On Wednesday, July 28, five solo piano fellows from the Music Academy of the West competed for a $5,000 grand prize. Largely eschewing sedateness for fireworks and astonishing tempos, the field showed great spirit and talent. Arthur Wang opened the program, flitting through Bach’s Toccata in F-sharp Minor, though not without some initial hesitancy when transitioning between passages. He finished strongly with two pieces from Bartók’s suite Out of Doors, managing to coax from the grand Steinway all manner of sounds, from earthy growls to playful clinking, in music meant to evoke a Hungarian summer night. Leon Bernsdorf, also capable of handling extremely complex sequences, followed, gliding through the frenetic pace set by the finale of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3. The third performer, Hsin-Hao Yang, was the most technically flawless of the group; while Wang and Bernsdorf occasionally mashed notes against each other, Wang jabbed at the keys with clean, precise strikes. His rendition of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 sometimes felt more like a blur of demonic buzzing than a series of vibrating strings, yet his demeanor throughout was one of effortless sprezzatura.
Following an intermission, Alexander Lee Agate demonstrated his musical range by playing Haydn’s Piano Sonata in B Minor with springy equipoise before drawing out the darker, metallic intonations of Jörg Widmann’s “Fleurs du Mal” sonata with great forcefulness. Nan Ni began her set with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, handling its polyphonic passages with controlled assertiveness. She ended her program, and the night, by hurtling through Elliott Carter’s Caténaires with such dizzying speed that it seemed at times the piano would snap under pressure. After a half-hour deliberation, the jury of three announced Hsin-Hao Yang as the winner. In addition to the monetary compensation, Yang will also have the opportunity to perform a recital in early 2022 and premiere a commission by composer Tyshawn Sorey. Both events will take place in Santa Barbara.