The Show Must Go On. Piano Competitions During a Pandemic.


Siqian Li in rehearsal at St James’s Church, Bayswater.

Even during a pandemic, one of the world’s premier piano competitions continues. The contestants who have come through for the 2021 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition can be seen here:

The final rounds take place in live concert at Tel Aviv between 29th April-3rd May this year.

It is an early March evening and I have come to see one of those contestants, pianist, Siqian Li, rehearse her Tel Aviv programme in St James’s Church in Bayswater. To go through Stage 1 and 2, she will have to perform remotely from a studio in London. Other locations on offer: Beijing, Potsdam, New York or Tel Aviv. 

The handsome grand piano is in position, up on a raised stage. I sit down in a pew, a couple of rows back, and quickly glance at her programme. Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Mozart Variations as a little digestif,and some contemporary works to really test the pianist’s powers of interpretation.

She starts with a completely new work by Yoram Meyouhaus. Toccata Caprice is a compulsory piece for the 2021 contest. Highly rhythmic, it demands not only great strength and stamina but incredible dexterity. Siqian gives a polished performance as I would expect her to. She is down to the last thirty-five players in the world after all. On the competition website, you can see the pedigree of those who had made it thus far. There is so much talent on display and I think of all the hoops these artists have had to jump through to make Tel Aviv.

Twenty-eight-year-old Siqian has spent the last three months practising intensively. Her teacher has been guiding her online, and, as you can imagine, the two have gone through the scores with a fine toothcomb. What has made the task all the harder, is that Siqian has had to find a concert piano to practise on, which is well-nigh impossible in a time of pandemic! The Royal College of Music practice rooms have been closed throughout lockdown. If St James’s Church hadn’t extended its hand, (it is well known as a concert venue for young musicians), Siqian would have been stuck. And what is more, it is around the corner from where she lives. As she can only play at night this is a happy coincidence.

After a brief pause, Siqian starts to play her signature piece, Scriabin’s Fantasy Op 28. I have seen her play it online. It is that performance and others that have brought me here tonight. The brooding opening is just gorgeous. So Russian, and Russian repertoire suits her temperament. I am swept up with the swirling energy of the piece. I wonder at the physical and mental stamina required to play it (largely fuelled by dark chocolate in Siqian’s case!) And this is just one work. She has seven to perform. 

I get up to applaud her Scriabin.  The excitement she has brought to the piece has my heart racing and it takes a moment to slow. 

Siqian is shaking her head, however. She rushes over to her music and points to the score. Didn’t you notice my mistake?’

I hadn’t.

She pauses her laptop and I-phone recording the performance and flops down on the front pew.

I try to reassure her from a few feet away. We live in an age of pristine musical recordings. Perfectionism – the bane of the soloist’s life.

She returns to complete the rest of her concert programme: Chopin Rondo, some beautifully executed Bagatelles by Carl Vine and Rachmaninov’s Preludes. Oh – and Liszt’s demanding Rhapsody No.2.

This time Siqian runs through the programme with more awareness. She got a little too emotional with the Scriabin. It often happens with professional pianists. When she reaches the Rachmaninov Preludes, she is on the home run, and here I realise that this is the work I have come for tonight. If I were judge, I would crown her right now!

If Siqian gets to the finals, she performs with orchestra and chamber ensemble in Tel Aviv and all will be televised. The earlier rounds will be aired online for the whole world to take notice. Siqian has quite a few piano competitions under her belt. She was semi-finalist at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2018 and before the pandemic hit, she had collected quite a few prizes the world over.

At my time of writing, Siqian is recording in a studio in Greenwich. Only one take is allowed. You can imagine the tension. I wish her and the other contestants well.


Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition

Siqian Li in her ‘Meet the Artist’ Interview

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