Annie Ma – 2018 Recipient

In early March of this year, I was extremely fortunate to receive an invitation to perform at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie, New York as a first prize winner in the Golden Classical Music Awards International Competition. Carnegie Hall is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world and frequently exclusive to performances by internationally acclaimed musicians, so of course I was overjoyed and humbled to be given this opportunity, as well as being excited to travel to New York City for the first time. 

I had chosen to perform Leos Janacek’s Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 ‘From the Street’. This is a rarely performed work in the piano repertoire. However its potent narrative and the challenge in communicating this was what had initially drawn me to learn it. Janacek composed this sonata as a tribute to a worker who was shot by political troops amidst demonstrations in support of a university on 1st October 1905 in Brno, which he himself witnessed. The titles themselves of the movements – Predtucha ( Foreboding ) and Smrt ( Death ) – already allude to its emotional intensity. 

On the day of the performance nerves were inevitable, but in the end my goal was to communicate to the audience the narrative that Janacek had intended, to make them feel the depth of emotions behind this piece of music and of course to enjoy the experience on this special stage. 

International competitions always offer the opportunity to interact with musicians with different musical upbringings and experiences and to be inspired by one another’s mentality towards music-making. Feeding off the positive and restless energy that musicians have for their craft further increases my own ambitions to create better interpretations and performances every time I am onstage. 

This exciting opportunity and worthwhile experience could only be made possible with the assistance of the Theme & Variations Foundation Award. I would like to extend my gratitude to the Foundation for its generosity in continuously opening new doors for us as young pianists.


Annie Ma – 2018 Recipient2019-05-07T03:13:39+00:00

Calvin Abdiel – 2017 Recipient

Thank you for the kind support that the Theme and Variations Foundation has given me through the scholarship. It had really helped me to improve my opportunities as an aspiring performer and artist.

I am grateful to be selected as one of the 42 contestants out of 174 electronic applications for the Aarhus Competition in Denmark. It was a very worthwhile experience; I met contestants from the well-known conservatories around the world, including RAM, Curtis and Eastman. The competition was very well organised; as we arrive at the competition office, we were all given a timetable (akin to the complexity of the London Underground timetable) outlining our spaced-out practice times. We were all assigned a letter and number combination for our identity in the timetable. There was a high degree of professionalism in the competition, including in the high quality of the contestants.

The competition is unique in its adoption of rules from large international competitions. Firstly, it only gives 10 minutes of warm-up time for the 1st round and no warm-up time for the 2nd round. It tests the contestants whether they can adjust to the piano in a short amount of time, which had a heavy touch in this competition. The voting system is also based on large professional competitions, where each competitor receives a Yes or No vote for their performance. This eliminates the chance of mark manipulation during the competition process.

In the competition itself, I progressed to the Semi-Finals but unfortunately didn’t make it to the Finals. Nevertheless, I have learned valuable lessons in competing at such high standards. Most importantly, I have made personal connections with international competitors which (hopefully) will last in my lifetime.

For Calvin’s outstanding performances, click here for Round 1; and click here for Round 2.

Calvin Abdiel – 2017 Recipient2019-05-07T03:00:18+00:00

Oscar Wong – 2017 award recipient

Last year in December I was also fortunate to become a prize winner in the Japan Open International Piano Competition. This event was part of 11 Ways to Malta, a series of piano competitions which ran across two years around the world which included over 730 pianists from 11 different countries to participate in the Malta International Piano Competition. The top five performers from each of the 11 countries were selected to perform in Malta. And so, here I was for the first time in Europe! It turned out to be a thoroughly emotional and memorable trip filled with good food, good wine and great music! 

The competition was divided into three rounds, a 20 minute recital, 50 minute recital and a concerto round. In both recital rounds we were required to perform works by local Maltese composers, Alexey Shor and Joseph Vella. Sadly Mr Vella passed away earlier this year, and the festival performed his music throughout the two weeks to commemorate his life. I had previously performed the Childhood Memories suite by Alexey Shor, who commended my playing during the Japan Piano Open. 

There were 70 performers in the first stage, some extraordinary pianists who are prize winners in the Queen Elisabeth, Tchaikovsky and Chopin and competitions. Unfortunately I wasn’t one of the 40 to proceed to the recital round. However I have no regrets in my efforts, and I am already looking to the future. What I cherished on this occasion was the opportunity to listen to other performers. It was incredibly amusing to discover culture and their personalities which arose from their performances. Evidently, it is the pianist’s personality which is the most important factor in occasions such as competitions. 

I had the immense privilege to listen to my childhood idols including pianists Nikolai Lugansky performing Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody and Grigory Sokolov in a recital of Haydn and Schubert. What a moving experience Sokolov’s recital was! His encore of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90-4 is a performance that will stay with me for my whole life. The festival also featured other maestros such as Maxim Vengerov, Narek Hakhnazaryan and our local hero Ray Chen, whom I met after his concert. 

