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PREVIEW | Warsaw Calling: The 18th International Chopin Piano Competition

By Joseph So on September 21, 2021

Photo Courtesy of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute
Photo Courtesy of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Pianophiles rejoice — the Eighteenth International Chopin Piano Competition, the quinquennial event that was postponed from 2020 due to COVID-19, is set to take place Oct. 2 to 20 in Warsaw, Poland. The best young pianists from all over the world will gather at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall to compete at the highest level. It opens with a gala concert on Oct. 2, to be performed by an extraordinary roster of pianists led by the legendary Martha Argerich, in a program of Schumann, Bach and Beethoven. Talk about starting off with a bang — a beautifully pianistic bang that is.

Of the 500+ aspiring young artists from all corners of the world who applied to take part through submission of audition tapes, 164 were chosen to compete in the Preliminaries last July, in the Chamber Hall of the Warsaw Philharmonic. Through the process of elimination, 87 have qualified for the main event, with competitors from Armenia, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Spain, Thailand, USA, UK, and Vietnam.

The Jury Panel as expected is stellar, with such big names as Martha Argerich, Sa Chen, Dang Thai Son, Nelson Freire, Krzysztof Jablonski, and many others. The sessions take place in the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, concluding with a Grand Awards Gala. There’ll be a winners’ concert at the Teatr Wielki, the Polish National Opera House. The top winner will be awarded the Gold Medal and the First Prize of €40,000, not to mention an important jump start to an international career.

Canada had an excellent showing at the last competition in 2015. Charles Richard-Hamelin was awarded the Silver Medal and the Krystian Zimerman Prize. Another Canadian, Tony Yike Yang, garnered 5th Prize, and at the age of 16, became the youngest laureate of the Competition. This time around, Canada is fielding a very strong team again. The five candidates are J J Jun Li Bui, Eric Guo, Bruce Xiaoyu Liu, Victoria Wong, and Lingfei Stephan Xie.

If it appears unusual that all five are Chinese Canadians, it simply underscores the success of Chinese (and other Asian nationals) in the world of piano competitions. This year, there are 22 Chinese, 14 Japanese, and 7 Korean candidates going to Warsaw. Historically, Chinese pianist have had tremendous successes there. The great Fou T’song leapt to fame after winning Third Prize in 1955. He went on to a wonderful international career, concertizing worldwide, including several appearances in Canada. Sadly, he passed away last December in London of COVID-19 at age 86. Yundi Li won the 2000 Edition at the tender age of 18.

Piano fans in Toronto are getting a preview of the five excellent Canadian candidates this week. The Li Delun Music Foundation, a major supporter of classical music in the Chinese Canadian community, is sponsoring recitals by four of the five Canadians in Toronto. (The fifth competitor, Bruce Liu, is unable to be in Toronto). The recitals take place in the Toronto Artists’ Club, a 100-seat auditorium located in a private home. Due to social distancing, attendance is limited to only 33 invited guests.

I had the good fortune of attending the first of the recital series on Sunday. The pianist was 19-year-old Eric Guo, a second-year student of Professor John O’Connor at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Despite his youth, he has already amassed an impressive CV, having won competitions in Canada, USA, and Russia. He combines prodigious technique with uncommon musicality, which has served him well in past competitions. You can sample his artistry in various video clips on YouTube:

Ms. Li Yan, the spokeswoman for the Li Delun Foundation, welcomed the audience and introduced the host Mr. Chan, as well as pianist Leonard Gilbert, a previous winner of the Canadian Chopin Competition who represented Canada in Warsaw in 2010. Gilbert made brief remarks about his experiences in Warsaw, and then we got down to business. Guo played a generous recital, with well over an hour of etudes, scherzos, waltzes, preludes, mazurkas, a fantasie and a sonata. There were even two encores: a nocturne, and the virtuosic Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante, a monumental work that often serves as the centrepiece of a recital, here offered as an encore bon-bon!

The talented Eric Guo is just one of five immensely gifted young pianists representing Canada in Warsaw — we are in for a treat. For a preview, here’s the archived video of the Preliminaries last July, available on the Competition’s own website here, as well as on YouTube.

Not to be missed.

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Joseph So
Joseph So
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