Romantics & Nationalists: 22nd Singapore International Piano Festival

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by Hidir Koh

25th June 2015 marked the beginning of the 22nd Singapore International Piano Festival, and on the second day, I had the privilege of watching pianist Olli Mustonen perform pieces by Sergei Prokofiev, a major composer of the 20th century.

Mustonen is an artiste that combines the holy trinity roles of composer, pianist and conductor. His performances are world class, and as such, he has appeared as a soloist with some of the world’s greatest orchestras, like the Berlin Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra. Aside from his skills, what marks him as a true musician is his relentless spirit of discovery, which allows him to produce repertoires outside of the norm.

To the untrained ear, the songs played during the night sounded like a cacophony of notes, characterized by unpredictable rubatos. Despite the prevalence of dissonant chords, there still seemed to be an order within the chaos. Motifs intertwined with each other although there were rhythm differences, and the random crescendos only served to highlight the way Prokofiev’s hardships, like the 1917 revolution, affected Prokofiev’s composition style.

Despite being a musical piece, the performance was also a sight to behold. Mustonen physically portrayed the emotions of the songs, fluttering his fingers as the vibrations of a long note filled the hall, then suddenly jabbing the keys at lightning speed. He depicted his passion with his entire body, often times throwing his entire weight onto the piano. In fact, he did it with such vigour that during the intermission, the stage crew had to secure his chair to the raised platform. Talk about bringing the house down!

As a novice pianist myself, I was awestruck by the level of professional commitment he displayed, and from his performance, I have learnt a great deal on not just expressive playing, but emotional performance as well.

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