Artist/s: Jake Cheong (piano), Ching Pong Ng (piano)
Category: Music Live
Location, Date: Australian Institute of Music John Painter Hall, 25th June, 2021 (Online Streaming Broadcast)
Reviewed by Roger Cui
“Inspiration, supported by professionalism and mastery, has always been the mark of the true art of piano playing. The Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition & Festival provides a great opportunity for young performers to play for people.”
Winner of the Gold Medal at the Liszt International Piano Competition in Budapest, and the 2nd Prize at the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, Lev Nikolaevich Vlassenko (1928 – 1996) was a well-established and sought-after international concert pianist. He toured throughout Europe, America, and Japan.
As an educator, Lev served as a Professor and Chairman on the Faculty of Piano at the Moscow Conservatory. Many of his students including Mikhail Pletnev established brilliant international careers as well. He also taught at the Indiana University Bloomington, and at the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston University. In 1991, President Gorbachev of the former USSR presented Lev with the honorary title “People’s Artist of the USSR”.
Lev was invited to judge in many of world’s leading international piano competitions such as Leeds, Chopin, Lisbon, Montreal, Tokyo, Bolzano, Athens, and Australia’s very own Sydney International Piano Competition. In 1994, Lev was made the President of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. In his final years, Lev resided in Australia, where he taught at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Griffith University in 1996.
In 1999, the biannial Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition and Festival was founded in memory of Lev by his daughter and his son-in-law. (Natasha Vlassenko, Head of Keyboard at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, major prize winner of Busoni International in Italy and Beethoven International in Austria. Oleg Stepanov, Senior Lecturer at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Winner of Music de Chambre in Florence Italy). The inaugural edition of the competition was held in the same year.
This year marks the 12th edition of the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition in succession. It will also feature a category called the Young Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition for pianists under the age of 16. Due to the constantly changing COVID-19 situation in Australia, the 2021 competition revised its format from live audition and solo rounds to recording and online streaming. In mid-May, the best twelve pianists over the age of 16 and the best eleven young pianists under the age of 16 received invitation by audition to perform a recital programme in one of three state capital cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane). These performances are broadcast live via online streaming services all around the world. An international jury panel chaired by Michael Endres, joined by Daniel Herscovitch and Konstantin Shamray will adjudicate the recital rounds and select three finalists in each category to travel to Brisbane in mid-July. Each finalist will perform a piano concerto of their choice with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in front of a live audience on the 16th of July at 6:30 pm in the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre in South Bank, Brisbane. They will contest for cash prizes as well as professional concert engagements. The final round’s jury is chaired by the legendary Irish pianist Barry Douglas, joined by Irina Plotnikova, (winner of inaugural Sydney International Piano Competition) and Sergio Tiempo (protégé of Martha Argerich).
The Sydney recital round was held in the John Painter Hall of the Australian Institute of Music. It began on the 25th of June.
The first competitor was a South Korean born Sydney local Jake Cheong. He has studied with several well-respected pianists including Gerard Williems and Dr. Paul Rickard-Ford. Cheong commenced the first half of his performance with Liszt’s 2nd Ballade, then Haydn’s C Major Sonata XVI 50, Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No.5, and the complete etudes by Prokofiev Op. 2. The second half started with Liszt’s Tarantella, then Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue No. 21, Michael Kieran Harvey’s Pink nautilus, and ended with Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata.
There seemed to be an intentional symmetry to the structure of Cheong’s programming, as he began both halves with a piece by Liszt and ended both halves with a major work by Prokofiev. This programming proved advantageous for Cheong’s abilities at the piano, as he displayed skills and intelligence on a very high level with his playing. Cheong’s playing of the pieces by Liszt were full of vigour and bravura. These good qualities shone through in his playing of the black-key etude by Chopin and the Op. 2 etudes by Prokofiev as well. However, rare moments in the first Prokofiev etude were rhythmically less stable. This instability caused some octave passages to suffer. In the second etude where lyricism and artistic imagination were required, Cheong left much to be desired. In the Haydn sonata, Cheong executed the first movement well. The second movement was delicately played but needed more contrast in different characters. In the Allegro molto movement, Cheong peculiarly turned the ornamental acciacature of the opening theme (which repeats itself throughout) into semi-quavered notes. This effectively gave a static drive to the entire movement. In summary, it lacked excitement. But perhaps Cheong had different ideas.
Ching Pong Ng, a young pianist/composer from the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, who is a current undergraduate student with Dr. Paul Rickard-Ford at the Sydney Conservatorium was the next contestant of the evening. He walked swiftly onto the stage and took a quick bow before settling himself down at the piano. Despite the unusual silent ambience due to the absence of the audience in the hall (COVID-19 restrictions), Ng radiated confidence with his smile before starting the first chords of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue Op. 87 in G Major. As a part of the requirement set by the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition for the Recital round, each contestant must include a Prelude and Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach or Dimitri Shostakovich. In the prelude, Ng displayed an astute awareness of the two juxtaposing pesante and quick themes. The fugue was nippy and bright.
Ng followed this with his Australian work, Michael Kieran Harvey’s Carpe Diem, Rachmaninoff’s Op. Posthumous Prelude in D Minor, Clementi’s Sonata in G Minor Op. 8 No. 1, and to conclude the first half of his programme, Liszt’s monumental B Minor Sonata. Compared to the previous contestant, Ng’s tone project was richer. As well as that, Ng showed a lot more technical and emotional control. In the B Minor Sonata by Liszt, Ng had a good variety of sound qualities that gave the whole piece an orchestral-like projection, which is stylistically and spiritually appropriate. Some attention is need for certain phrasings in the first section of the sonata, but overall, Ng displayed a high level of pianistic competence and solid understanding of the music.
Ng commenced his second half’s programme with Chopin’s famous Polonaise Fantasie Op. 61. This was followed by Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs Op. 21 No. 5 and Etude Tableau Op. 33 No. 9. Ng concluded his entire programme for the recital with two unique pieces by Leopard Godowsky. The first was a transcription from Franz Schubert’s Morgengruss (morning’s greeting) from the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The fair maid of the Mill).
In summary, Ng displayed in his recital much confidence and his pianistic ability was at the very least equally if not more convincing than that of Cheong. What might have given him the extra edge is his experience as a composer.
The contestants for the 26th June in Sydney had to be rescheduled to a later date upon short notice due to the Lockdown. The Brisbane recital round will commence on the 5th July. Online live streaming is available here: https://www.lev-vlassenko.com