‘The Sydney’ is what the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia was called this year. It is a lot better than the ugly acronym SIPCA by which it was known before. If covid-19 hadn’t disrupted human life on earth, The Sydney would have been held last year around this time. I’d have gone to Sydney and become immersed in the preliminary rounds in which thirty-odd competitors play two short recitals. In total a four-day, 25-hour feast of virtuoso classical piano music. No different to what I did the last time, in 2016, before returning home to watch the semi-finals and finals on television. This year it was a digital event, a decision vindicated by what’s now happening in Sydney. If they had decided to ‘go live’ there is no doubt it would have been cancelled again.
The competition featured 32 pianists hailing from Russia, China, Hungary, Japan, South Korea, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Italy-Slovenia, Switzerland and of course Australia. Each of them submitted three recitals of 40, 50 and 80 minutes for the preliminary, semi-final and final stages respectively. After the preliminary recitals were broadcast, 12 semi-finalists were selected and from their recitals 6 finalists were picked. The competition ran from the 2nd to the 18th of July. I bought a season pass and watched all the recitals. That’s 40 hours of the piano being played.
All the pianists were good. Understatement; they were virtuosos. There is practically nothing in the massive classical piano repertoire that their technique could not handle. Almost every recital had something that moved me, something I loved, something that lifted me. I entered the spirit of competition and compiled a list of possible semi-finalists. How did I judge them? The task was more difficult when they played unfamiliar pieces, especially percussive, jarring pieces to demonstrate their technical brilliance. Not that it was much easier when they played works I knew. So, I ignored the flying fingers because all 320 of them flew. Instead, I watch their demeanour and their poise. Did the pianist look immersed, at one with the music, or did I detect distance between performer and performance? And I listened and observed my reactions. Did I get goosebumps even for a few seconds? Did the music sparkle? Did it drag me in? Did it melt my heart? Yup, my assessments were all subjective. And the experience was sometimes different if I listened without watching. One or two made palpable mistakes, which sealed their fate, normal for competitions such as this.
The judges agreed with me on eight of the twelve I picked. A close music-teacher friend picked eleven. He even nominated who he thought might be the eventual winner. That individual’s recital had not impressed me. He wasn’t in my list of semi-finalists. I am comfortable with differing opinions. They don’t bother me like they used to. I like what I like. That’s the impact music has on almost anybody.
My friend’s pick to be the ultimate winner played a spectacular semi-final recital and my opinion of him about-faced. I put him in my list of six finalists. The judges agreed with me on four. One of the two who missed out was my favourite, a twenty-year-old Chinese man who looked like he wasn’t a day over fifteen. His natural exuberance got under my skin. And he mentioned that he loved the music of Schubert, who occupies a special place in my heart.
My friend was right. His nomination won the competition and a swag of other prizes. In fact, he and the runner-up, whom I picked to win, practically swept the board. The Sydney is next scheduled for 2023. I hope the pandemic is a distant memory by then.