Celebration of the keys

By William Dart

Jason Bae was the winner of the inaugural Wallace Piano Competition last year.
Jason Bae was the winner of the inaugural Wallace Piano Competition last year.

Last July, 21-year-old Jason Bae won the inaugural Wallace National Piano Competition with powerhouse performances of Rachmaninov and Ravel. At the end of that concert, Sir James Wallace announced the event would be held on an annual basis and, next week, Aucklanders can enjoy this year's Wallace National Piano Festival.

The core of the four-day celebration will be another competition in which 15 pianists under the age of 18 display their talents before adjudicators Christopher Elton and Read Gainsford.

This is not the only music on offer. Elton and Chenyin Li take a series of masterclasses that promise to be as entertaining as they are revelatory. One pianist well worth catching is Andrew Leathwick, a 2011 semi-finalist in Brisbane's Lev Vlassenko Competition and winner of our National Piano Concerto Competition last year.

Next Sunday afternoon Stephen De Pledge marshals 18 pianists in Lewis Eady's Great South Rd premises to show just what wonders 36 hands, en masse, can draw from an array of keyboards.

Best of all, there will be three solo recitals, launched by Chenyin Li on Thursday, playing Brahms' massive Handel Variations.

Read Gainsford offers a set of Rachmaninov's Etudes-tableaux on Friday, while Jason Bae rounds off the festival with a programme that runs from Bach to Leonie Holmes.

Bae, fresh from his impressive Beethoven Fourth Concerto with the Manukau Symphony Orchestra last weekend, almost bristles with excitement at the mention of a challenge. "As a teenager I never thought I would be able to play that concerto. Now, having worked at it, I feel a much closer connection with Beethoven as a composer."

He smiles when I mention his incisive Stravinsky Concerto with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra in 2010. "I took a personal stand in memorising it," he explains. "I knew the risk and it turned out be absolutely nerve-wracking, but it helped me gain confidence in handling new music."

If the ultimate challenge of classical music is to attract audiences, then Bae is more focused in his demands; we need to draw in a younger generation. "It's important for classical music itself. It could so easily die in a world so dominated by pop music."

He is adamant, too, that these new audiences must be given "really good, high quality classical music. When young people listen to music on that level, they really get it".

Bae is studying at London's Royal Academy with Christopher Elton and Joanna MacGregor. His English teachers have given him a new perspective on the Bach Partita that opens his Sunday recital.

"In New Zealand I was encouraged to think about the original 18th-century instruments when I played Bach. That has all changed since studying in London.

"Joanna MacGregor, who has made a wonderful recording of the Goldberg Variations, has strong ideas about Bach being played in a much more romantic manner, a stand that I really can appreciate."

Two other works on Bae's programme fulfil the dreams of his not-too-distant youth. He learned the fourth of Rachmaninov's Moments Musicaux when he was 12 and is "looking forward to playing all six of them on Sunday", while Chopin's B minor Sonata is another piece he has been "desperate to add to my repertoire".

There does not seem to be much New Zealand music in the festival, but Bae has included a Nocturne by Auckland composer Leonie Holmes. He warms to the style of this piece that is "very reminiscent of Ravel. I've been a little scared of contemporary music since I played the Stravinsky, but this has helped so much with my confidence."

- NZ Herald

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