While winning piano competitions can seem like an end in itself, it is more often the beginning of a career as a professional soloist.
Not all winners build on their triumph, but that is not the case with Canadian Avan Yu, currently reining winner of the most recent Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia.
Yu has returned to play in Australia several times since his win in 2012 – always to critical acclaim – while acknowledging his growing maturity through expanded repertoire and deeper understanding of the music he’s playing.
Although a stunning performer at the keyboard, Avan Yu is busy away from it too. He spends time talking to young people about music, often at schools; he’s as comfortable behind a microphone as he is looking down on the eighty-eight keys of a grand piano.
He combined both skills at a recital he gave for the Willoughby based Theme & Variations Foundation on Sunday 17 May, where a select audience of the foundation’s supporters were treated to a thoughtful commentary along with spectacular piano playing.
He began with Schumann’s Arabesque in C major, Op 18, perfectly capturing the feeling of longing that pervades so much of Schumann’s music. Yu explained, in his preamble, that this piece was written at a time when Robert’s chances of marrying Clara were looking decidedly bleak.
He followed the Arabesque with Scriabin’s Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor, a piece from the composer’s earlier period before his style went atonal. It begins with lyric romanticism but then develops dramatic complexity, placing increasing demands on the soloist. Yu revelled in the challenge of the two movements, never losing shape or focus under the growing barrage of single notes, forte chords and driving rhythms.
Next up was Ravel’s La Valse, first written for orchestra, then for piano four hands. It came into its own as a recital warhorse when Ravel adapted it for solo piano. Always in the idiom of French impressionism, this is a piece which tests the stamina and power of any pianist. A Viennese waltz breaks clear of early mist and we are in a grand ballroom of twirling dancers until (to use Yu’s words) the waltz begins to fragment until it turns into dance macabre. The technical demands of La Valse just keep building until it seems that every note on the piano is being struck. In a word, Yu nailed it, bringing a roar of approval from the audience, many of whom said they’d never heard a better live performance of this piece.
After a brief cool-off, Avan Yu again took up the microphone to walk his audience through Robert Schumann’s famous Carnival, a collection of 21 short pieces sketching people and places. Yu’s knowledge of the meaning behind every segment of Carnival was as impressive as his performance when he sat down to play it without interruption. The interpretation was in turn spirited and wistful as the music directed.
And that might been the end of a superb concert, but there was more. The audience wanted an encore, which brought Yu back to the piano with his own soft version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It stopped the clock, bringing some members of the audience to tears. As the crowd filed out I asked Avan Yu when I could hear it again. “Probably never,” he said with a smile. “It is my improvisation. I may never play it that way again.”
Such is the path of extraordinary talent.