It has been a big week for Canada in the world of classical music. Two Canadians were prize winners in the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years in Warsaw. Charles Richard-Hamelin, 26, won the competition's silver medal. And Yike (Tony) Yang, still a Toronto high school student, at 16 became the youngest prize winner in the history of the competition, with his fifth-place finish. The Globe and Mail caught up with Tony a couple of days after his win.
Congratulations. You must feel a combination of excitement and exhaustion at this point.
More exhaustion, actually.
How does the Chopin compare to other competitions you've been in?
This competition is far more important and so much bigger than all the other competitions I've ever done so far. The jury is so prestigious. The hall is beautiful. And just being in Warsaw and feeling the atmosphere is very special.
Piano competitions are very controversial in the world of classical music. There's always so much pressure involved; it can be a pretty miserable experience.
I think it's a combination of both pleasant and miserable experiences. I think this one generally is pretty pleasant. But the length of the competition is gruelling – this is the first time I've ever been away from home for almost a month. So it's hard. But people do competitions for different reasons. Some people do it for promotion, some people do it to improve themselves. For me, it was mainly a very valuable learning experience. I learned more about myself – about how I play, how I get nervous – that made it very valuable.
You're only 16. Did you think about waiting until the next Chopin competition in five years to compete?
Yeah, I expected that in 2020 that I'd be competing seriously. I just applied this time and I thought I'd come here for fun, and just get some experience. And just to meet some people – some jury members and staff people and others in the business. I actually imagined meeting the winners and just talking to them – and being a fan. Not being one of the winners myself!
I watched your final concerto round live last Tuesday, just sitting in my living room, on YouTube.
That's pretty crazy.
I thought you played beautifully – but was there a problem with you and the orchestra in the final movement?
Yeah. You see, I didn't really expect to get into the finals. It was a big surprise, so I was, "Damn, I didn't really prepare for this." The first two movements went very well, but when the third movement hit, with its fast runs, some nerves came in, and caused a couple of problems.
But this wasn't a concerto (the Chopin Second) that you were learning for the first time.
No, I wasn't learning it for the first time, but I never really picked it up in detail. I started my preparation for it after the third-round announcement. That was about three days.
You talked about that jury. Was it sort of scary, with Martha Argerich and Yundi Li and Krystian Zimerman, some of the biggest names in the business, listening to you?
Yeah, pretty intimidating. But I tried my best not to think about the names because I think that added even more pressure. Now that it's finished, I can look back at the whole experience. It's been an incredible journey – I can't believe it's real.