Each year the Watford Festival of Music, Speech and Drama holds a piano competition in memory of Christopher Duke, who lived in Watford and who died in December 1996 at the age of 26.
Christopher’s talent as an accomplished pianist and percussionist was recognised by many distinguished musicians. Before the onset of the illness that dulled his later years he won many awards, both local and national. He enjoyed taking part in the Watford Festival on numerous occasions and was a very successful competitor.
This competition is open to performers aged 16 to 25 years. They are required to give a recital, from memory, lasting 30 minutes. The recital must include a Waltz by Chopin - however, the remainder of the programme can be chosen freely by the competitor.
The prizes awarded each year are £500 to the winner, £250 to the runner-up and £150 to the contestant in third place.
We would like to thank all the contributors to the Christopher Duke Memorial Fund, whose generosity makes this event possible.
There is a non-refundable entry fee of £40 and cheques should be made payable to ‘The Watford Festival’. Online transfer details are:
Bank: HSBC / Acc name: Watford Music Festival / Sort code: 40-20-16 / Acc no: 62118351. Please add your name as a reference.
The completed entry form must be accompanied by the entrance fee of £40 plus a CD or emailed links to audio or video recordings of the entrant playing approx. 15 minutes worth of music.
Entries should be sent to the Watford International Piano Competition Administrator
A maximum of six competitors will be chosen to take part. Emails will be sent to all entrants informing them whether or not they have been chosen to take part.
Nicola Eimer - Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music
Winner of the 2005 Royal Over-Seas League Piano Competition, the British pianist Nicola Eimer received her Master’s degree from the Juilliard School in New York in 2001, where she studied with Joseph Kalichstein on a Fulbright scholarship. Since then she has enjoyed a busy career as a soloist and chamber musician. She is a founder member of the Eimer Piano Trio, formed in 1997. They won the chamber music award of the Royal Over-seas League Competition in 2002, as well as the Bärenreiter Prize in the ARD Competition in Munich. As a chamber musician, she has performed in Europe, America, Australia and Japan, and was invited to perform in the closing concert of the Saint-Saëns festival at Wigmore Hall in 2004. Nicola was a major prize-winner at the 2003 Dudley International Piano Competition and the John Lill Piano Competition, finalist at the 2003 Young Concert Artists’ Trust auditions and winner of the Tillett Trust Young Artists Platform Award. In 2004 she was selected to take part in the Kirckman Concert series.
Peter Bithell – Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Peter Bithell studied with Gordon Green at the Royal Academy of Music and subsequently with Guido Agosti in Italy and with Maria Curcio in London. He won many prizes and awards at International Piano Competitions, notably Busoni (Bolzano), Reina Sofia (Madrid), Paloma O’Shea (Santander), Dudley, Marguerite Long (Paris) and the Rachmaninoff Prize in Italy. Bithell has played extensively in Europe and South America. He gives regular master classes, notably in Spain, and has served on the juries of several International Piano Competitions. He has been a professor at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama since 1987.
Haydn Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII/6
Chopin Waltz in F major, Op.34, No. 3
Debussy Étude 1 pour les cinq doigts d'après Monsieur Czerny
Scriabin Piano Sonata No.4 in F sharp major, Op.30
Bach Prelude and Fugue in D minor BWV 875 WTC II
Beethoven Sonata No.24 in F-Sharp Major Op.78 "For Therese"
Debussy Reflets dans l'eau
Chopin ‘Minute Waltz’ in D-Flat Major, Op. 64 No.1
Liszt Paganini Etude S.141, No.6 in A minor
Weng Soon Tee
Beethoven Sonata in E major op 14, No 1, 1st movement, Allegro
Chopin Waltz in A flat major op 69, No 1
Liszt Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, S173 No 3
Leighton Etude op 22, No 5
Mozart Sonata in D major K.576
Chopin Waltz in A flat major Op.42
Debussy "La soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes
Prokofiev Sonata No.2 Op.14 4th movement
Chopin Nocturne in E major op. 62 No. 2
Chopin Waltz No. 16 in E minor (KK IVa No.15)
Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit
On Sunday five outstanding young pianists competed for the three prizes at the Watford International Piano Competition in memory of Christopher Duke. It was an exciting opportunity to hear some of the best of the next generation. How do they play, what music do they prefer, where are their strengths and weaknesses?
