Published: November 2007
Finalists:
Classical: Tony O’Brien – Gil Jetley – Dominic Piers Smith
Jazz: Andy Quin – Will Michael – Howard Wolfin

Juries:
Classical: Piers Lane – Noriko Ogawa – Martin Roscoe – Barry Wordsworth
Jazz: Jamie Cullum – Julian Joseph – Jason Rebello – Gwilym Simcock

Saturday 17 November 2007
Cadogan Hall, London

Two years ago “Pianist Magazine” and Yamaha Music launched a competition to seek out the best amateur pianists. This was the second such occasion. Those entering had to submit a recording and the field was narrowed to twenty competitors. The semi-finals then whittled this down to the final six: three being ‘classical’ pianists and three being ‘jazz’.

It is debatable whether Cadogan Hall provides an ideal atmosphere for the ‘jazz’ pianists; given its repetitive nature one suspects that a darkened room and a drink would have lent this music the ‘something’ it required. I am convinced more than ever that the classical repertoire offers more to performers and listeners.

Taking the ‘classical’ prize was Dominic Piers Smith. He played Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ (Préludes, Book I) and Chopin’s F minor Ballade. He certainly looked the part, the only one of the six in white tie. His playing was (mostly) accurate and, particularly in the Debussy piece, controlled, with a meditative quality. In the more expansive Chopin, by contrast, he was rather too comfortable in places, with little exploration of the musical ideas. The final episode rushed but lacked thrust and energy. Nonetheless, as an amateur, and one who has a busy, full-time job as an aerodynamic-design team-leader with Honda Formula One, this was an accomplished performance.

In addition to the ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ prize, awarded by their respective juries, there was an ‘audience prize’, which was also won by Smith.

Close behind Smith, I would like to think, was Tony O’Brien, who gave Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor (Opus 23/Number 5) and Chopin’s E minor Scherzo. O’Brien was nervous – there were missed and wrong notes – but he also had the most to ‘say’ about the music, especially the Chopin, and the Rachmaninov came from the heart while the fanciful delights of the Chopin abounded with O’Brien achieving a level of calm and tranquillity that was quite transporting.

Gil Jetley’s offered a light-footed account of Scarlatti’s Sonata in F (Kk17) and a down-to-earth rendition of Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. Most of the notes were hit accurately but the required passion, tragedy and love were absent, whereas the ‘Du und Du’ from “Die Fledermaus” (as transcribed by Ernö Dohnányi) was loud and too ‘black-and-white’.

Will Michael took the ‘jazz’ prize. I found this rather surprising as all that he offered sounded very similar, whereas the other two competitors gave more-varied music. Michael’s was a long recital, too, or it seemed so, and it was daring that he offered his own piece (Four Bars For Bill). ‘Four bars’ does not refer to musical bars, unfortunately, and it was difficult to detect four of anything, so singular was the piece, an indulgent, rambling stream of notes.

Michael brought what the other two jazz competitors did not: engagement with the audience, which is vital to success in any jazz environment, although that didn’t stop On Green Dolphin Street becoming dreary. The ‘jazz’ prize seemed the best on offer: being able to perform with Julian Joseph and his band at a London jazz venue. (The ‘classical’ winner plays a concerto-movement with the Royal Philharmonic.)

Andy Quin seemed the least amateur – from his biography he seems to inhabit the hinterland towards professionalism. Tiger Rag had the ups and downs of a roller-coaster but Gershwin’s I got Rhythm did not, and found Quin giving a contrived performance. Howard Wolfin provided two very familiar pieces out of his four: ‘Danny Boy’ (really Londonderry Air) and Lennon & McCartney’s Norwegian Wood. The recognition factor always helps a competitor but On the Sunny Side of the Street lacked sparkle with any emphasis forced.

What is admirable in all cases is the dedication of amateurs to put themselves up for judgement. It takes a brave man (they were all men here!) to do this. The next competition is in 2009.

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