Triumph in the 4th Sussex International Piano Competition in Worthing

The grand final was held in the Assembly Hall, Worthing with Worthing Symphony Orchestra; John Gibbons, conductor, competition co-founder and artistic director.

SIPC Winner Yi-Yang Chen at the piano, with fellow finalists and past winners (pic Andrew Mardell)
SIPC Winner Yi-Yang Chen at the piano, with fellow finalists and past winners (pic Andrew Mardell)

Result, with concertos played in the Grand Final:

1st Prize, Yi-Yang Chen (Taiwan, age 27), Beethoven No 4. Wins £5,000 from Bowerman Charitable Trust and a CD recording for Champs Hill Records.

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2nd Prize, Sofya Bugayan (Russia, 36), Tchaikovsky No 1. Wins £2,000.

3rd, Rhythmie Wong (Hong Kong, 26), Chopin No 1. Wins £1,000 from Gisela Graham Ltd.

Yi-Yang Chen also received the Audience Prize (from Helena and Tim Chick) and the Orchestra’s Prize Nomination. All three receive engagements of a concerto with WSO and an Interview Concert at St Paul’s Worthing. The William Alwyn Test Piece Prize (The Devil’s Reel): Daniel Evans (Bristol, UK).

The presence of two former SIPC winners on the jury, Arta Arnicane (2010) and Varvara Tarasova (2015), continues the competition’s veer away from stiff, commonplace, old professorial conservatoire towards a younger, more individually subjective and dynamic judgment.

In Andrew Mardell’s picture: Yi-Yang Chen sits at the Steinway surrounded by Arta Arnicane, Rhythmie Wong, Varvara Tarasova and Sofya Bugayan.

All competitors are selected as anonymities from unnamed CDs of their playing. At the prize-giving, Gibbons asserted the SIPC’s principal ethos of transparency of examination and judgment if performance from a jury unweighted by assertions of academic status, interested parties or underhand agenda. But he hinted at the opposite present in even topmost British competitions.

Artistic flair, quality of programming and the ability to connect with the audience, married to obvious technical ability. That was the Jury criteria that sorted the wheat from the chaff. And the 4th Sussex International Piano Competition went to work in its Grand Final session on Sunday.

After three days of hearing 18 starting pianists from many global time-zones , four of the five continents and both hemispheres, the fourth action day brought the last reckoning: a piano concerto for the three pianists left standing, with Worthing Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor and Competition co-founder John Gibbons.

So came to fruition the immense labour of volunteer administrators Tim Chick, Gill Tucker and Jill Silversides, the meticulous technical preparations of Gibbons and orchestra parts librarian Eddie Hurcombe, and the dedicated hospitality of the host people and families in creating the SIPC’s humane welcome to competitors that is unusual and distinctive on the world piano competition circuit.

The Sussex International Piano Competition is a week-long, all-Worthing invention and production. Nothing else represents the town to the outside world on this man-made and cultural scale. And if ‘Sunny Worthing’ is the operative sobriquet, something appropriate happened this year. The sun shone generously on all but one day – and the winner had it in his name. Yang means ‘sun’.

‘Made in Taiwan’ now has a new stamp of quality for Worthing’s music following, after Yi-Yang Chen, who left his country 10 years ago when 17, came and conquered from a teaching post in Johnson City’s East Tennessee University with a Juilliard School masters degree from New York.

His carefully-chosen and interpreted music, including his own composition conveying the impact on him of the 2011 Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant catastrophe, did not win the first six furlongs. But his concerto, Beethoven’s 4th, won the last two and took him to victory.

Rhythmie Wong, from Hong Kong but studying in Cologne, Germany, reached the final as the musical heartthrob though the Competition’s solo stages. Expected finalist Alon Petrrilin of Israel was edged out in the Semi-Finals by the oldest competitor in an open-aged event. The 36-year-old Sofya Bugayan set a record at the Rachmaninov Conservatoire in her hometown Rostov-on-Don in Russia as its youngest piano professor. That was 10 years ago and she has hardly played a single competition since.

The first to play in the Grand Final was Wong. She went with Chopin’s 1st Concerto but her presence in the music was too dynamically self-contained to prevent Bugayan’s powerful but harnessed Tchaikovsky No 1 surpassing her. However, a small patch of inaccuracy from the Russian in the crucial opening of the finale probably helped lay First Prize on a platter for Chen – if he could take it.

He could, and did, with an admirably rounded reading of Beethoven’s 4th, balanced skilfully, emotionally and intellectually between the tingling elan of the prolific bravura work, the excitement generated in that momentum, and the overall poetry of the composer’s intent. And Chen’s frequent looks towards audience in key passages worked his own extra connectivity.

The WSO were in superlative form throughout and in Tchaikovsky rose to one magnificently memorable lift-off moment in the strings, in the finale, which blossomed in a passage of Bolshoic Swan Lake intensity and passion.

These three, ultimately the best of the pack will return to Worthing to show further dimensions of their artistry. They will each play another concerto with WSO during the coming concert seasons, and also guest at their own solo Worthing Symphony Society Interview Concert when – during conversations and performances in a uniquely intimate audience atmosphere – they will reveal themselves as the Sussex IPC’s latest role models to aspiring youth in Worthing and Sussex.

Richard Amey

To read Yi-Yang Chen’s special interview, email [email protected]

The next Interview Concert, artiste to be decided, will be in the autumn.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti will open Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s next season with the Sibelius Concerto on September 2 and then a first for Worthing Assembly Hall: mindful of its special acoustic, Idil Biret has chosen to record with WSO, live for Naxos, Mozart’s Concertos Nos 25 & 27 on September 30 (both concerts at 2.45pm).

Other WSO 2018-19 dates: November 4, January 6, February 7, March 10, April 7, May 5 (all at 2.45 except February 7).