The competition allows a free choice of repertoire within the 30 minute time limit but has to include a Waltz by Chopin. The Viennese classics Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all featured plus Chopin and Liszt as well as Debussy and Ravel, but interestingly there was no Schubert, Schumann, Brahms or Rachmaninov.
The standard was very high and the five pianists served up a feast of music making that put many a seasoned professional pianist to shame. It is regrettable that not more of Watford’s music lovers were there to witness this and it remains a challenge for the organisers to attract a bigger audience in the future. The venue Clarendon Muse has excellent facilities and acoustics to make up for its lack of atmosphere. Its Steinway grand is a colourful instrument, but it requires a featherlight touch to access its full range. Unfortunately, the competition format meant that there was only a brief try of the piano for each pianist, and adjusting to the piano presented a special challenge. Understandably, almost every pianist played better in the second half of their programme once they felt more settled.
Chi-Hoi Cheung visibly grew as he reached the end of his selection, and his Scriabin showed poetry, an almost unerring sense of line and quite sensational pianism. Perhaps the final apotheosis of the theme could have been even more glorious but this was nevertheless a stunning performance. His Haydn was nicely shaped too, just needing a lighter touch and more freedom of expression and shaping, very hard to do under competition pressure. More playfulness and elegance rather than outright virtuosity could transform his Chopin and Debussy from good to outstanding, but here was a very promising pianist who will surely show his personality more and more in the years to come.
LiFei Weng started with confidence and played her Bach with virtuosity and a rich sound, driving the Prelude and carefully shaping the lines of the Fugue. A slightly slower tempo in the Prelude would have allowed more of her polyphonic talents to emerge and conversely she could release more energy from the triplets of the Fugue theme by choosing a faster tempo there, but it was wonderful to see a young pianist confronting the challenge of Bach with style and enthusiasm. Her Beethoven seemed the strongest performance of a classical piece in the competition. While the themes of the first movement could still be imbued with greater expression, the second movement was delightfully shaped. Debussy and Chopin’s Minute Waltz suited her talents perhaps less, but when she adds more light colours to that rich burnished natural sound of hers she could be excellent here too. On the other hand, her Beethovenian sound together with some outrageous pianism made her Liszt special. Her intensity and passion won her fans in the audience and she was unlucky not to gain a prize here.
Weng Soon Tee’s sunny personality delighted the audience and jury alike. After a somewhat nervous start he seemed a different pianist as he bonded with the piano and delivered a ‘Benediction’ of nobility and grandeur. He created beautifully sculpted waves of sound and showed himself a pianist of exceptional imagination. Following this up with a cleverly chosen Leighton Study revealed another winning side to his personality. That his Beethoven was on the fast side and didn’t quite deliver the string sounds of the only sonata transcribed for quartet by the composer is only a footnote.
Misa Saka also took a while to feel comfortable at the Steinway. By the time she reached her Prokofiev, she unleashed a pianistic firestorm and played with a confidence which was initially tested by her choice of an opening Mozart sonata. There were delightful echo effects in the outer movements and beautiful melodic lines in the Adagio but one could have wished for a greater sense of freedom overall, more elastic rhythms and phrasing in the first movement and a more relaxed tempo for the final Allegretto which veered towards Allegro and therefore left less space for imaginative colouring. But it is so easy to criticize Mozart playing, yet so hard to bring it off on stage. It was lovely to see her championing Mozart over more obvious standard virtuoso fare. Her Debussy added to a sense that here is a young lady with her heart in the right place who is exploring music for its own sake and finding her own style.
Finally Raymond Yiu brought the competition to a close with a colourful and imaginative rendition of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. His Ondine had much finely wrought detail, and one would have wished him more time to adapt to the piano for all his ideas to emerge. This was even more true of Le Gibet, but his Scarbo was played with great rhythmic drive, energy and fabulous pianism. His Chopin Nocturne was poetic as well as passionate and some in the audience expected him among the prize winners too.