I am indebted to the generous support from the Theme and Variations Foundation which enabled me to cover the cost of my flights to Malta. 

Warmest wishes,


Oscar Wong – 2017 award recipient2019-02-07T02:39:52+00:00

Postcard from Rachael Shipard – 2017 award recipient

I am very excited about the Canberra International Music Festival! Thanks to the Theme and Variations Foundation and the Festival Director Roland Peelman, I have been invited to participate as the one of the Festival’s Young Artists. I will be playing in a masterclass with Roger Woodward, give a lunchtime solo recital at the National Gallery of Australia, and play a chamber work as part of another concert.

Roger Woodward is an acclaimed Australian pianist and I am looking forward to working with him on some of my current repertoire. I am sure he will provide me with many original ideas that I will enjoy exploring and weaving into my own interpretations of my pieces. I also hope to gain some insight into his thought processes behind his personal musical choices and how he conveys this to his audiences.

My recital will be on the 3rd of May and I will be playing an all-Busoni program: his transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, followed by the 10 Variations and Fugue in free form on Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Op 22. Both of these compositions are based on well-known pieces in their own right: the Chaconne being the final movement from Bach’s Violin Partita No 2 in D minor, and the C minor Prelude is No 20 in Chopin’s set of 24 Preludes, Op 28. I hope I will be able to make it an enjoyable afternoon for everyone present in such an interesting venue!

The chamber work that I will be performing in the ‘Ulysses Now’ Concert on May 2 is titled ‘Angelus’, written by Mary Finsterer for clarinet, cello and piano trio. This is a fairly new work, written and premiered in 2015 by the Melbourne based group, Ensemble Liaison. The Angelus is a traditional Catholic prayer said at 6am, 12noon and 6pm each day – and Finsterer’s composition is based on the famous Millet painting of the same name. The music is also inspired by Gregorian chant, one of the gems of the sacred music tradition. The other musicians for this trio will be (clarinet) and Stephanie Arnold (cello), both of whom I am excited to meet and work with. The composer Magdalenna Krstevska will also be present, which will make the experience even more worthwhile – it is a rare thing for me to be able to play the compositions directly to the composer and receive their invaluable input!

I have also been invited to stay for the rest of the Festival, until May 6, so I will be able to mingle with the other musicians, and soak in the Festival atmosphere! I am very keen to hear some of the spectacular concerts on offer, such as those from the Orava Quartet and Keiko Shichijo. I am very grateful to the Theme and Variations Foundation for this opportunity and I hope to make the most of it!

Postcard from Rachael Shipard – 2017 award recipient2019-02-07T02:37:12+00:00

Postcard from Pavle Cajic – 2014 award recipient

2017 was my year off study, as I did teaching work and private compositional and pianistic work in preparation for my Masters studies this year, which I am currently in the process of auditioning for.

A highlight of this year was the Voces Caelestium 5th charity concert at which I premiered another of my own compositions for orchestra and violin solo, with violin professor from Sydney con, Ole Bohn, playing the solo part and myself conducting (‘Winter, Heartache and Transfiguration’). The recording for that composition (along with recordings of other of my compositions) can be found here, on my soundcloud:

I auditioned for a Masters in composition at two places in London; Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music. I was accepted at the Royal Academy, but could not accept due to the international student fees being too large. I have also applied at three music schools in Germany, in Berlin, Munich and Leipzig. I am still waiting to hear from them as to whether I am passing to the second round of auditions.

I am currently in the UK on a BBM Youth Support scholarship supporting music-related travel in the UK. I am having piano and composition lessons in London and elsewhere. I will be heading over to Germany afterwards to do my auditions.

Best wishes


Postcard from Pavle Cajic – 2014 award recipient2019-02-07T02:45:08+00:00

Postcard from William Shi – 2015 recipient

The year moves along so fast! The last time I wrote an update, I had just finished Semester One of my final year. Now, we’re well into Week 9 and getting into the business end of my (hopefully) last semester of undergraduate study. For my final semester, my only subjects are Practical Studies, Advanced Chamber Music Performance and my Portfolio of Artistic Research (Thesis/Exegesis). A large percentage of my final grade for my Portfolio of Artistic Research will be conducted on this coming Friday, where I will be performing the entire Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.2 Op.18, with my teacher (Max Olding) on 2nd piano. I also had my mid-semester assessment of my chamber music last week, where I performed a segment of Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for Four Hands with my duet partner.

