Judges Boris Slutski from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and Steven Spooner from the University of Kansas Conservatory declared Conservatory senior Zi Xiao Li the winner of Oberlin’s Arthur Dann Piano Competition, which was held in Finney Chapel Sunday.
Named in memory of a former Oberlin professor of piano, the competition has showcased the talent and hard work of pianists in the Oberlin Conservatory for over 30 years. This year’s finals were a continuation of that tradition.
The winner of the competition receives a significant financial award and a charge from the judges to take their talent on the road.
“The endowment generates about $2,000 a year,” said Robert Shannon, professor of piano and director of the competition. “The winning student has to use that money to create one or more concerts … outside of town — find a way to play somewhere that’s not Oberlin. In the past, students have used it to play in Moscow and all over Taiwan, [as well as in] various places across the United States. Sometimes students are creative about stretching those dollars.”
Li said he hopes to perform in his hometown in China. He also said he uses music as a way to express himself.
“Music itself is a very natural thing,” he said. “A lot of experiences and stories can [be told] from my music and my playing. [For me, it’s about] telling the different stories. … Before I play, the audience probably doesn’t know who I am or who I’m studying with. Playing the piano does show many aspects of the performer’s personality. It’s not just that ‘his playing is fantastic’ or ‘his [fingers are] good’ but … what’s inside his heart — what he wants to tell the audience from the bottom of his heart.”
He also said that playing in front of judges and audiences can be intimidating, yet he enjoys the experience of sharing his own stories through music.
“Sometimes I feel nervous, and sometimes I feel like I want to play for an audience,” he said. “I want to tell them that this is my music and my story and my experience. It shows how I am — the personality, you can tell from the music.”
Five other Conservatory students competed alongside Li — first-years Zheyu Jiang and Yixuan Han, sophomore Prudence Poon and seniors Yifan Yin and Dongfang Wento — presenting individual 30-minute piano programs for a panel of judges. To reach this stage in the competition was itself a recognition of excellence, and one after the other, they dazzled with complex selections.
“There was a pre-selection hearing, and … probably about twice as many applied [as were selected to compete in the final performance],” Shannon said. “The tradition is that we take no more than six people into Finney that Sunday. Fewer, some years, but we never take more than six.”
Poon, who was declared first alternate, spoke about how playing on the Finney Chapel stage felt surreal.
“It felt like dreaming,” she said. “I’ve said that to everyone. It felt like a dream for 30 minutes. I didn’t feel like myself playing the piece, and when I realized, it was over. I tried to listen to myself every moment so I could know what it felt like to play in [Finney] Chapel, since it was my first time, but it was really a dream.”
While the performers strove to make playing through technically complex pieces sound effortless, Shannon stressed the effort that all of the contestants put in during the weeks leading up to the competition.
“Really, a lot [of work goes into it],” he said. “To play half an hour of music straight through is the equivalent of a junior recital. Of course, how much time spent [practicing] depends on who it is. Piano majors practice a lot. They are supposed to practice a minimum of four hours a day, … and I’m sure that when the competition is coming closer, then they practice more than that. It’s just an unrelenting discipline that you have to have if you’re going to be a very solid and charismatic performer on the stage.” Li chose to play both pieces that he had learned recently and ones that he enjoyed, which may have contributed to his success.
“[My program] is what I did recently — this semester and last semester,” he said. “And half of my program is Chopin pieces, because he is my favorite composer.”
Poon chose a variety of pieces that spanned musical eras for her program.
“I learned my program in bits and pieces,” Poon said. “I have the Brahms from my freshman year — it was my jury piece. And then I learned the Ravel over the summer, and also Haydn. It’s different pieces that I learned in different periods, and I figured out that it could be a competition program.”
Poon said that having the opportunity to compete helped her imagine what it would be like to pursue piano performance as a career.
“This competition is a new experience, as it gave me a taste of how being a pianist for a career might be,” she said. “Regardless of [a recent loss in the family], I had to get my life together and go up and perform. I think this is how having a career as a pianist would be. You can’t bring your personal emotion up on stage, whatever you are experiencing. So apart from being grateful for my teacher [Robert Shannon]’s guidance, I am also very grateful to everyone who got me through this difficult time, and of course my family, who is always here with me even when they can’t be [here] physically.”
Shannon said that he works to create a calm environment for the competing pianists so that they can easily concentrate on their performance.
“We don’t try to get a huge audience, because it seems more important to have peace and quiet to choose the best person,” he said. “But it is open to the public, and if you do go next year, you will see that there are a lot of really wonderful pianists studying at Oberlin.”