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2009 - Boston International Amateur Pianist Competition

2009 COMPETITION RESULTS 1st prize Vincent Schmithorst 2nd prize (tie) Ricker Choi, Abel Sanchez-Aguilera 3rd prize no award There were 50 competitors, some from as far as Germany, Paris, and Japan. I went to Boston with four other amateur pianist friends from Toronto. MY REPERTOIRE Round 1: Mephisto Waltz No. 1 Round 2: Scriabin: Sonata #5 Round 3: Beethoven: Bagatelle Op 126. No .3 Chopin: Ballade #4 Ravel: La Valse

ARRIVING AT THE BED AND BREAKFAST I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast about 30 min walk away from the competition venue. Three other competitors stayed in the same B&B, one of whom I had an interesting encounter deep into late night. Before I flew to Boston, the B&B lady called me in Toronto: O Ricker. A slight change. The room I promised you is still under renovation. But I have prepared you a special room. It is a beautiful room where it had originally been a dining room. It has a big table for you to work. I am sure you will love it. When I arrived, it was late night. The "special room" the lady has kindly prepared for me was actually the dining room! A beautiful dining room with a BIG table taking up most space in the room.

But where is the bed? Oh there it is, on my right on the floor is the mattress! (see picture below)

There is a kitchen immediately next to the dining room. Easy access to water and drinks. How convenient!

2:00 am in total darkness I heard the door knob to the dining room where I am sleeping is being turned. [Ricker]: yes, who is it? ... more sound ... The door opens, and in walk a dark shadow. [Ricker]: hi, is this Peter [fake name to protect the identity]? [Peter]: O I am sorry. So sorry. [Ricker]: is this Peter? It is Ricker, remember me from Washington competition last year? [Peter]: O yes. I am so sorry. I just need to pass to the kitchen to the fridge. I didnt expect someone actually sleeps here in the dining room. [Ricker]: Yea me neither. [Peter]: I was promised access to kitchens fridge anytime at night, but I never knew someone will sleep here. [Ricker]: Well if you need access to kitchen, why not we switch? I have your room and you can have my dining room. [Peter]: Well no. This place is not a proper room! I suggest you to talk to the B&B lady. [Ricker]: Well have a good night. Fortunately the next day I was able to move to a vacant room.

THE CONCERT GRAND Before I played 1st round, I had time to try out the piano. Wow a 9-foot Yamaha!!! It makes such HUGE full rich sound. When I tried a loud chord required for Liszt Mephisto Waltz (1st round), it sounds more like LOOUUUDDD. Because my ears are quite sensitive to loud sound, I felt totally overwhelmed. I stayed around listening to other competitors trying the piano, walking around the concert hall, and then realized that the piano sounds perfectly from audiences perspective. When others perform their 1st round, I even went up to the balcony far back in the concert hall where the jury group was sitting, and it sounds SO beautiful! The sound is pure like silk. This give me confidence that I should not get disoriented by the volume on stage, and not to be afraid to project and play fully and richly.

1st ROUND Liszt: Mephisto Waltz #1 Those deafening chords are SO BIG. I constantly second guess myself through the piece if I am producing harsh sound, as I am so unused to such torrents of sound. Imagine standing in front of a whole orchestra this may be what the conductor hears?! Luckily I went through it without too many accidents. At the end, I kept cornering audience to ask if the sound is too loud, or if they hear anything harsh. Luckily nobody complains about that. I decide to take two risks for next round. First is I am going to push the piano further to make an even bigger sound. But based on 1st round, I know I will get disoriented. So I decide to take a second risk: use ear plugs!! Ok I know this is weird and crazy. But before I talk about ear plugs, let me explain why I drag my suit case around as many people asked me this question while I was there in Boston.

MY SUITCASE If you know what is in my suitcase, probably it may not be as strange as to why I drag it around all the time. In the suitcase are:

  • My suit, shirt, tie in case I mess my suit up, I only change right before my performance

  • Food (lots of them) in case I get hungry

  • Medicine in case I have sore throat, fever, running nose, sneezing from allergy, diarrhea, getting nauseous from nervousness,

  • Scarf, gloves, jacket - in case the air conditioning is cold

  • Umbrella - I walk daily for 20-30 mins, in case it rains

  • Music score - in case I forget my notes

  • Ipod - in case I get nervous and need some music to calm me down.

Ok I will stop here is it not way easier to drag along a heavy case with wheels than carry a heavy bag, no?

EAR PLUGS!? Now let's go back to ear plugs. The ear plugs I use are not for blocking out crying babies on airplane. Instead they are specially made for musicians (such as drummer). Each ear plug has two pieces: a) the mould that fit my ear and is specially made based on shape of my ear canal; and b) the sound-reduction piece to block out a fixed number of decibels. The sound-reduction piece is replaceable depends on how much sound reduction I want. I originally got these because my left ear has sensitivity to loud sound in parties, sitting to close to stage in an orchestral concert, or hearing the screaming screech of Torontos Street Car or subway in Union Station. I know with the powerful instrument we have in this competition, when I get to Scriabins Sonata #5 and Ravels La Valse, I will get overwhelmed and no longer able to distinguish various level of sound. I will also lose sense of touch (i.e. not able to feel of my fingers pressure on the keys) because my hearing is too overwhelmed. So I decided to use these special ear plugs when I performed Scriabin Sonata #5.

