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New piano maestros emerge at the 15th Unisa International Piano Competition

The fifteenth instalment of the Unisa International Piano Competition, a prestigious event hosted by the Unisa Music Foundation, a flagship event that strives for musical excellence and has become the global stage for aspiring talents, concluded on 3 February 2024, at the ZK Matthews Hall, Muckleneuk Campus. This year, pianists worldwide, including Germany, France, the USA, China, and Belgium, came to compete at Unisa.


Prof Puleng LenkaBula and His Excellency Dr Thabo Mbeki

Pursuit of excellence

Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Unisa, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, said that hosting an event of this magnitude was a privilege and an honour – a testament to the power of music bringing together diverse cultures.

The VC stated that the Unisa International Piano Competition, which embraces jazz and classical music, has become a beacon of harmonious collaborations showcasing extraordinary talents on the global stage. Furthermore, the VC stated: "As we stand on the threshold of recognising the winners, we are not just witnesses to musical excellence, but also the triumph of the human spirit over challenges."

LenkaBula stressed that every participant in the competition has faced a unique set of obstacles – technical, emotional, or artistic. She continued: "The very nature of competitive performance demands technical brilliance and an ability to navigate the vast landscapes of musical expression with finesse."

She further said that the challenges faced by the competitors should not be viewed as hurdles but as stepping stones that push and encourage the boundaries of what is possible, and what can propel the competitors to reach even greater heights.

"Perseverance in music fuels the pursuit of excellence, and Unisa is about propelling excellence and shaping the future in the service of humanity as we do for the continent and the world," she said.

The VC expressed her gratitude to the university community for hosting the competition and the culmination of the awards. She stated that the musicians' brilliance will linger in the hearts and homes of the participants and the audience and become part of the university's institutional history.

Musical gifts for humanity

Unisa Chancellor and President of the Unisa International Music Competition, His Excellency Dr Thabo Mbeki, expressed his appreciation to members of the piano jury, the competition's participants, and the audience.

Quoting from renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Mbeki stated that the competitive spirit is vital in music in that it pushes the participants to reach new heights, inspires innovation and ultimately fosters a community of excellence, where each note becomes a testament to the pursuit of musical excellence.

Mbeki expressed his delight towards the competitors, whom he said had demonstrated marvellous talent as pianists and musicians. He continued: "You have shown admirable dedication to your craft and pushing your artistry to new heights. None of us underestimate the challenges you faced as both jazz and classical musicians and the technical demands of the categories."  Mbeki congratulated the winners and stated that their achievements are not just personal triumphs but also contribute to the legacy of the prestigious event.

The winners, announced by the Director of the Music Foundation directorate, Professor Karendra Devroop, were presented with awards in addition to the special prize money in accordance with the category they performed in. 


Zibusiso Makhathini, Dabin Ryu, and Tomás Johnsson. Back row, from left: Elizaveta Ukrainskaia, Leo de María and William Bracken

The main prize winners:

(Classical category)

  • 1st prize winner of the classical category - Leo de María (Spain)
  • 2nd prize winner of the classical category - Elizaveta Ukrainskaia (Germany)
  • 3rd prize winner of the classical category - William Bracken (United Kingdom)

(Jazz category)

  • 1st prize winner of the jazz category - Dabin Ryu (South Korea)
  • 2nd prize winner of the jazz category - Tomás Johnsson (USA)
  • 3rd prize winner of the jazz category - Zibusiso Makhathini (South Africa, Durban)

Special prize winners:

  • The winner of the best performance of a Baroque in the first round (Classical Category): Elizaveta Ukrainskaia
  • The winner of the best performance of a jazz ballad in the first round (Jazz Category): Tomaś Jonsson
  • The performance of a Sonata in the second round (Classical Category): Elizaveta Ukrainskaia
  • Best performance of a 'rhythm changes’-based composition (Jazz Category): Zibusiso Makhathini
  • The winner of the best performance of a South African work (Classical Category) in the first round and winner of the most promising semi-finalist in the Classical Category who did not go through to the final round: Denis Linnik
  • The most promising semi-finalist in the Jazz Category who did not go through to the final round: Anthony Pearlman

Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Leo de María, Dabin Ryu, Prof Karendra Devroop, and His Excellency Dr Thabo Mbeki

Devroop thanked the participants and Unisa staff for making the competition a success. "May the notes played here echo in our hearts long after the curtains have fallen and remind us of the beauty that can be achieved through the universal language of music," LenkaBula concluded.

*By Godfrey Madibane, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

**Photography by Shooheima Champion, Multimedia Centre

Publish date: 2024/02/05