Thursday, June 14, 2012

We Have A Winner: Sahun Hong

After a scintillating performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 last night, Sahun Hong was named the PianoArts Competition 2012 first-place winner. The prize was presented by David Yoshiaki Ko, Hong's immediate predecessor and 2010 winner. Xiaohui Yang took home second place, and Emma Liu won the third-place prize.

In addition to his first-place prize, Hong also received the Junior Jury Prize, the Audience Communication Award and the Best Performance of a Violin or Cello Duo award. And if that wasn't enough accolades, he also took home a $1,000 gift certificate for Hal Leonard Music.

Ariela Bohrod also had a nice night, winning the Wisconsin Contestant Award as well as the Scholarship to the International Keyboard & Music Festival, at Mannes College of Music in New York City. This year, the judges eschewed presenting the Best Performance of a Prelude and Fugue by J.S. Bach, instead recognizing Garrick Olsen with the "Best Performance of a post-1940 work" award. Olsen, Bohrod, Phillip Kwoka, Yesse Kim, Yoan Ganev, Josephine Yang, Yinuo Qian, Brian Lin and Christian Gamboa all received commemorative semifinalists' awards.

The Finalists Perform: Yang, Liu, Hong

On Wednesday, June 13th, the three PianoArts finalists each played a full concerto with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. Xiaohui Yang performed Mozart's Concerto No. 23, Emma Liu performed Schumann's Concerto in A Minor, and Sahun Hong closed out the evening with Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 in C Minor.

Yang, who was the first contestant to play, showed off a really nice, pretty, clear sound. She took a quiet, nuanced approach to Mozart, almost too quiet at times. For a great solo that got louder as she went along, however, listeners had to wait no longer than the end of the first movement. Her second movement began with a wonderfully sorrowful, subdued piano solo; her third started much more energetically as she set the table for the orchestra to come in. Her play was elegant in every respect; she produced a good sound and put some teeth into it late in the third movement, with her hands moving furiously. Yang put all her energy into a long, sprightly passage near the end that had the audience applauding almost before she finished.

Emma Liu was next, and she opened with a bang. Liu seemed to work exceptionally well with the violin section, allowing the violins to borrow her theme, complementing them, then breaking into a theme of her own. She would take their melodic tidbits, make them her own and pass them back to the other section. Kim was decisive on the long passages going up the keyboard, backed by an exultant orchestra. As the piece progressed, both Kim and the orchestra seemed to get more aggressive, each trying to get their point across (echoing Liu's story about Schumann's argument with his wife). Beautiful, melodious slow passages built and broke down the tension with the orchestra, finally reconstructing the melody as the first movement ended. Liu's second movement was more restrained and delicate, but when the time came, she went for broke. She worked well in the second movement and into the third on the grand choruses with the orchestra, keeping the piece loud but still a pleasure to listen to.

Sahun Hong closed out the program with an absolutely stunning Beethoven. You could just tell from his playing, he was absolutely in charge of the piece from beginning 'til end. Hong filled the stage as much as the orchestra did; he didn't appear intimidated or held back at all by the setting or the orchestra at his back. When he led into the big, blaring sound of the orchestra with those fast, hard passages, it sounded comfortable and natural. The many different characters and emotions expressed in the first movement must've been difficult to perform, but Hong was unruffled; he took the audience from a pleasant walk in the country to the eye of a thunderstorm and back again. Movement II was stately and sad; a few solitary piano notes scattered in the middle of a vast silence, then a chastened orchestra slowly starts up again, this time full of hope. In the third, Hong was given a vast blitzkrieg of notes to deal with, but I couldn't hear one out of place. He was almost dainty on the keys during the slow bits, before jumping up and bursting into song later on.

Piano Promenades: The Nine Semifinalists

Before the PianoArts 2012 competition final took place on Wednesday night, the nine semifinalists were invited to play a piece of their own choosing for a small crowd in the Wilson Center auditorium. The event was hosted by 2010 PianoArts first-prize winner David Yoshiaki Ko, who introduced and told anecdotes about each semifinalist in turn.

Each pianist, with one exception, played a selection from their contest program. Josephine Yang played a selection from Maurice Ravel's Miroirs: Alborada del Graciosio, the "Comedian's Aubade". Ariela Bohrod reprised her performance of Chopin's Nocturne No. 17. Phillip Kwoka followed with "Transmissions" by David Macintyre. Brian Lin played Bach's Prelude and Fugue No. 15 from "The Well-Tempered Clavier". Yinuo Qian played one of her Chopin Mazurkas (No. 2, for those scoring at home) and Garrick Olsen performed Marc-André Hamelin's "Erlkönig", the No. 8 etude from Hamelin's 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys. (Ko joked that he did a double take upon seeing Olsen's name in the program; apparently Olsen's doppelgänger is moderately well known).

Christian Gamboa then became the only semifinalist to play something outside his program; Gamboa eschewed his solo pieces in favor of a selection from Rachmaninoff's Études-Tableaux. Yesse Kim followed with part of Beethoven's Sonata No. 24, and Yoan Ganev closed out the event with Chopin's Nocturne No. 3.

