“He started at a very early age.” So it is written of many competition laureates.
Bryn Blackwood, 28, the winner last April of the 42nd Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition in Brandon, Manitoba, took up the piano just before he turned 16.
“Mine was a bit of a strange case,” he commented from his hometown of Simcoe, Ontario. Tiring of the trombone he was playing at school, Blackwood came across a performance of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 on the then-fledgling platform of YouTube.
“I decided that I wanted to play it,” he recalls, “even though it was drastically too hard for me at the time.” At last the broken-down family piano was pressed into service.
Lessons with Virginia Blaha followed in nearby Brantford, then an extra year of high school and acceptance as a Bachelor of Music student under James Hibbard at Western University. After this Blackwood earned his Master of Music degree at McGill under Ilya Poletaev.
“Going to McGill was what kicked me into gear,” he says. “That peer environment of a high level was extremely beneficial.” Now Blackwood is studying under Marietta Orlov as a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the University of Toronto.
Early in his career Blackwood developed a fascination with the early 20th century. The Eckhardt-Gramatté contest focuses strictly on post-1950 repertoire and requires 50 percent of the pieces performed to be Canadian.
“A little out of my comfort zone, which was awesome,” he says. His competition portfolio included works by Jean Coulthard, Jacques Hétu (the well-known Variations Op. 8), George Crumb, Samuel Barber and Toru Takemitsu.
The imposed piece by Brian Current was Far Beyond Things Finite. Blackwood won the prize for best performance of this. Awhirl, a work by the American composer Rand Steiger for piano and live electronics, probably made a good impression.
The Eckhardt-Gramatté prize package is valued at $15,000. This includes a $6,000 cash award, a recital at the Casalmaggiore International Music Festival in Italy (which went well in July) and recital tour of Canada (from Sackville, New Brunswick to Vancouver) starting in November.
His doctoral dissertation concerns the Ukrainian-born American modernist Leo Ornstein (1895-2002). This thorny repertoire is a far cry from the music of Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) a prolific composer of classical sonatas to whom Blackwood happens to be related on his mother’s side. A branch of the Clementi family settled in Peterborough, Ontario in the 19th century.
“To be honest, I’ve played only one sonata of his,” Blackwood confesses. “If I had played piano when I was younger, I’m sure I would have played more!”