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The 7th SIMC Review ②

Review of the Piano Section of the 7th Sendai International Music Competition

Music Critic:HAGIYA Yukiko

As I write, Japan hosts three international piano competitions that are members of the World Federation of International Music Competitions. These are the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition, Takamatsu International Piano Competition, and Sendai International Music Competition (SIMC). A very distinctive feature sets SIMC apart from its domestic counterparts and indeed from other international piano competitions in the world: Namely, SIMC Contestants from the Semifinal Round onward are required to perform concertos with the competition’s resident professional orchestra; and the Final Round repertoire includes, in addition to a “masterpiece” concerto, a less-frequently performed concerto by Mozart, whose work is widely considered to lay bare the basic skills of the performer. This means a Contestant aiming for the Final Round needs to have at least three concertos under her/his belt. This requirement could be an ordeal or a godsend depending on the outlook of the individual Contestant.

During the post-competition press conference, prizewinners invariably mentioned the chance to perform as many as three concertos as a major reason for entering the competition, and expressed in various terms their appreciation of the experience, rather than the results, which convinced me that the endless drive and desire to improve were definitely what earned them their prizes.

The chance to perform a concerto is a golden opportunity for young aspiring performers, not least because it is very hard to come by, even for professional pianists with established careers. SIMC Contestants can enjoy this privilege because SIMC has an excellent “host” orchestra: the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra. Conversely, the major role the triennial SIMC brings provides the Sendai Phil a very important opportunity for skill improvement, and constitutes, I gather, a significant part of its financial footing. In my view the current relationship between orchestra and SIMC is an excellent quid pro quo, providing young performers a learning opportunity like no other, and I hope the collaboration between the two will stay in this ideal form.

Another noteworthy aspect of SIMC is its excellent conductor, Junichi Hirokami. By welcoming into the fold this maestro capable of attentively tuning into and realizing the soloist’s intention while expertly guiding the orchestra into producing lush performances, SIMC has delivered music that is blissful to all three parties—soloist, orchestra, and audience.

Let me comment briefly on the six Finalists. The repertoire was Beethoven for the Semifinal, and Mozart plus masterpiece for the Final Round.

Kim Junhyung, winner of the 6th prize, performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58; Mozart Piano Concerto in F major, K459; and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23. An eagerness to express individuality and originality, rather than conforming to a safe, average performance, led to a good handling of tempo, and dramatic passages delivered with ample energy and emphases, which I found positive, enterprising, and commendable.

The music of Kyoshiro Hirama, the 5th prize winner, sounded very mature despite his tender age of 21. He performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37; Mozart Piano Concerto in B flat major, K450; and Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op.18. His performance had a clear sense of direction whatever he was playing. His Rachmaninov piece matched well with the orchestra, a point, which, when later asked he said may have benefited from a previous, single opportunity of performing with an orchestra.

Motohiro Sato, who won 4th prize, was the only Finalist who chose to play on the Shigeru Kawai rather than the Steinway preferred by the other five Finalists, and took full advantage of its brilliant sound to deliver his delicate, lyrical music. He performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37; and Mozart Piano Concerto in G major, K453; and for his masterpiece repertoire made the relatively unusual choice of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S125. Since he had made the rare choice of Liszt when four out of six Finalists had chosen the Tchaikovsky for their masterpiece repertoire, it would have worked more to his advantage in terms of competition outcome had he explored and refined his interpretation of Liszt further, especially given his uniquely beautiful timbre.

The 3rd prize was awarded to Russian pianist Daria Parkhomenko, aged 28. She was the only one of the seven female Contestants out of a total of thirty-seven Contestants to make it to the Final Round. Her notes were fragrant and sonorous, and her renditions of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58; Mozart Piano Concerto in G major, K453; and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 highly satisfying to listen to.

Baron Fenwick, aged 25, from the United States was awarded the 2nd prize. He performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, op. 37; Mozart Piano Concerto in G major, K453; and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23. He revealed at the press conference that Van Cliburn had been his hero from an early age, and how he had listened to a recording of Cliburn’s winning performance at the Tchaikovsky Competition until the CD wore out, hoping to one day match him in excellence. It was a delight to witness Cliburn’s American dream blossom anew here at Sendai.

This competition’s 1st prize was awarded to Choi Hyounglok, a young pianist from South Korea who turns 26 this year. He performed the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op. 58; Mozart Piano Concerto in G major, K453; and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 with equal, superb levels of excellence. That he was the highest skilled, most solid Contestant was beyond dispute, and the decision-making was smooth sailing for the Jury. However, when asked which of the three pieces he was most satisfied with, Mr. Choi very modestly answered, “None at all!” which to me felt promising as it seemed indicative of his tireless aspiration to improve, and scope for further growth.

In all I found the outcome highly reasonable, and the competition as a whole extremely rewarding.

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