Out & about: classical
Straight outta Syria
Riyad Nicolas, 15 but with the poise of a 30-year-old, looks at me as if I am mad. I have just asked him if he feels exceptional - a Chopin-loving pianist from Syria. After all, I reason, the Middle East is hardly noted for its production of classical musicians. Nicolas says there are many good pianists in Syria and Lebanon, and he should know: he has competed against them in domestic competitions. "I think this idea that we have no appreciation of classical music is a myth," he says. My vision of Syria, it seems, is as myopic as George Bush's.
Nicolas is the youngest competitor in the London International Piano Competition, which started at the Royal Academy of Music this week and ends at the Royal Festival Hall next Tuesday (details: 0870 4018181 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 0870 4018181 end_of_the_skype_highlighting). The field comprises 24 pianists under 30; these will be whittled down to three, who will each play a concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the final.
The overall winner gets £14,000, a guaranteed number of recitals and a record deal with Naxos. Winning or being placed gives a young pianist a huge boost in this ultra-competitive world. Previous prizewinners in the competition, which began in 1991, include Ashley Wass, Paul Lewis, AnttiSiirala and Simon Trpceski.
Nicolas, who is up against pianists almost twice his age, isn't predicting victory, but nor is he intimidated by the opposition. "I am very happy to have been accepted at this age," he says, "but I'm not afraid of the older competitors. I have won all-age-group competitions in Syria." And his role models? "Richter and Pollini," he says with a laugh.
He studies at a conservatory in Aleppo in northern Syria. There he had two Russian teachers, and their influence is apparent in the way he attacks the romantic repertoire and in his choice of composers: he played Scriabin and Rachmaninov in the first stage of the competition and has lined up Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and Rachmaninov's Concerto No 2 if he progresses further.
At the very least, Nicolas is hopeful of winning one of the four awards for younger pianists and says that, with a grant, he would hope to come to London to study. And does he believe he will make it as a concert pianist? "Yes, I hope so. I think that it will be." If only to scotch forever the notion that there is no culture of classical music in the Middle East.