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BEN SCHOEMAN WOWS UNISA COMPETITION AUDIENCES (article first published : 2008-02-9)

Five continents - Africa, America, Australasia, Asia and Europe - are represented at the finals of the Vodacom-sponsored 11th Unisa International Piano Competition. This is the first Unisa International Piano Competition in 22 years in which a South African has reached the finals. 24-year old Ben Schoeman is also only the fourth South African to achieve this distinction in the history of this particular competition.

Tonight Ben Schoeman appeared at the ZK Matthews Great Hall at Unisa in Pretoria alongside fellow finalists Martina Filjak (29) from Croatia and Szczepan Kończal (22) from Poland.

Netherlands maestro, Arjan Tien, conducted the Chamber Orchestra of South Africa which is resident at the University of Pretoria. Well-known to Durban audiences from his performances with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra, Arjan Tien’s first appearance with the KZNPO in 1998 resulted in ongoing invitations from South African orchestras. One of the rules for the finalists of the Unisa International Competition is that a concerto from the romantic or modern era is played with the same orchestra.

Dressed in an elegant royal blue gown with a train, Martina Filjak performed Rachmaninov’s Concerto no 2 in C minor op18 and charmed audiences with her sincerity and commitment to her playing. Her attack in the powerful segments of the work were sometimes a bit fierce although her interpretation of the open chords was very arresting. She evoked haunting pathos in the lyrical passages but didn’t always have the power to rise above the orchestra.

No such problem of inaudibility greeted the performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, op 43 by Szczepan Kończal. From the moment he wound the piano stool down - we thought he was going to end up playing on the floor! – and folded his tall slim frame and long legs into a seated position, he took control of the piano. And Mr Rachmaninov! In a highly professional performance without affectation, his impossibly long fingers- which seemed longer than the width of the keyboard from where I was sitting – thundered up and down the keyboard, slowed to extract exquisite tenderness, or hammered notes that exploded like glittering shards.

While Szczepan Kończal’s performance drew an ecstatic response from the audience, it was Ben Schoeman everyone naturally wanted to support. And he didn’t disappoint by launching into an excellent performance of Tchaikovsky’s concerto no 1 in B flat minor, op 23.

This pianist has come a long way since he went to study overseas and, while some may criticise his performance as too flamboyant – well, Mr Tchaikovsky’s music does present some very theatrical moods. Impish when scampering up or down the keyboard in the frolicsome passages, solid with the thundering roar of chords or eloquent in the composer’s romantic passages with lovely lazy trills, he couldn’t put a finger wrong as he drove the concerto to its majestic end.

Tomorrow (February 9) night’s performance will feature Pallavi Mahidhara (20) from the USA; Chun Wang (17) from the People’s Republic of China who is also the youngest competitor - and Alexey Yemtsov (25) from Australia. The final placements will be made after the performance. The main prize money for the Competition totals R650,000.

More information about the competition from the Unisa Music Foundation on 012 429-3336 / 3344 / 3311. – Caroline Smart




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