INTERVIEW | Pianists Bruce Liu And Kevin Ahfat Share Insights For OSM Competition Finalists

By Anya Wassenberg on October 6, 2022

Bruce Liu (Photo: ©Yanzhang); Kevin Ahfat (Photo: ©Donald van Hasselt Photography)
Bruce Liu (Photo: ©Yanzhang); Kevin Ahfat (Photo: ©Donald van Hasselt Photography)

In partnership with The OSM Competition

The OSM competition comes at a crucial point in the career of young classical music artists. It can serve as a bridge from student recitals to launching a successful career as a performing artist.

Pianist Bruce Liu, who notably went on to win the XVIII International Chopin Piano Competition in 2021, got his first Grand Prize at the OSM Competition in 2012. Kevin Ahfat, another pianist, placed second in the OSM Competition of 2018. He went on to win the Orford Music Prize and has since carved a career as a solo performer, chamber musician and recording artist.

We talked with the two former competitors whose OSM experience led to starting a professional career.

The Conversation

Going into the competition was a pivotal decision for both young musicians. Bruce Liu’s rapid and headline-making success has become an established fact, but his focus on music wasn’t always a given. As a young teenager, he was distracted by many different activities. “I had a lot of hobbies when I was young,” he says. That included swimming, chess, and various sports. “I wasn’t the guy who would always be practising,” he laughs. Entering the OSM competition came at just the right time to spark motivation. “At the start, it was one of the ten hobbies I had. This really kept me interested.”

“I think this is a good way to not have this pressure and let this interest grow naturally,” he says, “but then at that juncture, it put everything into sharp focus. So I’m very fortunate to have these things happen.”

After advice from teachers and looking at his schedule, he made the decision. “I just started doing junior competitions in the States, and I thought it was a good idea to combine them,” he says. A look at the repertoire, jury members, and the chance to play with l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, an orchestra he’d grown up with, convinced him. “Last but not least, the prize,” he points out. “It was also so close — in my hometown of Montréal.”

“I think at that time, what matters for me — for any young talent — [were] the opportunities available for me.” It proved to be a valuable learning process. “I had a real chance to explore how the stage life really is,” Bruce said. “I was 15 and just kind of started.”

For Kevin, the timing was also fortuitous. “I had recently moved back to my hometown of Toronto in 2018 after nearly 20 years away, and entering this competition felt like a good way to hit the ground running right when I arrived,” Kevin says. “The OSM competition is certainly very special among Canadians, and it was something that I definitely wanted to be a part of.”

Competition means challenges of various kinds. For Bruce, it was learning a new piece in a short time frame. “We all had to play a Canadian piece,” he recalls. That included memorizing it. “I remember that was a little challenging.”

Kevin also remembers learning the Canadian work. “I have some distinct memories of the required Canadian work being quite the rhythmic and technical challenge, and remember putting a lot of work into that piece during that week. I was lucky that it paid off!”

Playing in a large venue like the Maison symphonique for the finals was also a new and valuable experience. Bruce recalls projecting the sound as a concern. “I think that was even harder somehow; every collaboration, every fail can be heard.”

“The Maison symphonique is a truly remarkable stage and hall, and I really treasure the time I had up on that stage,” Kevin recalls. “It has such a glorious, big, warm sound, but it’s also a place where one can afford to really whisper and not be afraid to be intimate with certain colours. It is a remarkable place.”

Jury feedback is part of the process. “I very much appreciated receiving written comments from the entire jury in all rounds, which certainly doesn’t happen in most larger competition settings — especially if you don’t have a chance to speak with the jury,” Kevin notes. “While I’m sure a lot of work for the jury, it was really nice to have written feedback to go back to and learn from, and having a physical reference is very convenient.”

“I think maybe because I won, the jury was trying to be very polite,” Bruce says. It led to valuable connections, including with jury member and Executive Director, Performing Arts of the RCM, Mervon Mehta. He calls it the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship. “It’s just to get out of the zone and meet people,” he says.

In Bruce’s year, the prize included a master class at Banff, one that gave him a broader perspective on the music business. “It’s different than what young people think.”

For Kevin, the competition placement opened doors of opportunity. “I had a chance to return to the Maison symphonique for a solo recital the year following (right before the pandemic), and I always treasure any moment spent at the beautiful Place des arts,” he says. “After winning the prize for Best Performance of the Required Canadian Work, I also had a chance to connect with the composer, Patrick Carrabré. The competition has opened up a door for performances in Montréal and elsewhere at festivals in Québec, for which I’m most grateful! Hoping to return soon.”

Kevin’s advice for the semifinalists is to stay loose. “The advice I find the most useful in these scenarios is to relax and keep the focus on having a good time onstage because if you’re enjoying yourself, the jury will too,” he says. “It’s especially important mentally to let go of things you can’t control — of which there are many in the competition format. Trying to treat it like a concert rather than a competition tends to lessen the pressure for me.”

Bruce offered similar thoughts. “I think it’s just to forget that you’re in a competition — that you really feel like you’re playing in a concert season,” he says. He advises the participants to simply focus on the usual: performance and playing. “It doesn’t have a really competitive atmosphere,” he says. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” As a pianist, he sees a mental advantage. “We don’t need to think of it as a competitive thing — we’re the only one on stage. I think at the end, I would say, of course, we unconsciously think of others, but I think your real enemy is yourself. Forget about it, and focus on every detail as you usually would,” he added.

“It’s a platform.”

The OSM Competition

The 83rd edition of the OSM Competition is set to take place from November 8 to 12, 2022, featuring a return to the live stage after two years of virtual performances. During the finals this year, the candidates will perform alongside the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under the baton of Jacques Lacombe.

New to the competition this year will be a special event focusing on the work of J.S. Bach. The semifinalists will compete for a cash prize of $5,000.

That special prize comes in addition to the prize package of more than $100K in cash awards, training and performance opportunities.

The Semifinalists

The list of semifinalists going into the next round is:

  • Nicole Wu (Ontario, 18)
  • Jessica Yuma (Alberta, 19)Godwin Friesen (Ontario, 24)
  • Vincent Wu (Ontario, 23)
  • Jean-Christophe Melançon (Québec, 24)
  • Hamilton Lau (British Columbia, 19)
  • Joshua Wong (Québec, 19)
  • Jaeden Izik-Dzurko (British Columbia, 19)
  • Victoria Wong (Ontario, 25)

Here’s the competition schedule, with free admission to the semifinal and J.S. Bach special rounds and tickets available for the finals:

  • November 8 & 9: Semifinal round at the Tanna Schulich Hall at McGill University and announcement of the 3 finalists.
  • November 11: J.S. Bach special round at the Tanna Schulich Hall at McGill University.
  • November 12: Final round with the orchestra at the Maison symphonique.

For more details on the OSM Competition, including tickets, see here.

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