2nd ROUND: Scriabin Sonata #5 The ear plugs works magically. I now hear the sound as how I would have imagined it to sound. The ear plugs smooth out the initial attacks of the keys such that I hear a silky smooth sound from the instrument, similar to how I heard it when I was up in the balcony where the jury sat. When I played the climatic moments, the huge sound was full and rich, but I no longer felt overwhelmed. I can feel my finger pressure on the key clearly. I felt so good at the end but when I bowed, I heard nothing! No applause!! My heart sank. I MUST HAVE SCREWED UP!!! I walked out the stage, depressed totally. But then, it seems strange mmm why is it so quiet? O darn! I still have my ear plugs on!

3rd ROUND Beethoven Bagatelle Op 126 No 3 I sat on the piano bench, hearing my breathing, getting slower.. deeper. And I felt such an inner calm that I never felt before. The ear plugs screen out all the sound from the concert hall, and I can hear only my breathing and the gentle sound from the piano. It was a transcendental experience indeed my first time ever playing totally in tune with the music, without ego. I felt my quiet body simply listening to the music.

Chopin Ballade #4 When I practised this work in the morning of 3rd round, a fellow competitor, Wayne Lung, came to listen me. He refreshed my mind on what to focus on:

  • Be careful of producing a forced tone in Chopin. When the score writes a crescendo, I dont necessarily have to do it through volume if it creates a harsh tone. I can alternatively do it by agogics (i.e. by timing)

  • Bring out the hidden counter melodies

  • Bring out the waves in the left hand rapid passages

  • Start the coda by projecting right hand, and DONT play the initial bass F too loud. Start the coda a bit under-played in volume and think crescendo till the end.

  • Aim for clarity in coda, and NOT speed

During the Ballade #4, someones cell phone rang LOUDLY. But I didnt even hear it - perhaps I was too immersed in the music (?), or just that the ear plug blocked out the sound! I only knew this when someone told me afterwards.

Ravel La Valse

La Valse by Ravel originally was an orchestral work. Later it was transcribed for solo piano and duo piano. Ravel juxtaposes the elegance of Viennese waltz against the horrors of World War I. The composer George Benjamin, in his analysis of La Valse, summarized the ethos of the work as follows:

Whether or not it was intended as a metaphor for the predicament of European civilization in the aftermath of the Great War, its one-movement design plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz. (from Wikipedia)

Weeks before the competition, I was SO lucky to be coached in a masterclass on this piece by a conductor-pianist, John Covelli who not only conducts La Valse but also performs regularly the solo piano version. John conducted me throughout the piece while I played, and in midst of the piece I had to stop and write down the tiniest details on his rhythmic flow. It was amazing experience!

As the piece reaches the climax, I chose to approach this climatic moment as if the world has come to an end Armageddon! Apocalyptic!! the concert hall is on fire, pillars falling down, people are crushed to death horrors. I have seen on youtube many pianist approach this climatic moment differently some play the 3 lower notes on the piano as written by Ravel. Some play with a palm and give a bouncy and elegant boom. Another played with a fist and rushes forth.

I chose to interpret the ending section of this piece as a drop of the atomic bomb, and the entire human race is annihilated. As you hear the drop of the bomb, there is a split second of silence then a LOUD BOOM. I really took time at the climatic moment and not to rush forth.

I also imagine I myself entirely engulfed in fire.....

This also reminds me of a Taiwanese movie Secret in which a teenager is playing passionately on the piano while the building he is in is being demolished. He continues to play while walls are knocked down around him by bulldozers. (yea I know this is ridiculous haha! But this imagery has all the pathos for the ending of La Valse) Ok back to La Valse. At the climatic moment, I played with maximum amount of power, using two fists, even jumped up slightly on the piano to put all my body weight onto my hand, and BOOOOM. I want to make it VIOLENT and SCARRRRRYYY! Like a nightmare that you cant wake up from. At the end, the applause and bravos was so big even with my ear plugs still on I knew I connected with the audience totally. A few audience rushes out while I was leaving back stage. They congratulated me and gave me a big hug. It was so moving! This is first time ever in my life that I felt so connected to the audience, that my musical messages are delivered and received! I was happy, and I have achieved my goal coming to the competition. I felt a serenity and calmness. Nothing else matters anymore.

A Beautiful Lady! During the break of the final round, a VERY beautiful lady came to me: Can I have your autograph? O gosh, my heart was beating so fast. I am so nervous around pretty girls. [Ricker] O, my autograph? Um. Ok well I never done this before! [Lady] O you just sign here in the program for me please. And write something addressing to me too. Why not you write [blah blah blah.] I really couldn't hear what she wants me to write, as I was too nervous. I never has a signature for signing.. and I have no clue what to write. Worse is that I have the most un-readable hand writing. So I scribble a few words, and I kept apologizing o sorry I just have very bad hand writing . but she was so nice she said O your writing is beautiful. Thank you so much.

During the Celebration Banquet, the beautiful lady again! After the winners were announced, we went to a beautiful celebration banquet. I ran into the beautiful lady who asked for my autograph earlier. I apologized again, and said I like to do it properly. But she left the program in her car. Next she dragged me out of the dining room into the next room, saying Can you help me with something?.. She led me into the room next door. The waiter there gave me a weird glance. As he went out the lady closed the door behind me. Just me and her alone. Silence I could only hear beatings of my heart, faster faster She sat on a bench, I stood facing her, her soft silky hands gently caress . . . . . the keys on an upright piano, playing Rachmaninoffs C#- Preludes middle section beautifully. She asked How can I project the melody more? later Abel the tied-2nd prize winner joined us as well, and we chatted for quite a long while. Well here is the end of the story.

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