Apart from that, the past few months have been spent intensely practicing (and stressing) for the Lev Vlassenko Piano Competition that just concluded a few days ago. The top 20 competitors all performed Round 1 and 2 before selection into the Semifinals. My Round 1 performance (consisting of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor Book II, Chopin’s Etude in C Major Op.10 No.1, Balakirev’s transcription of Glinka’s The Lark, and Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Kreisler’s Liebesfreud) was a very ‘safe’ performance – right notes first, musicality second. I opened up a lot more in my Round 2 performance, where I performed Clementi’s Sonata in F# minor Op.25 No.5, Tchaikovsky’s Dumka Op.59 and Chopin’s Scherzo No.4 in E major. My Round 2 performance was very successful and much more expressive, and although there were a few blips here and there (I lost some focus due to excitement), it was one of my best performances, according to my teacher. Unfortunately, I didn’t get selected into the semifinals, but I have no regrets over what I have managed to learn about myself and my playing over these past few months. There were people coming up to me after the semifinalists’ announcement saying they thought I should have made it in, and I’d much rather that than people questioning my advancement if I had qualified. The second week of the Competition/Festival gave me the opportunity to perform in a masterclass with juror Rita Reichman which was incredibly insightful; not just for my own playing, but also observing how the other participants improved with Rita’s feedback. There is no doubt I retained nuggets of information which I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

A few other events I was involved in during these last few months include giving a performance at the UQ School of Music Open Day, and performing Bloch’s Concerto Grosso with the Australian String Quartet as part of the St Peters Signature Concert Series. Recently, I’ve also qualified for the finals of UQ’s Margaret Nickson Prize for Voice and Accompaniment – the finals will be held early next month. Our mid-semester break is next week, but it won’t be much of a break for me – I’ll be recording a CD of duets, trios and quartets with the UQ Singers!

Postcard from William Shi – 2015 recipient2019-02-07T02:40:52+00:00

Calvin Abdiel – 2017 award recipient

I would like to update you regarding my musical journey of this year.

I went to Singapore from 28th January to 3th March to participate in piano masterclasses with the renowned American conductor Jahja Ling in Singapore. Jahja Ling is a renowned conductor worldwide, previously being resident conductors of Cleveland Orchestra and the Sand Diego Orchestra. He was previously a bronze winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in 1977. He also received a Certificate of Honor at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. I presented to him my repertoire of my auditions in both Juilliard and Curtis. These masterclasses were very insightful, as the Maestro focuses on intricate details which further polishes my performance of the pieces.

In regards to applications for American colleges, I have been accepted to audition for Juilliard on the 28th of February, 4:00pm. Despite knowing that the auditions last 10-15 minutes from their official video, I have been diligent in polishing up my performance of my audition pieces. For Curtis, I am still waiting for my invitation for audition, which will be given on the 14th of February.

Meanwhile, I will be working on the Franck Violin Sonata at school with my friend, Oliver Lee. I am also learning movements of Ravel’s Piano Trio and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio with him and a cellist (Issac Davis). I will also be preparing for the Cooper International Piano Competition, recommended by Jahja Ling as the conductor of the Finals round. Among the repertoire include the Scriabin Sonata No. 5 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

I would like to thank the Theme and Variations Foundation for helping me cover the expenses for the masterclasses in Singapore and travel fees for the auditions in America. You have been a great blessing for me and I wish you the very best for the years to come.

Warm Regards,


Calvin Abdiel – 2017 award recipient2019-02-01T06:11:19+00:00

Rachael Shipard – 2017 award recipient

Moscow was a great experience! I went there for a week for the Moscow Conservatory Winter School.

The School was well organised and I was catered for just like the resident Conservatory students – meals and accomodation were all provided on campus. I found it a very educational and enjoyable experience: I was able to receive 4 private lessons with outstanding teachers from their piano faculty (3 lessons with Irina Plotnikova – who is a prize winner of the Sydney International and Tchaikovsky Piano Competitions, and 1 lesson with Alexander Strukov who was on the jury of the Lev Vlassenko Competition last year). Lessons were scheduled every other day, giving me ample time to practise and prepare for my next lesson. I was given one practice room for the whole day, every day. Although the Winter School was for all instruments, many of the students were pianists, so I was surrounded by likeminded people who had similar goals and aspirations.

I was also fortunate enough to gain free entry to concerts at the Conservatory every night of my stay! I listened to many piano recitals, witnessed a Russian choir singing traditional folk and Russian Orthodox sacred music, and I watched an organ concert and a piano/violin duo recital.
The Conservatory also organised some excursions in our free time. We were taken to the Tsaritsyno Park and Palace on the outskirts of Moscow – it was one of the palaces of Catherine the Great. We also saw the flats of Sviatoslav Richter which have been well preserved with his furniture and pianos still in place, plus precious mementos and artwork from friends. There were also many postcards that he wrote to loved ones while in France or Italy – his favourite countries to enjoy the culture and the people.

