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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 3

Charles Richard-Hamelin: Chopin Adventure

by Caroline Rodgers / November 1, 2015

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Charles Richard-Hamelin

We don’t often have a chance to witness the birth of an international career. Yet this is what we saw unfolding last month as Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin progressed through the rounds of the 17th International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition to win the silver medal.

The 26-year-old native of Joliette is the first Canadian pianist* to finish in the top three of the Chopin, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world, a list including the Queen Elizabeth in Belgium, the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, and the Cliburn in the U.S.

It’s already an accomplishment to be selected to compete at the Chopin Competition, which since 1927 has been taking place every five years. For the 2015 edition, 78 candidates from 20 countries participated in the competition, selected from more than 450 pianists who had sent in performance videos before December 2014. In April, 160 were chosen for preselection.

After watching the performance of several of his rivals on the Internet, Richard-Hamelin knew he had the necessary level to go far. But he certainly did not imagine he would finish second. He says, “I was still confident of making the finals, but when I entered for the first time into the mythical room to try the competition pianos, my confidence sagged. I told myself I’d be happy if I managed to pass the first round!”

Thanks to the Internet, audiences could see and hear him play during each round. After listening to his magnificent interpretation of the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, op. 58, we were convinced that he would make the finals. This sonata also garnered him the Krystian Zimerman Prize. Just after playing, the young pianist was happy with his performance, but the results exceeded his wildest dreams. At the same time, he appreciated the fact that hundreds supported him through the many messages he received on his Facebook page. These encouragements have done him good and helped him stay focused, because even though he’s used to competitions, he found the Chopin, which he said would be his last, very stressful.

For the finals, ten candidates competed. Two were from Canada (including Toronto’s Yike [Tony] Yang, 16), two from the United States, plus representatives from Croatia, Russia, Latvia, Japan, South Korea, and Poland. As luck would have it, Richard-Hamelin was the only contestant to play the Chopin Concerto No. 2, the other nine candidates chose the first!

All rounds of the competition were taken into account in determining the winners, but the semi-final hour-long recital was given the most points. Once the competition ended, the Chopin Competition revealed the scores given to each participant by all of the judges. Interestingly, in the first three rounds, all of them voted for who would proceed to the next round. The score gap was quite thin between Charles Richard-Hamelin, and the eventual winner, 21-year-old South Korean Seong-Jin Cho, who had already won first prize in the Japanese Hamamatsu Piano Competition at 15, and finished third in the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition at 18.

Playing Chopin

“To play Chopin, one must be able to sing at the piano, to play legato,” says Richard-Hamelin. “With Chopin, the musical lines are long. We must be sensitive to the harmonies and harmonic colours, for Chopin, after the melodies, this is what’s most important. You also need a sensitive touch to the colours of the piano and to the variety of sounds that you can make. And finally, we must integrate the text to the point of not thinking about it, so that in the end, we only tell a story. This is what guides me.”

The great pianists of the past also guided him, on disc. First, Dinu Lipatti, a Romanian like his first piano teacher of 15 years, Paul Surdulescu. And also, naturally, the inevitable Arthur Rubinstein.

“When I need inspiration, when I’m out of ideas, I listen to these pianists,” said Richard-Hamelin. “Rubinstein has the secret. I learn so much with his rubato! Nobody has as refined and natural a rubato. It is paradoxical to say this, but he has a way of playing that leads us to believe that this is the only way you should play Chopin, as if he were the only one who can do it as he does. His playing is never pretentious; it’s always heartfelt.”

Besides Paul Surdulescu, Richard-Hamelin studied with Richard Raymond, Sara Laimon, and Boris Berman. A graduate of McGill and the Yale School of Music, he is currently studying with André Laplante at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. In preparation for the Chopin Competition, he also benefited from the advice of Jean Saulnier and Janina Fialkowska.

The Competition

The international jury of the 17th Chopin Competition consisted of 17 judges, including Martha Argerich, Dmitri Alexeev, Dang Thai Son, Philippe Entremont, Yundi Li, and Garrick Ohlsson.

