Pianist Brian Wang wins Concerto Competition

On Tuesday, December 6th, Cornell musicians entered Barnes Hall for the 18th annual Cornell Concerto Competition. In front of adjudicators Kyle Armbrust (Assistant Professor of Viola at Ithaca College), Wendy Mehne (Professor of Flute at Ithaca College), and Dmitri Novgorodsky, (Associate Professor of Piano at Ithaca College) they performed their chosen concertos for the opportunity to play with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra as a featured soloist in their next concert on March 11 at 3pm in Bailey Hall.

The opportunity to play with CSO and in a competitive setting motivated many musically gifted students to showcase their work. For finalist Dean Zhang, “the chance of being able to perform with Cornell’s Symphony Orchestra was an exciting possibility, which strongly influenced my decision to participate.” The exciting opportunity also proved to be great motivation to practice and improve in music in the midst of other Cornell studies. “Since I did not participate in any musical activity this semester…I wanted to have something that would motivate me to practice by myself. The competition seemed like a perfect fit,” said finalist Judy Wang.

“To play with an orchestra is the memory of a lifetime, so it’s important to provide this opportunity to our students. Participating in a concerto competition can also motivate musicians to reach a higher level of fluency with the piece they are working on,” notes CSO conductor Guillaume Pirard. It’s also a great opportunity for students in the orchestra who “get to support and help someone else’s artistic vision, one of the great delights of music making, and play wonderful repertoire we rarely have access to.”

The hard work these students put in paid off: “The concerto competition displayed the incredible depth of musical talents in the Cornell community,” said Pirard. “My favorite part of the competition was getting to hear my amazing peers perform. It was very motivating and inspiring to have been able to play with such talented musicians,” adds Dean. And that talent was exemplified in the playing of this year’s winner, Brian Wang. Brian is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences studying Biological Sciences. In general, he finds music to be “a great change of pace for me from my science-heavy class list.” He lives in New York City, where he studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Division. At Cornell, he studies with Professor Xak Bjerken. Bjerken’s “wonderful and incredibly insightful teaching” helped Brian prepare the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto for this competition. Brian has loved this piece for years. “I first listened to it in high school and I was drawn to the improvisatory opening cadenza and the simple but beautiful themes. However, I was busy at the time with other repertoire so I set it aside for the time being.”

But the Concerto Competition provided the perfect opportunity to revisit the piece. “I think this piece is an especially fun one to play. It has a lot of light, shimmering virtuosic passages that are physically fun to play, but also a lot of melancholic thematic material that makes it emotionally satisfying to perform.” His love for the piece and thought behind his performance was apparent to the panel and to Pirard: “The orchestra is doubly looking forward to playing with Brian, for the mastery and sensibility he displayed during the competition, and the fact that we have not had a piano soloist winning the competition in some time. We’re eager to get started!” And the feeling is definitely mutual; Brian is “really looking forward to working with the amazing musicians in the Cornell Symphony Orchestra! I have gotten to know many of the members as musicians and as friends and I’m really excited to work with everyone on this material.”

Outside of his private piano studies, Brian is also the president of Cornell Piano Society, a student organization that organizes student-to-student piano lessons for Cornell community members. In his free time, Brian also enjoys playing the violin and rock climbing.

For all the musicians who participated, the competition was a learning opportunity. “Competition helps me challenge myself to bring repertoire to the highest level possible – I think that preparing pieces for competition always helps me learn more about musicianship and performance skills,” said Brian. Dean agrees: “I found that competing brought out a new musical side of me…[it] encouraged me to practice more and further explore new musically creative ideas. I’ve definitely come out the other side as a more confident and virtuosic soloist.”

Brian is  is grateful for any opportunity to perform. “I think that ultimately making music is all about sharing that experience with others – so to me, performing, informally or formally, is an essential part of being a musician.” See Brian and the Cornell Symphony Orchestra share their playing on March 11!

Adedayo Perkovich '25 is a communications assistant in the Department of Music.

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