Honens 2015: On Stage and Behind the Scenes

September 27, 2015

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The Jack Singer Concert Hall at Arts Commons in downtown Calgary sits on the periphery of the city’s cluster of corporate skyscrapers. While it’s usually a quiet place on a Wednesday afternoon, this seemingly unremarkable day was about to be transformed by virtuosic piano and some of the best clarinet playing I’ve ever heard in my life.

It was September 2, the last day of rehearsals before the semi-final round of one of the world’s most prestigious music competitions, the Honens Festival and Piano Competition.

My job that day was to be a page turner for one of the 10 semi-finalists—25-year-old American Sejoon Park—selected from an original pool of 50 quarterfinalists hailing from countries around the world.

Moving through a darkened hallway behind the main stage, I could hear some glorious clarinet playing coming to an end, then replaced by a viola. The few theatre staff working backstage were busy prepping what appeared to be stage directions and concert orders. Along with another volunteer, I listened to the equally impressive tones of the viola leaking out from the concert hall.

Soon after, I met a man that appeared to be in his early 20s, who was casually dressed with a relaxed demeanour. He had a determination about him that was not present on anyone else in the room. This was clearly the man I was here to meet, Sejoon Park.


Sejoon Park’s interview, played before each semi-final performance.

As a page turner my job was to do just that—turn pages. But these weren’t just any pages. They were pages being read by a pianist who was competing for $100,000 and three years of concert engagements, recording contracts, and professional opportunities.

I was not only getting to hear a stunning, on-the-rise young pianist, but also three of the best classical musicians in the world: Canadian clarinetist James Campbell, Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, and Taiwanese violist Hsin-Yun Huang. It was Park’s job—along with the other nine semi-finalists—to collaborate with all three of artists in an hour-long recital, along with a solo performance.

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The ten semi-finalists in front of the Honens office in downtown Calgary. Credit: Monique de St. Croix.

Three would succeed past this point to the finals where they would have the chance to go on stage with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and impress the judges with two piano concertos—one from the Classical period and another post-classical piece.

Sounds easy enough, right?

For someone about to undertake this nerve-wracking endeavour, Park was remarkably calm. We introduced ourselves with a handshake and some small talk, and then it was down to business.

Walking off stage was another competitor, a wiry 24-year-old from the United Kingdom, Alexander Ullman, alongside the violist Huang.

Park began his rehearsal with soprano Bayrakdarian, who has one of the most stunning voices in the world. “Was that OK?” Park asked after they finished the first song, by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The question was quickly thrown out to the seats, where Stephen McHolm, the artistic director of Honens, was lending his ear.

He commented that the balance between the two performers was great, and the three-hour rehearsal continued with McHolm remaining in the audience for its duration.

The fact that Honens has a chamber music component lends itself to their overall mantra of finding what they call the “complete pianist.” What they’re looking for is an artist who can not only play virtuosic solo and concerto repertoire, but also has the ability to be a sensitive collaborating musician, a skill that often doesn’t come automatically with nimble fingers. They want more than just music, they want the personality, too.


The 2012 Honens Laureate Pavel Kolesnikov with the Victoria Symphony.

As the semi-final round progressed, audiences were treated to nearly a week’s worth of solo and collaborative recitals. Highlights included Ullman’s blistering performance of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka Piano Suite, Korean Yoon-Jee Kim’s encore performance of Carl Vine’s Threnody (for all the innocent victims), and the many unique programming choices for the solo recitals.

Despite all of the special moments during the semifinals, everything came down to the final evening on September 7, where I happened to find myself heading on stage with Sejoon Park and his collaborative compatriots.

Being a page turner is a funny job. You’re invisible until you screw up, at which point you become all too much the centre of attention. So it’s up to me to flip the pages at the right time without getting in the pianist’s way, neither to be seen nor heard.

Seeing high-calibre musicians perform up close was an eye-opening experience. Park’s easy-going nature was transformed as soon as he played his first notes. His movements intensified and his interaction with the other musicians became focused and deliberate.

All of this gave the music an edge of adrenaline, with certain gestures becoming more exaggerated and the tempos of the pieces pushing past their rehearsal speed.

In a flash, it was all over and Park was being congratulated by the three collaborating musicians backstage, who must surely have felt a sense of relief after their 10th concert in less than five days.

My job was over, too. After an hour of holding my breath, I could finally breathe normally again.

For three of the competitors though, things were about to get a lot more intense.

On Friday, September 11, the Jack Singer Concert Hall was nearly sold out. With the classical concertos performed the previous evening, the final concert was all about music by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev; two performances of his third piano concerto and one performance of his second, along with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of French conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier.

The three pianists left were Ukrainian Artem Yasynskyy, American Henry Kramer, and Italian Luca Buratto (unfortunately my partner didn’t make it). All three of their Prokofiev performances had their share of triumphs and slips. Artem played with power and ferocity, Kramer had emotion and depth, while Buratto offered energy and clarity. The audience surely had their favourites, giving certain competitors longer standing ovations than others.

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The three finalists of the 2015 Honens Festival and Piano Competition. Credit: Monique de St. Croix.

But the fate of all three lay in the hands of the seven judges, who had the unenviable task of choosing a winner.

As the audience sipped free champagne in the lobby, all ears were waiting for the announcement to return to the concert hall, where they would learn who would be awarded the top prize.

Just before 11 pm all were called back in. The judges had made their decision, and on that night they had chosen energy and clarity. Buratto was the performer they could all agree on, and with that he was awarded a cash prize of $100 000, and three years of career opportunities.


The solo recital of 2015 Honens laureate Luca Buratto.

For most of these competitors, Honens was just one stop on a circuit of piano competitions that happen throughout the year—all in their attempts to become one of the greats. In Buratto’s case, it was a memorable destination, and one that he would now have three years of benefits to reap. For Canadians, Honens is something to proud of. It is a chance to be at the centre of today’s classical music scene, offering a glimpse of what it takes to be a complete pianist.

–Nathaniel Schmidt

About the Author

Nathaniel Schmidt

Born and raised in the Comox Valley, Nathaniel is a composer, teacher, writer, and reluctant pianist who has been freelancing in Calgary in various capacities for over seven years. He freely admits to enjoying everything Sting has done pre-1998 (including Dune).

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