I also managed to visit Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral in my own time. I was interested in the Russian architecture and the religious piety of the people. Although I could see the influence of European styles and ideas in their buildings, there was a distinct Russian touch – sturdy structures, wonderful bright colours and patterns. The beautiful sacred icons that are central to worship in the Russian Orthodox religion were on full display in St Basil’s and some other small churches that I visited.

I learnt a lot in Moscow, even how people deal with immensely cold winters! Temperatures got down to -13 degrees which was difficult for me! It was my first time seeing snow too, so that was a new experience.

Thank you,



Rachael Shipard – 2017 award recipient2019-02-07T02:51:46+00:00

Ayesha Gough – 2016 Award Recipient

Recently I travelled to the lovely town of Imola, just a short train journey south-east of Bologna, Italy, in order to audition for the Accademia Pianistica Internazionale “Incontri col Maestro”. After having some masterclasses with one of the Academy’s professors, Boris Petrushansky, earlier in the year, I decided I would like to pursue further study with him in a country I had come to love just as much as Australia. I found the Academy to be even more amazing than expected, situated in an old castle and a town where I felt absolutely at home. My Airbnb hostess was very happy to show me around, introduce me to her friends, and give me a taste of the Italian everyday lifestyle.

The audition was very short, and I felt completely in control of the obvious excitement surrounding it. After such a long build up towards this important event in my life, it was a relief to receive my acceptance email, and gradually the knowledge that I will be fulfilling a wish I have had for over a year now is slowly sinking in. I am elated! Certainly all the assistance I have received from such organisations as the Theme and Variations Foundation has forged a much easier path for me towards this goal, and I most definitely felt all the well-wishes and support with me throughout my audition trip.


Ayesha Gough – 2016 Award Recipient2019-02-01T06:44:07+00:00

Alexander Yau – 2016 Award Recipient

I am very honoured to be one of the winners of the Theme & Variations Foundation Award. It will assist and support me hugely in my future musical developments and plans, therefore I gave thanks to everyone involved in the Foundation particularly Ara and Nyree Vartoukian, Anita Levy and Professor Michael Brimer.

This year has been a big year for me. I travelled to New Zealand for the Keri-Keri International Competition where I was a semi-finalist; to Italy for the European Chamber Music Summer School, which I had tutorials with Alexey Sokolov and Christian Mueller on solo and chamber music repertoires and performed both the Schumann and Franck Piano Quintets with colleagues from the Sydney Conservatorium; and to Germany for the International Mendelssohn Akademie in Leipzig, which I was a recipient of the Mendelssohn Scholarship and played in a master course with world renowned teachers, Pavel Gililov and Arie Vardi.

This year had also a huge year for me in terms of repertoire. The Liszt Sonata in B minor was a piece I adored and started learning at the age of ten. This year it became a highlight of my performances, performing it publicly four times (Sonata concert at the Sydney Conservatorium, the finals of the John Allison/Henderson Scholarships, Großer Saal of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig and finally in my 3rd year recital) and recording it in the Verbruggen Hall two times. I was also very lucky to have given the opportunity to perform the magnificent Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2 with the Sydney Conservatorium Orchestra with Eduardo Diazmunoz with great success. Other solo works throughout the year I performed in concerts and competitions include Medtner Sonata Tragica, Chopin Polonaise in F# minor, Fantasy in F minor, Etudes no. 5 and 6 Op. 25 and 3 Mazurkas, Liszt La Campanella and Harmonies du Soir, Mozart Sonata K330, Ravel Une barque sur l’ocean and Stravinsky Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, and many other smaller works too.

I had the pleasure of working with cellist and pianist Nicholas Kennedy and violinist Brian Hong, with whom we collaborated in a chamber group for a year and a half. We received top marks in our chamber exams. We played the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, Brahms Trio in B and Arensky Trio in D minor. I have also performed and recorded the Franck Violin Sonata with violinist Yejin Min and a recital with cellist Hyung-Suk Bae performing an all-Schumann program.

Last month, I began planning my next year at the Sydney Conservatorium, which will be my last year. I will be continuing my chamber group with many more wonderful trios to play and of course continue to explore, learn and perform large amounts of great solo repertoire. To add to the challenge, I have applied for the International Beethoven Piano Competition 2017 in Vienna, which is a very tough and extremely high-standard competition and requires contestants to play only works by Beethoven. I will be doing the international selection round in Tokyo in February next year, for which I have to prepared Sonata in F Op. 10 no. 2, ‘Waldstein’ Sonata Op. 53 and 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80 all of which by Beethoven. Although I have performed the latter two works during my high school years, it does not make them any easier to play. However I began to appreciate the genius in the music and understand the works to a higher degree through my musical experiences over the years. I will be looking forward to preparing and working towards the international selection round in Tokyo in February next year.

That’s all for now!

Kind regards,
Alexander Yau


Alexander Yau – 2016 Award Recipient2019-02-01T06:45:16+00:00
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