Chopin’s Etudes are a standard requirement of piano competitions and here the change to a Waltz brought a subtle difference. Young pianists play the Etudes and bigger works by Chopin far more than the Waltzes and Mazurkas. It was generally agreed that in this year’s competition there wasn’t a stand out performance of a waltz. There were some practical reasons for this, such as the featherlight touch mentioned earlier proving elusive in the earlier stages of each programme. Being nervous and not yet sufficiently familiar with the piano for the imagination to take flight was another stumbling block. The shaping is also a great musical challenge, with the tempo of each section often pulling in different directions and requiring subtle transitions. Sometimes there are polyrhythms such as 6/8 and 3/2 meters superimposed on the standard ¾ Waltz. Hopefully the competition will have inspired the pianists to take a closer look at these pieces and to discover their many layers. Audiences adore a well-played Chopin Waltz; if you can bring them off, you can go far.
How to judge a competition is an eternal problem, especially when the standard is as high as it was on this occasion. It is rather wonderful that such a complex picture emerged from this year’s competition, a snapshot of where each one of them is at the moment, and perhaps no more. But it provides a platform for exceptional young people, an opportunity for them to gain invaluable experience and for us to listen and make up our own minds.
There is of course only so much you can expect of young musicians and they will all be even better in the future. It was touching to discover how much potential there is in these young people, how serious they are about their art and how much effort they are prepared to put into playing the piano. They should all feel very proud of themselves as we feel grateful and inspired having heard them play.
Many thanks to Nicola Eimer and Peter Bithell, our excellent jury, and the many helpers and supporters who made it all possible, not least Sandra and Bill Duke.
We are all looking forward to an exciting competition in 2018!
Here are some further comments from our juror Nicola Eimer:
The Watford International Piano Competition - a juror's thoughts....
The International Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth Texas recently came to a close. It was a feast of pianistic excellence, showcasing the finest young pianists in the world. All the rounds were streamed live, and are still available to listen to on the Medici TV archive, offering a chance to hear a great number of very accomplished pianists, and providing the opportunity to reflect on what makes a 'good' pianist. It becomes clear as the results are announced for the different rounds, that there is no right or wrong, merely a group of opinions that are true on that day. Competitions open up a can of worms; in a nutshell, how can one competitor be judged against another, when the important qualities being judged are anything but measurable (number of notes played, speed of repeated notes, accuracy etc)? It is a given that a certain level of accuracy needs to have been established, but playing an instrument is not an Olympic sport where a winner can be determined through certain sporting statistics, such as distance thrown or the fastest speed. If we related this to the way a pianist played, we would be ignoring the most important element, that which can't be taught - the way in which a pianist opens up their soul to their listener, finding a convincing means of communicating and connecting, and making the printed score come alive (in a way that is a true representation of the musical language of that particular composer). This last point is where several of the competitors came unstuck.
In a smaller competition such as the Watford International Piano Competition with only two jury members, we had the luxury of being able to talk about how we felt, rather than having to come to an average result which has to happen when there are a large number of jury members. This could have proved complicated in its own way, but fortunately we were in agreement as to which pianist we felt deserved the first prize. It was a very organic process for us, and it goes without saying that on a different day, the result could have been quite different.
One of our considerations was how well each pianist handled the piano. This particular instrument is one of many possibilities, but not the easiest to control, and many seemed to struggled to balance the hands well, or make the textures clear enough. The softer dynamics seemed also to be few and far between!
Whilst there were elements to enjoy from each competitor, for us it was Weng Soon Tee who remained most true to the music, using the score as his starting point from which to take the listener on a musical journey. He created a sensitive and honest account of the music, and was one of the few who seemed to respect the stylistic language of each composer. His playing was not the flashiest, but it was the one in which we were the most engaged, and we felt that he showed respect to the composers, never putting himself before the music. Some of the other competitions were more accomplished technically, but for us they did not represent the music in such a sincere and understated way. Once again, we were operating within the constraints of having to 'judge' something that shouldn't be judgable! Perhaps it would be healthier to sum up by forgetting about the concept of an overall 'winner' and simply saying that on this particular day the pianist we most enjoyed hearing was Weng Soon Tee!
Recent winners of the Competition who have gone on to busy international careers include Alexander Ullman and Ji Liu (both YCAT Artists in 2015 and 2016) and Riyad Nicolas, currently selected by The Countess of Munster Musical Trust.