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BEN SCHOEMAN TOPS! (article first published : 2008-02-10)

Ben Schoeman (24) became the first South African to win the prestigious Vodacom Unisa International Piano Competition last night at the ZK Matthews Great Hall at Unisa in Pretoria in the face of stiff competition from gifted pianists from around the world. Arjan Tien again conducted the Chamber Orchestra of South Africa and in the audience was Spencer Myer from the USA, winner of the 10th international competition four years ago.

On Friday night (see separate article), Ben Schoeman appeared alongside finalists Martina Filjak (29) from Croatia and Szczepan Kończal (22) from Poland. Last night’s all-Rachmaninov concert featured Pallavi Mahidhara (20) from the USA; Chun Wang (17) from the People’s Republic of China, and Alexey Yemtsov (25) from Australia.

Pallavi Mahidhara, who also chose blue for her elegant gown as did Martina Filjak, performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, op 43. At a first glance, one could be forgiven for wondering if this slim frame had the physical strength for the demands of Rachmaninov but she proved her mastery of the work within the first couple of bars, often pouncing on the notes to give added impact. This was a beautiful performance filled with expression and emotion, with the stately passages performed with imperial splendour.

Next on the programme was Chun Wang, who is also the youngest competitor. He chose to perform the Rachmaninov’s Concerto No 2 in C minor op18 and, despite being at least seven and a half years younger than the average age of the contestants, proceeded to prove that he could hold his own in such highly-skilled company. In a well-controlled performance, he soared with ease over each thundering climax in a meticulous interpretation of this work.

The last finalist to perform was Alexey Yemtsov who held audiences riveted in an impressive performance of the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, op 43. From trills that were as light as a feather, the sultry rendition of sensuous themes or the deep roar of those powerful chords, he rose to the challenge of each tempestuous crescendo. As his last notes faded away, marking the end of six extraordinary performances from six equally extraordinary young performers, those of us in our group looked at each other helplessly and thanked heaven we weren’t on the jury to have to make the decision to choose the final line-up.

Ben Schoeman was awarded the first prize by a panel that included six international adjudicators drawn from many parts of the world – all acclaimed musicians in their own right and experienced jurists in competitions of this nature. The participants in the competition had to present a rigorous programme over three preliminary rounds and a final round.

Looking back over the presentation by the six finalists, Ben Schoeman’s performance undeniably shone. I am not familiar with the judging criteria but he certainly fulfilled in terms of performance clarity, emotion, integrity, rhythmic passion and – as inimitable jury member Dame Fanny Waterman mentioned – “that all-important magic.”

Dot Field, Vodacom’s Chief Communications Officer, said: “Vodacom is thrilled to be part of this historic occasion, which has not only illustrated the immense global talent that has visited our shores, but the progress that has been made by our own gifted Ben Schoeman and the other South Africans who have participated. We are proud to be part of this illustrious global occasion.”

Runner up was Alexey Yemtsov (25), while Chun Wang was third. Pallavi Mahidhara (20) from the United States was fourth, fifth was Martina Filjak (29) from Croatia, while Poland’s Szczepan Kończal (22) came sixth.

All kudos to Unisa and Vodacom for presenting this competition which provides such a valuable contribution to the music industry. - (Caroline Smart)




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