony left a short gap of sound between the ominous lower-register threats and the innocent music box, which created a lovely jolt of comedy. In contrast, Shuan connected the end of the minor chords with the beginning of the twinkling music box. It was as if the narrator of the sonata had gone insane and were teetering back and forth between the personality of an angry blustering buffoon and a daydreaming infant. If you were judging the competition and it hinged on whether or not they connected those sounds, which would you prefer? Would you relish the moment of silence, or not?
Another choice that they made in this same moment was in their dynamics. How loud were the menacing chords and how soft was the music box? To create maximum contrast, you would want as wide a disparity as possible between the two, but to do that on command and under pressure? That depends on how well you adapt to the sensitivity of the piano you are playing, how well you sink your weight through your fingers and into the keyboard, and how you respond to the room's acoustics. Tony won the competition in part because he was able to do all three the most convincingly. His music box sounded both innocent and celestial - even though it was softer, it was also clearer. Madeleine’s music box had the same softness but not the magical clarity, and it was not contrasted as well in volume with the louder chords beforehand. Shuan’s music box was more emphatic, with the top voice brought out above the mixture, as if the infant were practising for an aria in an opera.
The second case study would be Henry Meng's two different performances of the same work: Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean from Miroirs. Henry performed it much better in the preliminary round than the final due to the quality of the different spaces. The preliminary round in the School of Music theatre had a smaller audience and more intimate atmosphere. The theatre's resonance allowed Henry to explore a blurred sound in the lovely undulating arpeggios which represented the ocean. He created an Impressionist painting of sound where the boat and ocean meet in smooth swirls of colour. The Grand Final venue, the Raye Freedman Arts Centre, was larger and packed with people, leaving less room to play with a wet, echo-filled acoustic. But Henry didn’t adjust his playing technique accordingly. His fingers did not fathom the full depths of the keys in producing the soft arpeggios, and the clarity of sound was lost as if the ocean had become shallower and murky.
These examples, and many more from WNPC I could produce, show that in music, there are no unimportant details, and judgment between alternatives is essential. I understand the impulse to automatically appreciate the effort involved in preparing for a competition of this calibre or simply drop our jaws at the sheer talent displayed. Yet I believe the competitors would be better served if instead we listened to them more often and with more demanding ears. Based on their excellent performances in WNPC, it’s obvious that’s what they live for.
958 words | SG edited 12/08/19