In the words of Marie-Claude Lavallée, the journalist and radio host who presided over the closing ceremony of the Concours Musical International de Montréal Piano Competition closing ceremony, the proceedings “have never been more international than this year.” She wasn’t talking about the nationalities of the 26 competitors, who collectively represented eleven countries across three continents. Rather, she was referring to this year’s streaming format, necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, that beamed the tournament to a truly global audience.

Su Yeon Kim, the winner of the 2021 Concours musical international de Montréal
© Denise Tamara

After the initial group of semifinalists were winnowed down to a core group of eight contenders on 30th April, the proceedings unfolded over the course of a week, with two hour-long piano recitals presented over the course of four days. The event culminated in the announcement of three winners, along with additional awards that recognized audience admiration, philanthropic engagement and Canadian pride. “These past weeks, we followed them with great emotion,” Lavallée said. “It was quite impressive, I must say, to watch the performances. The level was once again absolutely amazing.”

Indeed it was. Under normal circumstances, the finalists would have gathered in Quebec for a live performance that included a concerto with orchestra. The pandemic restrictions allowed for a new level of creativity, said Charles Richard-Hamelin, a former laureate who served as a member of the 2021 jury. “The final without a concerto had the advantage of bringing forward the artistic sensibility of each pianist. Instead of hearing the same handful of virtuoso concertos, we were treated to eight subtle and varied recitals, where some competitors dared program less frequently heard works.”

Preparing and executing a solo chamber recital is a daunting task for a seasoned artist, much less an emerging performer at the start of his or her career. Each of the eight finalists carried off the assignment with style and finesse. “Knowing this music was shared all over the world, with so many people, makes me very happy and somewhat confident for the future of classical music,” said legendary arts administrator Zarin Mehta, who served as president of the festival jury.

Su Yeon Kim during her winning performance at the Concours musical international de Montréal
© Concours musical international de Montréal

The grand prize went to Su Yeon Kim, representing South Korea. In addition to a cash honorarium of $30,000, Kim will receive career management and concert booking services from Forbes International Artist Management, an artists’ residency at Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity, a solo recording on the Steinway & Sons record label, a three-city concert tour of North America and the opportunity to perform as a soloist in a concerto with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, CMIM’s official orchestra.

Yoichiro Chiba, Second Prize at the Concours musical international de Montréal
© Courtesy of CMIM

In her acceptance remarks, Kim spoke modestly of the challenges associated with filming a virtual performance. “It was very difficult and challenging for me to play in front of the camera in such an empty space, because I had to deliver and also imagine at the same time that the audience was there,” she said. “I had to bring my musicality also to deliver the full inspiration.”

Whatever struggles Kim felt remained hidden to the viewer. She emerged not just as a skilled technician but a refined, probing artist. Her rendition of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit was notable not just for how easily she dispatched the finger-breaking, hand-twisting demands of the score, but the eerie tension she built across the work’s three ghoulish movements. This was a thought-through, fully realized interpretation, the kind you’d expect from a veteran of the recital circuit. She also offered a unique and memorable reading of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 30 in E major, which sustained a complete elegance throughout but still gave voice to the hard-charging fortes in the Prestissimo.

Yoichiro Chiba of Japan took second place. An energetic performance of Schumann’s turbulent Kreisleriana anchored his recital, which also included selections from Scarlatti and Stravinsky. Chiba received a cash prize of $15,000, furnished by Quebecor. “I’d like to express my gratitude to all the volunteers and staffers of the Montréal competition,” Chiba said upon learning of his win. “I would also like to thank the great works and composers, because the reason for this prize is them.”

Dimitri Malignan, Third Prize, ICI Musique Audience Award and Festival Montréal Award
© Courtesy of CMIM

French pianist Dimitri Malignan cleaned up at the closing ceremony. Not only did he claim third prize, but he also walked away with the ICI Musique Audience Award and Festival Bach Montréal Award for the best performance of a work by Johann Sebastian Bach. Malignan’s refined performance of the Fantasia in C minor gave the impression of historically informed technique, despite his use of a modern piano. 

“Each award comforts me and validates my work over the past few years,” Malignan said. “More specifically, in terms of short-term projects, I will record my second CD in June, which will be dedicated exclusively to J.S. Bach. Thus, the Bach Prize gives me more courage and confidence to undertake this great project.”

Malignan praised his competitors for taking the challenges of Covid in his stride. “I am sure that all my fellow competitors, like me, have had to deal with many unusual and highly stressful situations, and I salute them for having nevertheless been able to offer a very high level to the public despite the obstacles,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself, about my endurance, about my capacities of resilience, and about the confidence which I place in my musical choices. The fact of pre-registering the event in an empty room is extremely counterintuitive (and quite intimidating for some), but the professionalism and the kindness of the CMIM team allowed this to take place in the best possible conditions, and it was ultimately a very enriching experience.”

Toronto native Alice Burla was the hometown favorite, winning the André Bourbeau Award for Best Canadian Artist. She also captured the André Bachand Award for outstanding performance of the compulsory Canadian work on the program. All finalists were required to perform three selections from the 24 Preludes by Ontario-based composer John Burge, including the fiendish Allegro energico and Spring Thaw, which compels the pianist to pluck strings with her right hand while playing with the left. 

“In the moment while playing, I felt a lot of gratitude to be able to play this music, and to be able to show it to the world,” Burla said. “I was just trying to enjoy the sonorities that are so beautifully put together that I could enjoy playing and the audience could enjoy listening to.”

The Bita Cattelan Philanthropic Engagement Award, which recognizes a young artist who has demonstrated a commitment to volunteerism and community engagement, was presented to Anna Han, a semifinalist who did not advance to the final competition. In a moment all-too-familiar in our digital times, Han was unable to give her acceptance speech due to technical difficulties.

The 20th edition of CMIM, which focuses on the voice, will hopefully return as an in-person event in 2022. However, laureate Kim made it known that she didn’t feel slighted in the least by having to perform remotely. “I don't want to lose any one moment of CMIM!” she effused. “Of course I cannot forget the time while performing for the semi/final round, and also the time when I've just watched the Bach concerto by 12 pianists! It was so meaningful that the music was connected all together from all over the world.”

This article was sponsored by the Concours Musical International de Montréal