Last summer, Richard-Hamelin played the works of his recital program several times, which he believes greatly helped him. In May, he recorded a Chopin program similar to the one he played in the competition, including that famous Sonata in B minor op. 58 – a leading romantic sonata, he said. The album was recorded on Analekta at Domaine Forget’s Françoys-Bernier Hall.

One can say without exaggerating that Richard-Hamelin was one of the audience favourites in Warsaw. This could be confirmed by reading the favourable reviews punctuating the showing of his performances on YouTube. In the hall, he was warmly applauded. Even before being chosen for the final, he received offers for concerts in Poland.

Annick-Patricia Carrière, his agent at Blue Station, flew to join him in Warsaw for the final; his parents did the same. The Poles’ passion for Chopin’s music and the competition really impressed Carrière. “After the competition, during the three concerts where the top six played, all the tickets were sold out,” she said. “The competition had kept some tickets to sell each night and people started to line up at least one hour before the concert. It is a public of all ages; it’s beautiful to see. People listen with reverence and great intensity. There were few standing ovations, but Charles had one. People stopped him on the street to talk to him. I had never seen that. It makes a lasting impression.”

The musical culture in Poland doesn’t compare with ours, she observed. “We sensed an incredible affection from the public in the hall towards the competitors.” She adds, “We haven’t experienced such engagement in Canada. At the end, even the security guard asked the top six to sign his program.”

With so many fans of the piano in the homeland of the composer, which has over forty symphony orchestras, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Richard-Hamelin will soon return to Poland to give five concerts, from 9 to 20 November. He even had to change the date of his return to Québec, as two concerts, on 25 and 26 October, were added for the winners. All tickets had already been sold.

“On site, watching these young pianists were representatives from record companies, festival directors and concert presenters,” says Carrière. “Moreover, Japan Arts organizes a tour of the top six in Asia, with seven concerts in Japan, including two in Tokyo, and another in Seoul, South Korea. Opportunities for Europe in late 2016 are already on the table.”

Soon, we’ll be able to hear Charles Richard-Hamelin in recital at the Salle Pierre-Mercure on November 26.

Prizes, fellowships, and awards for Charles Richard-Hamelin
2011 First Prize, National Piano Competition of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
2011 Winner, Prix d’Europe
2014 Third prize and special prize for best performance of a Beethoven sonata, Seoul International Piano Competition
2014 Second prize, Montréal International Musical Competition
2015 Recipient of Career Development Award from the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto
2015-2016 Classical Revelation Radio-Canada
2015 Silver Medal and Krystian Zimerman Prize for the best interpretation of the sonata, International Chopin Piano Competition

Chopin Competition: famous winners

Vladimir Ashkenazy (Russia) 1955 silver

Maurizio Pollini (Italy) 1960 gold medal
Martha Argerich (Argentina) 1965 gold medal
Garrick Ohlsson (USA) 1970 gold medal

Chopin Competition 2015 Winners

1st prize (30,000 € and gold medal):
Seong-Jin Cho, South Korea

2nd prize (25,000 € and silver medal):
Charles Richard-Hamelin, Canada
3rd prize (20,000 € and bronze medal):
Kate Liu, USA
4th prize (15,000 €):
Eric Lu, USA
5th prize (10,000 €):
Yike (Tony) Yang, Canada
6th prize (7,000 €):
Dmitry Shishkin, Russia
Honorable Mentions (4,000 €):
Aljoša Jurinić (Croatia),
Aimi Kobayashi (Japan),
Szymon Nehring (Poland),
Georgijs Osokins (Latvia)
Best performance of a polonaise (3,000 €):
Seong-Jin Cho
Best performance of a mazurka (5,000 €):
Kate Liu
Best performance of a sonata (10,000 €):
Charles Richard-Hamelin
Best performance of a concerto:
not awarded
Audience Award:
Szymon Nehring

Translation: Wah Keung Chan

*Dang Thai Son, gold medalist at the 1980 Chopin Competition, is now a Canadian citizen. However, he represented his native country, Vietnam, when he participated in the contest, according to Chopin Contest archives. At the time, he was studying at the Moscow Conservatory.

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