Lativian musician woos Worthing audience

FRESH new originally-shaped denim jacket and jeans with a lime green top and scarf: "I'm from Latvia," answered the slightly glamorously-dressed woman as she served me in my favourite Worthing West End food corner store.

Why was I unsurprised? Probably for the same reason I sensed an uncanny inevitability about the first Sussex International Piano Competition's top prize going to that Baltic nation this month.

As the first winner, Arta Arnicane became the second Latvian that Worthing has recently taken to their hearts.

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The first was Worthing Thunder basketball star Janis Ivanovskis.

Like he (29), she (27) is from the capital, Riga '” the noble architecture of which appears on several box packages at my shopping haunt.

There was no question she should have won.

Sussex International Piano Competition

Nor any doubt that there should be another Sussex International Piano Competition with the fine Worthing Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Gibbons joining in the final, and the Assembly Hall staging both the semi-final recitals and the concerto final.

The inaugural occasion alerted the classical music world.

David Mawson

David Mawson, the outgoing organiser of the famous Leeds Piano Competition and the current artistic director of Harrogate Festival, watched as Arnicane took the Blthner Pianos-sponsored principal cheque of 5,000 from a starting field of nearly 100 entrants.

Jury member Louise-Andre Baril, a concert pianist and teacher at Montreal Conservatory explained: "We were looking for the same thing '” artistry, sound, personality, technical ability and feeling for the music.

"It is very rare to have all of those qualities but it was very obvious that Arta had the most.

"It has been a marvellous experience for me.

"It's quite an endeavour and to have had such a high level of competitors in this first competition is amazing.

"I'm so honoured: I feel like a little part of history.

"I really applaud Worthing Symphony Orchestra conductor John Gibbons for having worked so hard.

"He seems to have done five jobs at once. He's been tremendous."

Jessica Wei Zhu

The Chinese-American girl, Jessica Wei Zhu, 23, was third (500) after winning the audience's official vote and (after the voting) their hearts with an impromptu party piece during her post performance interview.

For the final, Arnicane picked Bartok's delightfully entertaining Third Piano Concerto and Wei Zhu the First by Liszt.

Both gave winning semi-final solo programmes.

Arnicane's was a substantial combination of Beethoven (his Seventh Sonata) and Franck (Prelude, Chorale and Fugue) with a brief but brilliant study by Ligeti (No 10, The Sorcerer's Apprentice) in between.

Beethoven's Sonata

Beethoven's Sonata was dedicated to Countess de Browne '” and Arnicane won in a strapless satin, embroidered gown in a chocolate colour.

Her interpretation of this early great work, written just before the Pathtique Sonata, secured for her the competition's Beethoven Prize.

In her quarter-final at the Royal Academy, she had played Chopin's Fantasy in F minor, and Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, a test-case in imagination as well as playing technique.

She said: "This has been one of my life's amazing days."

Now studying piano in Zurich after two years in Moscow, she continued: "I could not prepare pieces for performance that I didn't enjoy.

"I'm always trying to programme what pleases me.

"It's difficult to picture a piece that's not in your heart. All are my favourites.

"I love everything about the Beethoven. The Franck corresponds with my mood '” a bit melancholic '” but it's got amazing beauty and power.

"The Ligeti is hard to memorise. It's very complicated. I love music that contains deeper ideas."

Wei Zhu

Wei Zhu played four items of impressively ranging scope linked by the impulse of fantasy.

She moved from Beethoven's rarely-heard Rage Over A Lost Penny, through Ravel waltzes and a Liszt Trancendental Study ,to American composer John Corigliano's 1976 Etude Fantasy.

In her quarter-final she gave a Haydn Sonata (in C, Hoboken XVI 52) and Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations.

"I enjoy what I'm doing"

A current Guildhall College of Music student in London, she said: "I chose these pieces just because I love them. I smile when I play because I enjoy what I'm doing.

"The Corigliano has a lot of raw energy that I can really relate to. The William Bolcom piece that I played an extract of in the interview just makes you want to get up and dance."

Alexei Chernov

Splitting them, in second place (winning 1,000), was a Russian 27-year-old, Alexei Chernov.

After his quarter-final of a Bach Toccata, Liszt's Funerailles and Scarbo from Ravels' Gaspard, his dark intensity continued full-on in the semi-final with a Bartok Etude which ran also immediately into Scriabin's great Fifth Sonata, then after a brief pause, a Purcell Suite for keyboard, and unrelentingly into Schumann's Symphonic Etudes.

Arnicane rewarded the ear, mind and heart with music of depth and moment, depiction, wit and invention.

Wei Zhu entertained with the breadth and colour of adventure in her choices.

Both conveyed enjoyment as well as involvement in their playing.

Chernov was all weight and import, and his repertoire lacked the girls' variety and joy.

For his concerto choice, he is at present deeply into one of the longest and most difficult, Rackhamaninov's Third in D minor.

Standing ovation

It was huge, the piano required almost all the subsequent 20-minute interval to be re-tuned by Worthing ace David Guy, it brought from some a standing ovation, and it exhausted Chernov.

So began some late drama. The Muscovite politely declined his post-concerto interview, sought some fresh air and apparently disappeared down to the pier and seafront to unwind.

He feared one slip in the first movement had cost him his chance of repeating his November victory in Madrid (whose orchestra, he told me, compared highly unfavourably with the WSO).

Wei Zhu's concerto and her highly entertaining interview came and went, the jury retired to deliberate and when they asked for the contestants to join them for a private conveyance of the result, there was still no sign of Chernov.

The London-based globetrotting father of three (his family is back in Moscow) had not found retracing his steps simple, so all were kept waiting.

At last, the distinguished international jury paraded in and lined up on the stage, plus the mayor and his consort, Nol and Helena Lulu Atkins, and one of his fellow patrons, Doreen Wells, the former London ballerina, now Marchioness of Londonderry.

Georgian Yelena Beriyeva

Georgian Yelena Beriyeva's recital included a reading of the Opus 118 Piano Pieces so impressive that the jury created a Brahms Prize for her.

The 28-year-old, now from Boston, USA, was a semi-finalist, she included Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, and lined up, if she had reached the final, was Brahms' D minor Concerto. Might the Worthing audience hear this from her another day?

Her mother is a former concert pianist and Beriyeva said: "I love playing powerful music. And my dream is to live in Europe, because of the culture and the architecture."

There was a British Music Prize and of the only two Britons in the last 37, Simon Watterton, 28, was the recipient.

His quarter-final comprised Haydn's E minor Sonata (Hob XVI 34), Howard Ferguson's Five Bagatelles, and Liszt's Sposalizio, which was inspired by the Leonardo da Vinci painting of the Annunciation.

His semi-final would have been a Handel Suite, Beethoven's Ab Sonata Opus 110 and Frederic Anthony Rzewski's Down By The Riverside.

Chernov's Funerailles won him the Franz Liszt Prize. He has made 10 competition finals and won five, and was a Leeds semi-finalist in September.

Players of such calibre could be hitting the Assembly Hall stage in another such event.

There are few other provincial venues with a resident orchestra and an audience that can warm to something like this.

We shall see '” in two years' time.

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