On Saturday in Dallas, Texas, Australia’s next piano superstar, 16-year old Perth-born Shuan Hern Lee won the 2019 Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition, becoming the first Australian to win a Cliburn competition. Lee won the US$15,000 First Prize with his commanding performance of Rachmaninov’s Concert No 3 in D minor with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ruth Reinhardt. Describing it as “one of my biggest wins,” Lee says that “the Cliburn has an international reputation and the exposure to the half a million online viewers is extraordinary.”

Shuan Hern LeeShuan Hern Lee waits to perform in the final round of the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition at at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Photo © Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn

The second quadrennial Cliburn Junior Competition, targeted at pianists aged 13 to 17 and held in tandem with the Cliburn International, attracted 230 applicants representing 32 countries. It was the first Cliburn competition to be held outside of its Fort Worth home and will return to Dallas in 2023.

Lee joined two other competitors for the final round of the competition – 15-year-old Russian/Armenian pianist Eva Gevorgyan, and 17-year-old JiWon Yang from South Korea. All three finalists are seasoned if not serial competitors. It appears they are running across the globe at breakneck speed, snatching accolades and attention wherever they can. Gevorgyan has amassed more than 40 prizes, and Lee has 11 first place titles to his accreting credit list. This current win is particularly sweet for Lee after he was disqualified from the Lang Lang International Piano Competition in Shenzhen in May when the rules were changed after the first round.

With all three finalists completely primed and match ready for the rigours of the four rounds of the Cliburn International Junior Competition, embracing a solo 40-minute recital and a one-movement try-out of their chosen concerto, there is a feeling amongst the competitors that these competitions are an opportunity to be seen and heard by the large webcast audience, and to practice repertoire. At the closing ceremony, the Chairman of the Jury, a former winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition, Alessio Bax, said the jury was “honoured to hear work with deep musical understanding and caring from the compassionate young people.” Other jury members included Philippe Bianconi (France), Angela Cheng (Canada), Valery Kuleshov (Russia), Lowell Liebermann (United States), Aviram Reichert (Israel), and Uta Weyand (Germany).

Shuan Hern LeeShuan Hern Lee  performs his final round concerto with conductor Ruth Reinhardt and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Photo ©Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn

For this concerto round the competitor must master four fundamental requirements. They must demonstrate an ability to project across a symphony orchestra, be able to sustain the demands of the three movements, understand the stylistic demands of the concerto form, and communicate the essence of the composer’s aesthetics. Above these lines, is where the winner begins to emerge to the foreground.

Lee’s performance of Rachmaninov’s third concerto was authoritative from the first note. Dressed in a Lang Lang-esque black suit and white open neck shirt with a touch of bling in the form of a shiny brooch, Lee’s unassailable journey through the three movements was distinguished by meticulous attention to detail, a range of tonal colours, and an ability to offer supple flexibility to Rachmaninov’s lyrical melodies as well as power through the cascading chromatic and double octaves. Further, Lee unflinchingly engaged with the beauty of the emotions. The recognition of his achievement was answered by a spontaneous standing ovation from the Dallas audience.

The second prize was awarded to Eva Gevorgyan who was also given the Press Award. Gevorgyan is gathering recognition in European circles. In her performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, she chose to prioritise the lyricism of the work with a style that erred more towards classicism. This decision and her slightly lethargic tempi choice robbed the work and the performance of its natural propensity to sparkle. JiWon Yang, the competition’s third prizewinner, sailed through Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 1 with a robust drive. She proved her strength in being able to compete with the orchestral forces. The Audience Award of $500 went to Avery Gagliano from the United States and the Peer Award was given to 14-year-old Canadian pianist J J Jun Li Bui.

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Ruth Reinhardt had a mixed performance. Reinhardt is a time-keeper and spends most of her attention on the strings, which at times left the wind and brass section without a steady steer. The results unfolded in some unenviable entries and a lack of harmonic balance in the tutti sections.

Shuan Hern LeeShuan Hern Lee from Australia completes his final found concerto with conductor Ruth Reinhardt and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn

A competition for pianists aged so young must fundamentally contemplate the questions of what we can expect from generation Z and what can we hope to achieve through the competition process. Perhaps, the parallel or more interesting question is what might these Generation Z’ers bring to classical music besides sustaining the musical heritage. In some illumined cases the competitors demonstrated maturity and an ability to interpret the composer with an original voice. This is certainly the case with Shuan Hern Lee. His winning of the Cliburn Competition with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is part of his growing passion with the work that began when he started learning the concerto a year ago and had an opportunity to perform it with the Fremantle Symphony Orchestra.”

Lee told Limelight that he is “attracted to the internal conflict of the piece,” citing his desire to portray the composer’s personal struggle as a Russian living in America.  As an only child, Lee is the son of a Singaporean father and a Chinese mother born in Hong Kong who does not see any biographical parallel: “I am the messenger of the composer’s intent”, he says. He is looking for a long relationship with the concerto and when I asked him which conductors he is interested in working with he singles out Valery Gergiev, Simon Rattle and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Lee began piano at the age of two and a half with his father Yoon Sen Lee and continues his studies with his father at the University of Western Australia where his studying for his Bachelor of Arts and where his father is a Lecturer. He also takes studies from Ingrid Fliter at the International Piano Academy “Incontri col Maestro” in Italy. Lee met Fliter at a masterclass organised by the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made his debut in February performing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Lee appreciates his lessons with Fliter and is currently learning Italian as one part of his passion for an international career and because he believes that the musicality of the language will influence his playing. “Fliter explains everything so wonderfully and above all she demonstrates, which is very useful”, Lee says.

There is no rest for Lee after the competition for this well-mannered and thoughtful young man. He flies back to Australia immediately after the competition to sit for his University exams before flying off to Bolzano in August where he is one of only 27 internationally auditioned pianists chosen to compete in the semifinals of the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition.