Monday, August 20, 2007

A marvel in Manchester

The final evening of the Manchester International Concerto Competition for Young Pianists last Friday was quite an event. With two categories - the 16 and Under and the 22 and Under - the competition had already reached a climax the night before, with four superb youngsters strutting their stuff in Bach and Mozart; but, perhaps ironically, the 22 and Under's strongest impression was left by someone who was also under 16: Jan Lisiecki from Calgary in Canada, who played Chopin's Second Concerto. He's only 12.

Jan took joint second prize with the excellent 18-year-old Jamie Bergin, a student at Chetham's, but much of the buzz focused on him, with grown professional musicians drifting about the cathedral afterwards making remarks like 'touched by God...'. Jan already has a considerable track record, having played 12 times with orchestras including the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, and having performed in a gala concert with Yo-Yo Ma, Manny Ax and Pinchas Zukerman.

Still, first prize went to the right winner: Anja German from Slovenia, who played Beethoven 3 just beautifully. She is 22 and ready for anything. She's studying at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and has also won prizes in the National Competition in Slovenia and the EPTA International Competition for Young Pianists. She wins a series of excellent high-profile engagements around the UK, including London, and the chance to make a CD on the Dunelm label. Child prodigies may be prodigies but they are also children; young Jan deserves time to study and grow up before being plunged into the concert circuit, as he probably will be.

Plaudits too to third prizewinner, 17-year-old Walid El-Yafi, also studying at Chet's, who gave a strong and musical account of Saint-Saens' Third. Bravo to the Manchester Camerata, conducted by Chetham's head of music Stephen Threlfall, navigating four very difficult and exposed works with what must have been limited rehearsal time.

Competition founder Murray McLachlan, head of piano at Chethams', ensured another twist that seems valuable: the jury consisted entirely of concert pianists, an inspiration, he said, from the old days in the 'golden age' of pianism when musicians, rather than pedagogues, critics and others hunting power, were the norm on such panels. Murray wrote an interesting article for Classical Music's 'Soapbox' column a few months back, taking a fresh look at piano competitions, which is reproduced on the competition's website.

The competition has a good roster of backers and media partners and looks set to continue in fine style - and it has steered a clever course that doesn't bring it into headlong collision with the mighty Leeds, serving a different and complementary role in its young contestants' rites of passage. It attracted an extremely international crowd: around us in the packed cathedral we heard Chinese, Russian, Polish, Korean, French, Japanese and more. Hand in hand with the stunning new-look Manchester International Festival, which wants to rival Edinburgh (and may succeed), and the general transformation of Manchester from grimy, industrial, depressing lump to buzzing, happening, modern metropolis, the competition is part of an inspiring north-western renaissance.

Read more about the competition in the Manchester Evening News, here.