Eberhard Zagrosek is an amateur pianist from Germany, who was also the past director of the Berlin International Piano Competition for Amateurs. Unfortunately due to financial restraint, this competition had to fold, which was disappointing because I very much wanted to participate. I always felt that Eberhard organized fair and well-structured competitions which truly showcased amateur pianists, not any other kind of fanfare. So when he sent out an invitation to participate in Musikfest Stuttgart (http://www.musikfest.de), I did not hesitate to say yes.
Musikfest is a summer festival put on by the Bachakademie (http://www.bachakademie.de) and features prominent international musicians. It was their first venture into inviting amateur pianists, so I’m sure Eberhard wished to make a good impression as he invited previous winners of amateur piano competitions. We were asked to include a Bach performance, so my programme consisted of Liszt/Bach Prelude and Fugure in a minor, Scriabin Sonata No. 2, and the masterpiece Beethoven Sonata Op. 111. It was a bold choice to play so many heavy pieces, but I always feel that it is best to try to play music from the homeland of where you’re performing. So for me to play German music in Germany was a real honour, though a bit scary.
My first day was catching up with a friend in Bensheim, Manabe Atsutaka. We met in a competition in 2009 in Vienna, and I will never forget his first words to me. “I am in your iPhone!”. He was referring to his profession, as he designs LCD screens for things like smart phones and HDTVs. It’s so cool to meet other amateur pianists who have such varied profession, though we all share a common love for piano. Atsu took me mountain biking around the beautiful hills of Bensheim, where I met up with some sleeping sheep.
The next day, Eberhard invited us to a concert featuring the great Alfred Brendel. He has stopped performing due to his hearing changes, however he still loves the stage as he read poetry and shared stories about love. I didn’t understand any word of it, but the audience was glued to every word he said. After the concert we went to celebrate Winefest (like Oktoberfest but with wine). I had the chance to talk a bit with Abel Sanchez-Aguilera, a wonderful pianist and scientist from Madrid, Spain.
Before we even took two bites of our meal, we were summoned by Mr. Brendel to meet him at the restaurant where he was eating! We all gasped and couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true meeting one of my idols...I remember just a few days prior listening to Brendel’s version of the Beethoven Op. 111 and now there he was! I recall Eberhard telling him about all the pieces we were going to perform, to which he replied “these pianists are not amateurs”. I was in awe.
I was able to practice at Pianohaus Fischer, where there were countless Faziolis and C. Bechsteins to play. The owners were very courteous, as were all people I met, and I was in piano heaven.
The concert was in a beautiful hall in Neues Schloss (Weisser Saal) which seats about 500. Most of the concert was really well-attended, to the delight of everyone. I was particularly not so nervous this time, as I usually am. I felt a sense of calm when playing, and the energy of the audience kept me focused. All pieces went really well, and I was quite satisfied with my playing. I was in particular really happy with the Beethoven. It’s a difficult piece to play, both physically and mentally. It’s hard sometimes for me to through that door, to play the 111, as it takes to you depths inside your soul that at times you are uncomfortable revealing. Needless to say, when you capture that moment, the reward is too deep to explain, and everyone feels the same way. The audience reception was very receptive so I decided to play an encore, Widmung by Schumman, transcribed by Liszt. I actually didn’t want the experience to end, as it was a magical evening. I don’t have a picture of myself performing, but this was Eberhard’s recital that you can see. It was so touching when he came backstage to compliment me on my recital, and when he mentioned the Beethoven...tears came down his face. It was a moment of souls meeting each other, and it’s a moment I won’t forget.
The experience was amazing. Meeting Brendel was a highlight, and the recital was well worth the trip, but there were more highlights to come. My friend and fellow pianist, Matthias Fischer (psychiatrist from Germany) decided to rent a Porsche 911 for an hour. We took it on the Autobahn at ridiculous speeds...taking the car to 295km/hr! It was an unreal experience, and one that I wish to try again some day!
The final night was capped off with drinks and good times with all the pianists, including Henri Delbeau, one of the first amateur pianists to win competitions and make it on “the scene”. He’s a physician from New York and is always a hoot to hang with. Can’t wait until the next festival...I already requested heavily to be invited back, and I hope they will.
Anyone who dares to play Beethoven's last Piano Sonata Opus 111 must be fearless and confident in his skills. In the case of Thomas Yu, both are true...[He] plays the piece with elegance and depth...and his interpretation was the highlight of the festival day.Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's largest newspaper, translated.