Arts / Gruelling week awaits Chopin players

Chopin Piano Competition entrant Alexander Yau… “It’s not just the big piece. I have to play a lot of short works – you have to make each work special by itself.”

THE ANU School of Music will soon echo to the sounds of the Third Australian International Chopin Piano Competition, and it has the reputation of being just about the most gruelling of its kind.

Book-ended with a spectacular opening concert on September 10 and the finals on September 17, when concerti by the famous Polish composer will be accompanied by the Acacia Quartet, the opening rounds, semi-finals and finals combine to make up an unmissable series of recitals for connoisseurs.

The competition begins at Llewellyn Hall on September 10 with a gala performed by one of the judges, Prof Ewa Pobłocka from the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin in Poland, who will also be giving a public masterclass with three students.

Chopin Piano Competition entrant Alexander Yau.

It progresses through rounds one and two to the semi-finals in Llewellyn Hall and finishes up with the finals, jury deliberations and prize-giving in Llewellyn Hall on Sunday, September 17.

The winner of the $25,000 first prize, donated by the Pratt Foundation, will later perform at the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne Parliament House, back in Canberra and at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane, while the second and third prize-winners will stay here to provide masterclasses for piano students in the region.

To Alexander Yau, a 22-year-old pianistic prodigy and honours student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the daunting seven-day competition ahead is grist to his artistic mill.

He’s one of 16 finalists from Australia, Europe, the US and Asia who’ll will be in town to compete for their share of $40,000 in prizes.

Last year he won the $10,000 Theme & Variations Foundation Award, but this year has been relatively quiet so far for the pianist billed as a “young prodigy” by the Canberra International Music Festival, where he performed a lunchtime concert earlier this year.

Mind you, played at the European Chamber Music Summer School in Verona and performed with the NSW Youth Orchestra, but mostly it’s been head down, learning the big Chopin Concerto no 1 in E minor Opus 11, while completing his honours year.

“Mine is a practice-based degree which involves playing a 50-minute solo recital at the end. And I also have to write a 10,000-word thesis,” Yau tells “CityNews” by phone from Sydney.

Ewa Pobłocka, from the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin in Poland… performing and giving a public masterclass.

As full-time student, he counts herself lucky that he won the Theme & Variations award, which helps young musicians with application fees, airfares and hotels needed to attend interstate and overseas competitions and auditions.

Probably the most testing ordeal he faces in this final year of studies is the Chopin Piano Competition.

He explains how it works: In the early rounds competitors have to play solo works by Chopin, including a mazurka, two etudes, scherzo, polonaise and ballade, as well as one other etude by either Szymanowski or Debussy and a piece by Lutowski.

Unique, he says, is the requirement to perform work by some of Chopin’s successors, such as Szymanowski, Moszkowski and Paderewski.

“Those Polish composers are not played very often so it’s good that people can hear them.”

In the semi-finals, competitors must perform either a sonata or the complete cycle of preludes. He’ll do all the preludes – 40 minutes long. As well they must play Busoni’s “10 Variations on a Chopin prelude” and a work by the Piano Competition’s winning composer, Chris Williams, based on a Chopin fugue nominated by Larry Sitsky who, with Geoffrey Lancaster, Poblocka, Charles Bodman Rae, Lucinda Collins, Anna Sleptsova and Stefan Cassomenos, is one of the judges.

If chosen as one of the three finalists, Yau will get to perform his concerto at Llewellyn Hall, accompanied by the Acacia String Quartet, joined by bassist Max McBride.

But that’s a long way off.

“It’s not just the big piece,” he says. “I have to play a lot of short works – you have to make each work special by itself.”

Australian International Chopin Piano Competition, ANU School of Music, September 10-17. All program and booking details at


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