For Ottawa-born cellist Bryan Cheng, winning the Grand Prize in the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Competition (OSM Competition) was a true homecoming victory.

Bryan Cheng
© Lino Cipresso

“Although I was born and raised in Ottawa, I spent eight years studying in Montréal as a teenager to study with Yuli Turovsky, the cellist and conductor. Montréal is really my second Canadian home because I spent so much of my childhood there, going every other weekend for lessons. Every time I come back, even in stressful situations like competitions, the familiarity and comfort really touch me,” Cheng remarks.

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal organises its prestigious competition annually, alternating between instrument categories and boasting a list of laureates that includes Angela Hewitt, James Ehnes, and Jan Lisiecki. Cheng was selected by an impressive jury headed by David Pickard, the Director of the BBC Proms, and also including OSM musical director Kent Nagano and cellist Johannes Moser. 

“Bryan Cheng is an outstanding young artist and worthy winner of the OSM Competition,” comments Pickard. “All the judges were incredibly impressed with the beauty of his playing, the confidence of his performance and his innate musicality. When looking for the winner of the competition we sought not just a performer with a solid technique, but also somebody who had something to say about the music and a real connection with the audience. Bryan impressed on every level.” 

As Cheng recalls, “when they were listing the laureates onstage, it’s really a hall of fame of musicians not just within Canada, but on the world stage. It’s a real privilege to be part of that, and I hope I can live up to the standards that have been set by my forbearers. I hope I’ll have the chance to collaborate with these artists – actually, I’m playing at Angela Hewitt’s festival next summer in Italy, so I’m already starting to connect with those other winners. It creates this family, where you’re connected by this singular event and you’re all part of this same lineage.”

This wasn’t Cheng’s first experience with the OSM Competition, having competed in 2013 and 2016 and winning third and second place respectively. “Competing again this time was a bit of a risk!” Cheng laughs. “But having won the grand prize this time was a nice linear progression. To be honest, it was really surreal – I don’t think it really sunk in until my plane ride home the next day. When you’re caught up in the moment with all these photographers and people to meet, I was just really happy. It felt like a really nice way to be recognized for all the hard work that I had put in. To go out onto that stage, put on display what you’ve been working on and then be recognized for that was really special.”

As part of the prize, Cheng will appear with the orchestra under the baton of Matthias Pintscher in February 2020. “I’m really looking forward to that! It’s an orchestra I’ve admired for so long and it’s one of the top orchestras in Canada and the world,” he comments. The Dvořák concerto, which he will be performing, is a piece that he has had a long association with. “My teacher in Montréal always had the philosophy of giving me pieces that were a little bit out of my comfort range, a little bit too difficult. The Dvořák was a piece I started when I was ten years old and I played it with a few orchestras around Canada shortly after that. I definitely have a long history with it, I am so excited about playing it next season and I am looking forward to see how I play it ten years from now!”

Alongside the Dvořák concerto, Cheng’s competition repertoire included Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro and Poulenc’s demanding Sonata. How does he pick his competition repertoire? “Usually I play pieces that I’ve done for at least a few years,” he explains, “because going into a competition setting is like putting all of your skills into battle. It reveals all your vulnerabilities and flaws, like putting yourself under a microscope. In order to withstand that kind of stress, every single fibre of your body needs to know the music. I’ve also toured with these pieces a lot in the past few years. When you play these pieces in concert and on tour, in different cities and venues, when you’re tired and jet-lagged, it prepares you for these kinds of competition situations. They’re not the easiest pieces, especially the Poulenc!”

Bryan Cheng on stage at the OSM Competition
© Lino Cipresso

In addition to the grand prize, Cheng also received the prize for the best performance of a Canadian work, by composer Ana Sokolovic. “I’m a big proponent of playing as much new music as possible, especially Canadian music, as we have such a wealth of talent and really distinct voice that deserves to be heard,” he explains. “Having had a lot of experience with contemporary music was great in preparing for this competition – it also helped that it was a great piece. I’m also familiar with Ana’s work, both chamber and orchestral and I did get in touch with her before the competition. It was such a rewarding experience for me and I think I’ll continue to perform it!”

Balancing old and new music is a top priority for Cheng, as he describes some of his upcoming projects. “I’ve done several commissioning projects in the past and have one coming up next year as well for the Beethoven celebrations, titled Ludwig & Beyond. I’m playing his complete cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas alongside three new commissions that are each based on one of the sonatas. Those will be from two Canadian composers, Samy Moussa and Dinuk Wijeratne and one from the American composer Paul Wiancko. That’s what’s so exciting about new music – each person who played Ana’s piece in the competition had hugely varying interpretations and it was fascinating to witness the same piece side by side and how different it could be even with the same combination of notes.”

Having won top prizes in a number of international competitions in the past few years, Cheng muses on the role of competitions for a young artist. “I think competitions are a necessary evil in a way – music can’t be judged because it’s such a subjective field,” he comments. “I think, however, that you gain a lot of experience from doing competitions and that is mostly why I do it. You have incredible artistic and technical growth in such a short time and if you’re lucky enough to win, then the support that you get from the prizes is fantastic. For me, the ultimate goal as a musician is to play for the people and that’s also what I try and do in a competition. I treat it as a concert, even though it’s easier said than done.”

Does he prepare any differently for concerts and competitions? “I don’t think I consciously prepare differently for competitions and concerts,” Cheng tells me. “I definitely prepare vigorously – having known these pieces for a long time, I definitely didn’t take any of them for granted. I went back to the basics, made sure that the foundations were there and made sure to play them a lot for my colleagues. For me, one of most difficult things is playing for your peers and I really respect every single one of my classmates – that’s another nerve-wracking experience. I think once you put yourself in the mindset that competitions are just like concerts with a little bit more stress, it becomes less daunting.”

Kent Nagano and David Pickard with winner Bryan Cheng
© Lino Cipresso

And what makes the OSM Competition in particular unique? “I think it’s really wonderful that the competition offers these programmes outside the concerts themselves,” Cheng comments, referring to the workshops and mentoring experiences provided for the contestants. “Everyone who makes it to the competition has achieved something amazing. When you walk away, you have not just the personal experiences like the outreach, the masterclasses and mentoring, but also everyone ended up with a prize or scholarship in the end. I think this competition is so wonderful in the way that it supports everyone that participates.” He also enthuses over the warmth of Montréal audiences, commenting that “the most memorable moment was definitely when I played my last note onstage – it was just this euphoric feeling that I don’t often get. It was such a combination of things: I had prepared so much for this moment, the performance went really well and the audience was just completely enraptured and I could feel that they were listening to every note. It was really moving.”

Though Cheng has been studying in Berlin for the past few years, Canada will always feel like home. “It’s amazing how many world-class musicians we’ve fostered in Canada,” Cheng concludes. “It speaks a lot to the way music is valued and the number of great teachers, organisations and competitions that are exist. Many countries don’t have the same musical infrastructure that we have and for that reason alone I feel blessed to be Canadian!”

This interview was sponsored by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.