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Andrew Freris
Andrew Freris

Interview: Anabella and Andrew Freris on The Joy of Music Festival

"We have only one rule and that is we don't run our competition according to rules"

Written by
Josiah Ng

At Time Out we occasionally harp on about piano and musical education in Hong Kong being merely a credential rather than something appreciated for its own sake. Andrew and Anabella Freris, the masterminds behind the annual Joy of Music Festival and, more importantly, this year’s return of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition, are in the business of changing all of that.

The triennial piano contest makes its return in conjunction with The Joy of Music Festival, following the competition suspension in 2014 due to the Occupy protests. Andrew Freris, when asked to describe the competition, says: “We like to think of it as a festival that also includes a competition, rather than the other way around.

And rightly so. The festival itself is a month-long extravaganza of music. From September 26 to October 13, there is a total of eight gala performances from a wide array of accomplished international musicians, featuring an equally expansive selection of repertoire. The performers consist of first prize winners from other international competitions recognised by the World Federation of International Music Competitions, as well as past winners and members of the jury from the Hong Kong competition.

The amount of music made by the contest’s jury for the Hong Kong International Piano Competition has been and remains a major feature of the festival. “We’re the only competition where the jurors sit, vote and then play,” Andrew Freris asserts. “This is meant to show not just how great [the jurors] are but to show their music. This remains a crucial part of the competition because it emphasises music making.”

Indeed, dedication to music making is evident in how the competition is run. In particular, the second round of the competition onwards is designed to test every aspect of a contestant’s music making ability. After a gruelling audition process and a first round that eliminates half of the contestants, only then do the aforementioned international first prize winners join the main competition, in the second round.

“Basically, what we want to say with this,” Andrew shares, “is that you can’t just be good. You have to be good amongst the very good.” He adds that perhaps his favourite round of the competition is the third, where musicians play piano quartets and quintets, rather than a solo recital. “That is, for me,” says Freris, “a huge test because the piano is the main voice and they’ll have to converse with four other musicians, so it’s a double responsibility.”

“Pianists must know and play a very wide repertoire,” says Andrew, “And they are not easy pieces either, technically or emotionally.” These pieces include anything from the classical masters and a competition-exclusive piece in the early rounds to quartets and quintets by composers Brahms, Dvořák, Franck and Schumann, and concertos by Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and more in the final rounds.

With so much formal framework, how do the organisers ensure the event remains about the music? According to Anabella Freris, it starts with the judging. “[The judges] ask us ‘where are the rules [for judging interpretations of pieces] for the jury?’” she says, “There are no rules. Just listen, be honest and vote. We have only one rule and that is we don't run our competition according to rules.” 

“Actually, Andrew and I don’t believe in competitions [in the traditional sense],” Anabella admits. “And that’s why we’ve started our own. We leave [behind] the idea of a competition a bit more each year. It’s not a race and that’s exactly what we want.”

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