Dallas — Sixteen-year-old Australian Shuan Hern Lee pulled himself to the front of the pack Wednesday night in the concluding performance of the recital portion of the 2019 Cliburn Junior International Competition at Caruth Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
Lee launched his bid by turning the opening statement of Canadian virtuoso-composer Marc-André Hamelin’s Toccata on “L’homme armé” into a volley that sounded more like multiple crashing cymbals than notes on a piano. This four-minute musical essay, which was the required work especially commissioned for the 2017 Cliburn Competition, offers numerous hurdles—and opportunities to shine—for any pianist who dares to take it on.
But it became something even more in Lee’s capable hands.
While any pianist who attempts the Toccata on “L’homme armé” necessarily possesses fingers of steel for the passage-work, Lee has the pianistic muscle to bring a huge volume range to the work, as well as the taste and temperament to control that volume.
Additionally, Lee clearly sensed and communicated a cultural value in the work. The underlying melody “L’homme armé” (“The Armed Man”) is a medieval popular tune—a Top 40 hit from the 1460s, you might say—that bespeaks an era of violence, uncertainty, and new possibility in Europe in its jaunty, ear-catching melody. Whether or not Lee was consciously thinking of the late-fifteenth-century historical scene, he captured an aura of darkness and turbulence in this twenty-first century treatment of a musical fragment from our inherited past.
Lee circled back to Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor (Op. 48, No. 1), one of that composer’s most striking structural achievements, with its mournful main theme leading relentlessly into a rising storm. Once again, Lee demonstrated just the right level of intensity, never teetering overboard into note-pounding in the noisier passages, while finding a perfect singing tone for the lyrical passages as well.
Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata (one of the three aptly nicknamed “War” Sonatas of Prokofiev, composed during World War II and reflective of the violence of that era), followed. This work demands relentless stamina and the ability to apply restraint in the midst of thunderous piano writing in the first and third of the three movements, both of which Lee tossed off with apparent ease. Equally challenging, however, is the ability to maintain focus and intensity in the middle “Andante caloroso” movement, which Lee again achieved.
The Prokofiev, with its closing exclamation of fortissimo B-flat octaves, has long been a favorite of piano competition performers, and would have left a strong concluding impression for Lee by itself. Lee chose, however, to add to his program yet another monument of piano showmanship in the form of Balakirev’s exotic Islamey, a landmark of Russian romanticism, overflowing with gorgeous tunes decorated with technical fireworks. Lee once again demonstrated style, technique, and depth and breadth of musical imagination.
Beginning with a set of Bartók Etudes in the preliminary round, continuing with well-shaped performances of major works of Haydn and J.S. Bach in the quarterfinal round, and moving easily across the board of romantic and contemporary music in this round, Lee has demonstrated a versatility and power beyond that of any other competitor who has advanced this far.
Sixteen-year-old Chun Lam U of Hong Kong had opened the evening with a sturdy performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18 in E-flat (Op. 31, No. 3). U captured the intriguing, almost coy hesitancy with which Beethoven opens this Sonata, before flowing smoothly into the consistent good humor and cheerfulness of this three-movement work. U then achieved a sweetly soft coda in Chopin’s Barcarolle before closing with American composer Gabriela Frank’s Nocturno Nazqueño of 2017. Frank, who is of Peruvian, Chinese, and eastern European Jewish descent, pays tribute to the ancient Nazca culture (located in what is now Peru) in this Nocturne, which provided a striking and entirely unique contribution to the repertoire of the competition; U here built up the necessary concentration to hold together this rhapsodic structure, characterized by rising and falling intensity.
Canadian J. J. Jun Li Bui, 14, the second performer of the evening, opened with Hamelin’s aforementioned Toccata on “L’homme armé”; he aimed for and achieved a burst of sunrise in the final cascade of notes. He followed with a pair of Chopin works, traveling smoothly through the treacherous right-hand parallel thirds in the Etude in G-sharp minor (Op. 25, No. 6) and producing a smoldering warmth in the Ballade No. 4.
Bui also took a turn at providing something different for the competition’s repertoire, in his case with Russian pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev’s Concert Suite from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, in which seven movements from the beloved ballet are arranged with Lisztian panache for piano.
» You can watch a live stream of the competition at Cliburn.org.
» Follow our coverage of the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition in our special section, here.