Thomas Yu

CBC Piano Hero Experience

February 2015,

A lot has happened since my last blog entry. The CBC Piano Hero voting round went down to the wire. During most of the week, I was sitting comfortably in spot 3 to 5. However, on the last day I noticed that my spot had dropped significantly. In fact, I was out of the top 10 with only a few hours to go in voting. Thanks to a plethora of friends and family supporting me along the way, I had a late-night surge of votes and get myself back into the game at closing time. In the end, there were only a few votes that separated most of the finalists. I was very lucky to advance to the final round, and credit everyone for not only voting but sharing the link to all their friends!

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A couple days later I was in the office working, when my cell phone rang. CBC Radio producer Robert Rowat explained to me that I was chosen as the winner of the contest. I was very shocked, relieved and excited! To be chosen by such an esteemed jury (Janina Fialkowska, Stewart Goodyear and David Jalbert) was a true honour. The producer told me to get ready for a trip to Toronto in just one week, where I would be performing, recording and studying piano with the TSO and Emannuel Ax. I couldn’t believe it. This is the man who plays with Yo-Yo Ma, is a multi Grammy award-winning artist, and one of the greatest concert pianists of our time. During my years living in Toronto I had watched the TSO many times and dreamt of the opportunity to play with them. That goal would come to fruition in a matter of days. Unbelievable.

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My first responsibility in Toronto was to perform with the TSO. They asked me to play a movement from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. I was the Elephant. It is not a very difficult movement, which was a relief for me as I didn’t really have much time to practice beforehand. I had performed this piece with my fellow amateur pianist and close friend, Christopher Shih. Here is a recording of our performance in Paris of this piece during Pianestival (http://www.pianestival.org), transcribed for 2 pianos. Have a listen while you read (he’s an amazing pianist, and my piano hero!).

After orchestra rehearsal I had the chance to meet with Mr. Ax. He invited me to hang out in his dressing room where we talked about everything from sports to music to just life in general. I found out that he is not only an incredible pianist, but a genuinely kind soul. We talked for half an hour before Maestro Peter Oundjian arrived. I couldn’t believe that I was hanging out with these two great masters.

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The experience of performing twice with the symphony went by very quickly. I made sure in the brief moments to relish the fact that I was onstage at Roy Thomson Hall. The TSO experience was one I dreamed of in the past, and to be able to play alongside them was really amazing.

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The next day I had the opportunity to have a piano lesson with Manny Ax. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I also got to perform on a beautiful Steinway grand piano. It was owned by Lady Eaton and now sits in the office of the president of the Royal Conservatory of Music. CBC Radio filmed everything and I am anxiously awaiting for the final cut. At one point we were asked to do an interview together. Manny had asked me (as I am a periodontist) if flossing was really that important. I responded that my goal in life was to have a business card which would read “Thank you for not flossing”, at which point he burst out laughing. This photo captures the moment in a very genuine way!

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My final responsibility for the weekend was to perform and record in CBC’s famous studio 211. The studio has been home to some of my favourite bands such as Oasis and Arcade Fire. What a studio! It was crazy to be in there, I was in sound equipment heaven. The Steinway piano was also pretty incredible. It was regulated for pop music, but the history of all those who played it gave it a distinct character. It made for a magical moment for me. Again, I will post the video recording when it is finally edited. I can’t wait to see the results.

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The final of many prizes from this incredible contest is an upright Boston piano donated from Steinway piano of Toronto. When I heard of this prize I immediately thought that, if I was to win this contest, I would want to donate it. It makes sense to me to send this piano back to my homeland of Saskatoon. Growing up there, I was supported by so many great people. I want to return the karma back to someone who deserves this piano. They don’t know that it’s coming their way yet, but once the details are sorted out, I can’t wait to have it sent to them.

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All in all, this experience has been once-in-a-lifetime for me. The memories I had this short trip will be with me for the rest of my life. Thank you to Robert Rowat and Guylaine Picard from CBC, Radio-Canada, ICI Musique, TSO, Emmaunel Ax and all my friends and family for making this occasion one of the best I have experienced.

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