Regional piano award celebrates nation’s best

Richard Watts

Held every two years in the regional Victorian city of Shepparton, the Australian National Piano Award celebrates exquisite music played at the highest standard.
Regional piano award celebrates nation’s best

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Featuring 14 of the nation’s finest pianists, and offering a total prize pool of $68,000 in cash and career development opportunities, the Australian National Piano Award is much more than just a music competition – it’s a celebration of artistry, interpretation and some of the world’s most exquisite music.

Held biennially in the regional city of Shepparton, the Award was first established 26 years ago as a means of accelerating Australian pianists’ careers and showcasing their exceptional talents.

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But while it honours performances of the highest calibre, the Award also recognises the strengths and sensitivities of each individual who participates.

‘There are requirements for various repertoire areas, a requirement for balanced programs and so on, but we don’t have set pieces which must be performed,’ explained Darryl Coote, President of the Australian National Piano Award.

Instead, the Award allows candidates freedom of choice in selecting works they wish to present, within set repertoire requirements.

‘So for example, the pianists will need to play a Classical period sonata, major Romantic and 20th Century works and so on, but we don’t actually say you have to play this particular Bach prelude and this particular Beethoven sonata – we feel that’s pretty boring. It’s not creative at all. And the performers who enter the Australian National Piano Award appreciate that their individual artistry is valued and that they have the opportunity to express themselves,’ Coote said.

As a result, audiences attending Shepparton in September will hear a rich array of works being performed.

‘I’ve seen the programs that the performers have submitted and it’s a very exciting smorgasbord of repertoire that covers everything from Baroque, Classic, mainstream Romantic, late Romantic, French Impressionist, earlier 20th Century and later 20th Century and avant-garde. It’s a thrilling range of repertoire including some rarely played but very major works,’ Coote explained.

Emerging international concert pianist Vatche Jambazian has returned to Australia from New York in order to participate in this year’s Australian National Piano Award, which he describes as one of the top awards in the country.

‘The freedom of repertoire is one of the aspects which really enticed me to enter. And the Australian composition element, where we have to pick a piece by an Australian composer in one of our first two rounds, is really important … It allows each performer to actually let their individuality come out through their choice of repertoire, and it makes it much easier also for the jury to actually see what the pianists can do to their full potential. It’s really great,’ Jambazian said. 

Learn more about the Australian National Piano Award

Another distinctive feature of the Award is that participants are not knocked out of the competition after the first round – each of the participating pianists performs in two rounds before either progressing through to the finals or being eliminated.

Coote explained: ‘That’s one of the things that [founding Artistic Director] Max Cooke and I looked at when we were setting up the Award, and looking at other competitions around the world, at what was working well and what wasn’t working well. Some very fine performers were knocked out on the basis of their performance after the first recital, which we didn’t like.’

He recommends that audiences come to Shepparton for a full day in order to see as many pianists as possible.

‘If they came for one days performance, they would hear I think about five, six or seven finalists, because we have an afternoon session and an evening session, and I can tell you that even the first rounds are top quality – you’ll hear stunning presentations in the first round. It’s a misconception to think “Let’s wait til the final because that will be the best part.” Yes the final is exciting of course but the first rounds are equally engaging,’ Coote said.

Keeping the audience entertained, rather than playing just for the world-class jury of adjudicators who will determine the eventual winner, is very much on Jambazian’s mind as he prepares for the competition.

Nonetheless, having previously adjudicated at The Piano Institute in Surabaya, Indonesia, Jambazian also knows what adjudicators will be looking for: ‘Clean playing, clarity and very defined playing … But I don’t think about how to play to the jury because you really have to play to the audience. Audiences don’t want to watch a machine. They’re a paying audience so it’s really just like any other concert but with the bonus of maybe winning an award – it’s a great opportunity,’ he said.

Having previously performed at the Australian National Piano Award, Jambazian said he was looking forward to returning to Shepparton in September.

‘Audiences in Shepparton are exactly the same as anywhere I’ve played in the world, in Berlin or New York or wherever. The audiences really respond in the same way because music really is a universal language and everyone hears it the same way. And it’s just great that the Award is in Shepparton; there’s something really special about the people there. Everyone is so friendly,’ he said.

‘It’s so nice coming back from New York, where everybody just thinks of themselves, to come back to somewhere like Shepparton where everyone is so warm and so accepting and open. To get that in an audience is very special.’

The Australian National Piano Award take place at the Eastbank Centre, Shepparton from 3-8 September 2018. Tickets start at $10. Visit www.australianpianoaward.com.au for booking details.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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