If you live in London or the south of England and love the piano, then consider this: Did you know there is a fully-fledged, international piano competition right on your doorstep?
It is, of course, the Hastings International Piano Competition, hosting their Prize Winners’ Gala Concert at the White Rock Theatre in the town this Saturday 4 March. Performing at the concert, and accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Rory Macdonald, will be two of the stars of last year’s competition. The winner, Japanese pianist Shunta Morimoto (above), will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4, while third-placed Mariamna Sherling (below) will close the concert with Rachmaninov’s much-loved Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini.
“It is a great honour for me to perform again on the historical stage of the White Rock Theatre”, said Sherling. “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is absolutely incredible! I was lucky to perform with this outstanding orchestra a year ago in the final of the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition. I can’t wait to collaborate with them again.”
Shunta, meanwhile, is similarly excited for his performance of the Beethoven. “It will be my greatest delight to bring to my performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra all the beauties I have uncovered studying the 4th concerto of Beethoven. It will be my honour to share this with the public of my most beloved city in England.”
The Hastings International Piano Competition is under the authoritative guidance of Paul Hughes who moved to the role from his previous post as Director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The competition itself has its roots in the Hastings Music Festival, which dates all the way back to 1908 – and it evolved from the festival, growing at a startling rate. Last year’s competition, says Hughes, was its best yet. “Yes, very much so. We had a record number of applicants – 360 – and a truly international field.”
Morimoto’s winning concerto in the 2022 competition, says Hughes, “demonstrated his extraordinary musicality and the maturity of his playing, as well as meeting all the technical demands of that particular work. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 has parallels in that it requires a deep understanding of the music, exceptional phrasing and an appreciation of the architecture of the concerto; all qualities that Shunta has in abundance.”
The concerto will begin with Dvořák‘s effervescent Carnival Overture, while Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture opens the second half – a prelude to Sherling’s Rachmaninov. “Mariamna (above) is the possessor of a fabulous technique, a razor-sharp mind and a sense of fun”, says Hughes. “I am expecting she will employ all of this to demonstrate many facets of Rachmaninov’s set of variations.”
Hastings has a reputation of being ‘The Friendly Competition’, which Hughes attributes to “a combination of the efficient organisation of HIPCC combined with the warmth of the community whose hospitality in looking after and supporting the young pianists at every stage of their progress through the competition makes such a difference. It is also the friendliness and openness of the jury who share insights and give constructive feedback to the competitors.”
Following the contestants after the competition has finished is imperative. “That is an important part of the Hastings International Piano experience”, he stresses. “We follow, support and offer performance opportunities to our pianists, and not just the finalists.” When choosing the winners, he says that “formally we don’t discuss the artists as a group of jurors. The range of experience within the jury means we are all looking for different aspects of a performance, and make our selections individually.”
Hughes (above) considers the future of the competition to be rosy. “Professor Vanessa Latarche was President of the jury in 2022 and fulfilled that role magnificently. She is now Artistic Director of Hastings International Piano and so I am confident we will attract an even wider range of pianists from across the world. One of the elements of the competition that distinguishes it from many others is that it focuses predominantly on the piano concerto; to that end we have conductor Rory Macdonald returning to conduct not just the finals, but also the semi-final round. One further innovation new to the Hastings competition is that we are commissioning a new piano solo work that each competitor will be required to perform in their solo recital round.”
These exciting developments are a natural progression from Paul’s previous role with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “In my role there I have worked with and presented very many pianists, from early career new generation artists to the most distinguished pianists working today. I have commissioned new work for them, supported and developed long term relationships with these amazing artists and fostered a sense of loyalty that I believe is so important in our profession. I am calling on all those experiences in Hastings to create a platform where we can discover, support and nurture young pianists and engage the Hastings community in the wonderfully exciting journey of a young pianist from competition to the very top of the profession.”
You can book tickets for The Hastings International Piano Competition Prize Winners’ Gala Concert by clicking on the link. Meanwhile the Piano Concerto Competition will return in February-March 2024 – with updates appearing on the competition website