Shuan Hern Lee will represent Australia in the Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition in Dallas, Texas, this year. The 16-year-old pianist, who recently performed in the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s season opener in February, is one of 24 competitors between the ages of 13 and 17, representing 11 countries, who were chosen by the Cliburn jury from a pool of 230 pianists.
Shuan Hern Lee
The first-prize winner will receive a cash award of US$15,000, with second and third prize-winners receiving $10,000 and $5,000 respectively. The three top prizes also include $2,000 worth of scholarships and community residency and mentorship opportunities with the Cliburn. This will be the second iteration of the Cliburn’s Junior competition, which was established in 2015. The jury at the 2019 competition is chaired by Italian pianist Alessio Bax, who is currently in Australia for performances with the Sydney and Melbourne symphony orchestras.
Lee tells Limelight he feels “very honoured” to be representing Australia at the elite piano competition. “I never consciously thought that I would end up officially ‘representing’ Australia,” he says. “There are many fantastic and amazing young pianists all over Australia, and so I am both surprised and very excited about this event. I hope I can do Australia proud.”
Lee has been working with his teacher Yoon Sen Lee since he was two-and-a-half-years-old, and currently studies at the University of Western Australia, as well as with Ingrid Fliter at the International Piano Academy Incontri Col Maestro in Imola, Italy. With the competition kicking off in Dallas at the end of May, he will be practicing hard over the next couple of months. “Not only that, I am also researching, listening to music and to the pieces that I will be performing,” he says. “I have been reading a book about Van Cliburn and the Cold War, written by Nigel Cliff, and this book has really gotten me interested in this genius’s life, and the things that he did for music. This competition not only is famous because of Van Cliburn, (whom I admire), but its well-known broadness in repertoire is a big challenge for all competitors.”
Lee will be preparing about two hours worth of repertoire for the competition. “For me, choosing a program is nearly always like deciding what dishes to present in a full course menu at a gala dinner,” he says. “For this competition, I chose a well-balanced program, including different styles and periods. These include Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Flat Minor, and also his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Bach is one of my favourite composers, and I absolutely adore his intellect and musicianship. I will also be performing Chopin’s Barcarolle, and Prokofiev’s Sonata No 7.”
The final round is a concerto, performed with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. For this round, Lee has chosen Rachmaninov’s Concerto No 3. “I absolutely love this concerto, for its deep character and nostalgia,” he says. “I really hope that I will be able to make it to the finals and perform this wonderful concerto.”
Lee is certainly no stranger to competitions, boasting 11 first-place finishes at piano competitions around the world. He took out the 2018 Kerikeri International Piano Competition in New Zealand last year, was a semi-finalist in last year’s Young Performers Awards, and took out first place in the under 15 section of the San Marino International Piano Competition in 2016. He has also won prizes in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for Young Musicians in Russia and first prize at the Young Pianist of the North International Piano Competition.
This experience has taught Lee a great deal, he explains. “I greatly value the opinions of the world class jury members who have given me much advice,” he says. “Due to the subjectivity in competitions and results, one learns humility and one learns to cope with the results. There are many times when I have won but still thought there are areas to improve, and also there are times when I thought I have performed really well but not all the jury members agree with my interpretation and performance. As long as we perform our very best, we hope that we find the listeners that will agree and appreciate our performances – that is my goal all the time.”
As a seasoned competitor, does he ever get nervous? “I really enjoy the experience of performing and never had the problems with nerves because I enjoy the limelight,” Lee says. “The [larger] the audience the more excited I am and the more I would like to convey the messages of the music and the expression of each style and composer for my audience. For me, being in the limelight is great and that is why I love to perform in concerts and competitions.”
The performance opportunities that come with competitions are invaluable, opening up different musical worlds for the young pianist. “It is also great to be able to perform with various orchestras throughout the world during these competitions,” Lee says. “The Russian orchestras differ a lot from the Americans and then there are the European orchestras who are different again. So it is a highly enriching experience for one to be able to perform with orchestras through competitions.”
“I believe that competitions are a great benefit for young musicians,” Lee says. “I like to meet new and old friends as we will be able to share our our experiences, and communicate together through music, regardless of language.”
The 2019 Cliburn International Junior Competition runs May 31 to June 8