And in the spirit of Rachmaninoff, some more musical comedy:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Turnabout Is Fair Play: Listening to the Judges

The three distinguished PianoArts judges--Pavlina Dokovska, James Giles and Julian Martin--had been evaluating PianoArts' twelve semifinalists since Saturday. In twelve solo recitals and twelve duo recitals, they had heard a total of 86 pieces of music. Now it was their turn to play in front of an assembled crowd. Giles and Dokovska wowed the crowd at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts on Tuesday night, showcasing their musical knowledge and talent for semifinalists, board members and everyone else who came.

Giles opened the program by talking about the "sense of childhood wonder" that he saw in Robert Schumann's Clavierstücke für die Jugend, or "Album for the Young", from which he played three selections. For me, the pieces were less wondering than they were introspective. Giles found a way to speak to the audience through the pauses in the pieces as well as through the notes, creating a wistful, reflective impression. This was only reinforced by the setup on stage: one artist, one piano, an island of black surrounded by empty space... and beyond that, an expanse of bright lighting and huge wooden panels. In that setting, the Schumann sounded kind of lonely.

Next on the program was Franz Liszt's Ballade in B Minor, No. 2. This was another ominous piece, with a slow, portentous roll often present in the left hand that crept up and down the lower third of the keyboard. The right hand, meanwhile, would plink and plunk out a somber sort of tune over the top of that slow roll; the cumulative effect was dark and somewhat menacing. Giles spoke about how Lizst's original inspiration for the piece was the love story of Hero and Leander from Greek myth (spoiler warning: both of 'em died tragically), and by the end of it, you could almost see the light going out in the tower where Hero lived (and Leander drowning in the Hellespont shortly thereafter).

Giles closed out his half of the concert with three of the Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs by Earl Wild, an all-time great pianist whom Giles said he'd actually gotten to know years ago. "He was funny, outrageous, had an X-rated tongue," Giles said. He went on to tell the crowd how you could sort of hear the original Gershwin themes underneath all the embellishments, but Wild had "embroidered [them] in the most fanciful and gleaming way possible". I had to agree. There are so many jukes and jives and flourishes, so many extra notes on top of the main theme, it was both hilarious and awesome in its complexity.

After a short intermission, Dokovska took the stage (in a beautiful red dress, no less) and proceeded to wax rhapsodic about Claude Debussy, the only artist on her program. "He was a poet of the piano," Dokovska said. She quoted the great composer as remarking that "the era of airplanes requires new music. As there are no precedents, I must create anew". Writing amidst the Impressionistic period, Debussy was among a great number of artists who rebelled against the conventions of romanticism and realism alike. "They were looking not for the bright light, but for the mist and the fog," Dokovska explained. As Debussy said: "Music is a dream from which the veil has been lifted."

Dokovska played five selections from Debussy's Preludes ("Footsteps in the snow", "What the west wind has seen", "Veils", one from Images ("Reflections in the water") and L'isle joyeuse, "the island of joy". Taken as a whole, the selections started out in a sad, contemplative mood and became more joyous as Dokovska moved from piece to piece, a conscious choice on her part. The first few Preludes told the story of Debussy's separation from one of his loved ones (among other things), and it was a heartrending story. You could feel the snowflakes coming down, and see Debussy watching the footprints in the snow as they moved away from him.

Instead of interspersing her talk between the pieces, Dokovska spoke at length at the beginning of her half and then simply played everything else almost straight through. She told the audience so much about Debussy, and in such descriptive language, it was difficult not to hear his voice in the pieces, anguished and elated by turns. While the pieces did eventually turn from sadness to a kind of triumph, for me there was always something a little unsettling hiding in the notes, a kernel of doubt and uncertainty in Debussy's mind that kept the triumphs from being perfect. This wasn't unrestrained happiness or great romantic feeling, but a more complex glimpse into the composer's soul. "I will try to lift a little bit, as much as I can, the veil of Debussy's dream," said Dokovska, and for a spellbinding hour she did.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Advice From Musical Experts, Part II

In the course of a panel discussion at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center on Tuesday, 6/12, four Milwaukee-area music professionals dispensed a great deal of advice on the nuances of being a professional soloist. PianoArts music director Andrews Sill, honorary board member Lee Dougherty, former Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra vice president Laurence Tucker and executive director of the Wilson Center Jon Winkle all spoke in the panel discussion, entitled "Careers in Music" and "Working with Managers and Presenters". This is Part II of a two-part post.

As advice to keep tucked away for when the finalists are all famous, Dougherty advised them to "be sure to honor that contract", even if a better offer comes along. She also emphasized the importance of "expand[ing] your repertoire to the degree that people can call you and ask what you'll be able to play next year". But while doing this, added Tucker, "have a few things you can play in your sleep". He also cautioned against the contestants' performing too many concertos in too short a time period. "Don't offer more than 4-5 concertos in a season," Tucker said; with too many concertos, like 12 or 13, it's guaranteed that none of them will be great ones.

Artistic Director Stefanie Jacob, who was sitting in the audience, advised the crowd to "think about what pieces you can play with real conviction, that speak to you. When you do, it speaks more to the audience". And if a piece doesn't speak to you, she added laughingly, learn how to make it speak! It makes for a better performance all around. On the subject of learning, Sill then told the crowd about his struggle to speak in front of groups, which he had overcome through discipline and practice. "If something doesn't come naturally to you, practice it," Sill added. "If it doesn't come naturally to you, it's okay, but you need to work at it... It's OK if it's uncomfortable, but it's not OK to say ehh, I'm not going to do that."

Returning to the subject of little things, Dougherty advised that at future competitions, the semifinalists should plan their repertoire according to the time they're given. Budget time for walking onstage, for the in-concert talks and for applause, she said. It all has some importance, as Winkle reminded the crowd, there's "a lot of money on the table" that goes beyond just the soloist. You have a responsibility to the patrons of the establishment you'll be at. "You are the talent, and when you express yourself, you're like no other individual," Dougherty said. "You're lifting the souls of hundreds of people. Not everyone gets to do that."

During the question-and-answer period, Sill offered a final piece of advice. When speaking about a piece, Sill said, "I don't want to hear technical things or emotional things. I want to know, what connects you to this music? What grabs you? It's not an easy answer, but if you can articulate that personal connection, well, you will leave the audience hooked."

Advice From Musical Experts, Part I

On the last day before Piano Arts 2012's final recital of the year, the twelve semifinalists gathered at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, WI. The event? "Careers in Music" and "Working With Manager and Presenters", a panel discussion with four Milwaukee-area music professionals. These were Jonathan Winkle, the executive director of the Wilson Center; Laurence Tucker, former vice president and chief program officer at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchesta; Lee Dougherty, member of the PianoArts Founders' Council, and Andrews Sill, PianoArts music director and assistant music director at the New York Ballet. These professional music administrators--and artists in their own right--gave the budding talents of the 2012 PianoArts Competition a boatload of good advice on how to succeed as a soloist in the world of commercial music.

The first topic was how to get your name out there in a crowded music marketplace. "The relationship piece is more important than you realize," said Winkle. Music directors field hundreds of requests from would-be soloists and musical acts, everything from string quartets to bluegrass bands. To "get through the clutter", he said, "keep behaving well. Keep making friends." But although networking is important for a young soloist, equally important is finding your artistic voice."I [look] for the best artist", said Tucker. He told the semifinalists to "get out the art that's inside of you. Know yourself, and understand where music fits into your other art. Study music away from your instrument. You are at such a vital time in your life right now... Make mistakes. Play the wrong piece, or play a piece your teacher doesn't want you to. To your own self be true."

Dougherty reminded the artists that although the life of a soloist may seem carefree, there are a lot of responsibilities that accompany it (no pun intended). "You have responsibilities to yourself, to your town, but to your presenter too," she said. She advised the semifinalists to take care of the little things; to arrive on time, to be in touch with your presenter before the performance, to send them materials in advance. It's those details, and being a nice, personable individual, that matter to presenters. "The [artists] I really want back are appreciative," Dougherty said. "Be a human being with your audience. Send thank-you notes. Spent time makes a difference while you're performing. And if you do a really excellent job, [as a presenter] I'll call up my friends and say hey, you need to check this guy out."

Laurence Tucker mentioned the importance of having a website and having good promotional materials. It's worth it, he said, to have everything you send out to a potential gig look crisp, professional and present you the way you want to be presented. Nowadays, that even includes YouTube videos, which music directors will often seek out and look up; artists should make sure that they're good quality, from an audio/visual perspective as well as simply playing well. Smiling on stage helps; engage the audience. "These are little things, but they're really not," Tucker said. Dougherty added that public speaking is a part of the show as well; make sure your remarks are substantive, project your voice as though you were speaking to people in the back row, speak with a sense of authority. "It's the whole package," Tucker concluded.

PianoArts Finalists

The three finalists for the PianoArts 2012 Competition are (in no particular order): Sahun Hong, Emma Liu and Xiaohui Yang. All three will perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra on June 13th, 2012, at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center in Brookfield, WI.

Hong will perform Ludwig van Beethoven's Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, while Liu will perform Robert Schumann's Concerto in A Minor. Finally, Yang will be performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Concerto No. 23 in A Minor.

The judges for this competition are Julian Martin, James Giles and Pavlina Dokovskya. The MSO will be conducted by Andrews Sill. After the contestants have all played, the following prizes and awards will be presented: the Audience Communication Award, the Wisconsin Contestant Award, the Best Performance of a Violin or Cello Duo, the Best Performance of a Prelude and Fugue by J.S. Bach, the Scholarship to the International Keyboard Institute & Music Festival at Mannes College, the Junior Jury Prize, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Place prizes for the PianoArts 2012 Competition. We hope to see you there!