New piano festival brings major musical stars to Hamilton

6:59 am on 26 January 2024
Oberlin Conservatory of Music's Piano Department chair Alvin Chow (left) and classical pianist Angela Cheng.

Oberlin Conservatory of Music's Piano Department chairman Alvin Chow (left) and classical pianist Angela Cheng. Photo: RNZ / Libby Kirkby-McLeod

*This story, published on 26 January, 2024, has been updated on 29 January to correct the festival's hosts.

A new piano festival in Hamilton, which brings Chinese and New Zealand students together with famous pianists, has attracted major international stars to the city.

Held at the University of Waikato's Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, 40 piano students from China and New Zealand have been experiencing masterclasses and performances from some of the world's best pianists at the New Zealand International Piano Festival.

Angela Cheng has been called a Canadian national treasure, having performed as a guest soloist with every major orchestra in Canada. She has attended many music festival but said this one has been special.

"Not only is the music director someone we admire and have known for a while, but this is our first visit to New Zealand so we are very, very excited to be here and work with the students."

Hong Xu is the artistic director of the festival and one of the most accomplished Chinese pianists of his generation. Alvin Chow is chairman of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music's Piano Department (the oldest continually operating conservatory in the United States) and he said Xu's involvement as the artistic director was a big draw when deciding to attend this festival.

"I've know Hong Xu for many years and he asked if we would be able to participate in this first New Zealand International Piano Festival, and of course I said yes, right away. As long as the invitation is coming from him, I always say yes."

Xu said music festivals exposed students to a spectrum of ideas and musical interpretation, as well as a dense week of lessons and masterclasses. However, he said international festivals also teach pianists other, less musical skills, which they will need if they are to go on and be a professional musician.

"I want them to be familiar with the travelling part of our profession, because you have to travel and then play. So they travel fifteen hours or something from China and then when they get here - bang - they have to study right away."

Bonnie Wang is one of the students from New Zealand taking part in the festival.

Bonnie Wang is one of the students from New Zealand taking part in the festival. Photo: RNZ / Libby Kirkby-McLeod

New Zealander Bonnie Wang is one of the students taking part. She said she was so grateful to even be able to meet the pianists who are attending.

"All the teachers here are so famous, they are so amazing."

Shujing Liu is a student from China. He went to a music festival in Italy last year, and was excited to attend a similar event in New Zealand.

"It's my first time in New Zealand and everyone knows that the nature of New Zealand is really great, and I can also learn piano here with those teachers."

Chow said international festivals were also useful, creative events for teachers to develop new ideas after hearing how others teach.

"It is always interesting for us as teachers to feel we are still learning too. It's a way of sharing, but also a way of stealing - or borrowing I should say."

The festival is being hosted by Liang Music World and held at the University of Waikato's Conservatorium of Music. Dr Luca Manghi is the director of instrumental performance at the university and he hoped the festival became a regular event. He said it was a great experience for students.

"We have quite a few students here from China, that are now interacting with the New Zealand students, so it creates this international relationship which is incredible."

When the New Zealand International Piano festival finishes on Saturday, organisers are hoping teachers and students will return home with the sights and sounds of Aotearoa, eager to attend next year.

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