A competitor confronts the jury at Lang Lang Competition

We have received the following report from Antonio Pompa-Baldi, professor of piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and we publish it with the specific consent of Lang Lang. You will rarely read so candid a report from a competition juror:


Something very sad happened this morning in Shenzhen, at the Lang Lang Shenzhen Futian International Piano Competition. I have known the young pianist Shuan Hern Lee for many years. I first heard him at the San Jose International Piano Competition when he was 8 years old, I think. I have met him again while judging the E-Competition in Minneapolis in 2017, and recently I listened to his preliminary round for the Junior Cliburn Competition. Shuan Hern was the winner in San Jose and Minneapolis, and he passed the preliminary round of the Cliburn. I voted for him every time, because he is extremely talented, and very proficient on stage. Several of my colleagues here also knew him from other competitions, and all praised him for his playing.

In Shenzhen, he passed the first round with a very high score, and was positioned well to have a good chance at winning first prize. Then, something very strange, and very sad, happened.

After the first round, we decided to take not 6 finalists, but 10. It’s a much higher number, but the jury unanimously felt it was necessary. There were several contestants tied, all with high scores, and we wanted to give them all a chance to showcase their talent one more time, in the final round of the competition.

The festival here has to try and keep on schedule, because aside from the competition there are other events such as masterclasses and lectures. We needed to try and finish the competition as close as possible to the original time. The only way to accomplish that was to ask every contestant to play two pieces, instead of three. The two pieces were a Concerto (the winners will play with orchestra in the final gala), and a piece by a Chinese composer (for which there is a special prize). Last night, after announcing the finalists, every one of them was asked to leave out the third piece, which was a freely chosen work. Everybody accepted without problems.

In the case of Shuan Hern Lee, he immediately wrote back in belligerent tones that he did not want to do that. He had prepared three pieces, and he wanted to play all three. While that may be a legitimate point of view, it is worth noting that in any competition the committee has the right to modify rules and requirements as needed, provided that the fairness of the competition is not affected. Having heard nothing further, we thought that Shuan Hern begrudgingly accepted this request.

Today, when it was his turn to perform, he started with the Chinese piece. Then, instead of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, he started playing the Prokofiev Toccata. We were very surprised. The Director of Operations, upon instruction from jury members, started ringing a little bell to stop him. Shuan Hern did not stop. The bell kept ringing, but he kept ignoring it. Our President of the Jury, Mrs. Zhu Yafen, grabbed a microphone and asked him to please stop, and play the Concerto. He ignored her, too, and continued to play Prokofiev. At that point, the audience decided to help the jury. Maybe they thought Shuan Hern did not understand that he needed to stop. The audience clapped and shouted in the middle of the Prokofiev Toccata, but still Shuan Hern continued. It was very evident at that point that he was just doing it on purpose to create an embarrassing situation. He was on a mission to show every one that he was in charge, he was the boss. I have never seen anything like that before. It was surreal.

We had no choice but to disqualify him. He finished the Prokofiev Toccata, and we did not allow him to play the Rachmaninoff Concerto. Every other contestant before and after him complied with the request to drop one piece from their program, so why should he be any different? Had we allowed him to play his entire original program, this would have been unfair to the other finalists.

What is most shocking and saddening, is the fact that he decided to absolutely ignore the directions of the jury, and showed an aggressive and disrespectful behavior toward the organizing committee and the jury, as well as his fellow contestants and the audience. This disrespect continued afterwards on social media, where he started spewing venom about how this was a sort of conspiracy to deprive him of the chance to win. This is not true at all. In fact, he had a great shot at winning, had he simply complied with the new repertoire limits. None of us had anything at all against him, and what is more, we all liked his playing very much.

I am writing this post on behalf of the whole jury and the organizing committee of the Lang Lang Shenzhen Futian International Piano Competition. We felt it was necessary to share what happened, since Shuan Hern is writing things that are not true. We wish that Shuan Hern would see and understand the absurdity of his behavior. The fact that he threw away a likely first prize win is not the most important thing, here. I think what young people like Shuan Hern need to always remember is that talent and ability should go hand in hand with humility and kindness. If an injustice is perpetrated, then one has the right to stand up for him/herself, but in this case there was no injustice. There was a simple request made to all contestants, equally and fairly, and the regular unfolding of the contest was never in any danger.

We do wish Shuan Hern Lee all the best, but firmly state that his behavior today, during and after the competition, is not acceptable.