As the triumphant last notes of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 rang out, the packed auditorium filled with thunderous applause.

Catherine He, the pianist performing the concerto, is not a professional musician, or even a music major, but rather an undergraduate computer science student at the University of Waterloo.

Headshot of Catherine He at piano

He, who has been playing the piano since she was four years old, is the most recent winner of Conrad Grebel University College’s Concerto and Aria Competition. Held every two years, the competition invites Waterloo students and recent graduates to perform a piece written for soloist and orchestra before a panel of professional musician judges. During the competition portion, the orchestra part is played by an accompanist on piano. The winner, chosen in the winter term, gets to perform their chosen piece with the full Waterloo university orchestra later that year.

“When I was a kid, my dream was to be a pianist,” He says. She took private lessons all the way through high school, performing regularly and competing in major festivals. At the 2017 National Music Festival, held annually by the Federation of Canadian Music Festivals, He placed third in the nation for pianists under the age of 28. She was 13.  

In high school, however, He developed an interest in computer science, and decided to pursue a career in the field. “I really liked the problem-solving aspect, and I’ve always enjoyed math and technology,” she says. Between computer science and piano, she figured music “would be easier to keep as a hobby.”

When He was deciding where to go for university, opportunities to keep playing the piano were a big consideration. “As soon as I saw that Waterloo had a concerto competition, I knew that I would enter,” she says. He brought her keyboard with her when she moved to Waterloo, and long before she began preparing for the competition, she was practicing every day. “It’s a good form of stress relief,” she says.

He's interest in the concerto competition is especially apt because of its origin: it is sponsored by Dr. David Taylor, a professor emeritus in the Cheriton School of Computer Science who has been an enduring advocate for music in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

He chose Chopin’s Piano Concert no. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 as her entry for the competition because Chopin is her favorite composer, and she has long dreamed of playing this piece in front of an audience. “I love the way Chopin’s music touches the soul,” He reflects. “In his pieces, there are moments that range from heartbreaking to ethereal.” This is not the first time He has won top marks with Chopin; in 2019, she won first prize in the Junior Category at the Canadian Chopin Piano Competition.

In this February’s concerto competition, He was ultimately chosen from a “very strong pool” of twenty applicants, says Mark Vuorinen, chair of the Department of Music. Her playing was “beautiful,” “virtuosic,” and “near flawless,” “an amazing performance of a challenging work.”

Catherine sits at grand piano

He practiced for an hour or more per day for the months leading up to the November concert. She was only able to practice with the orchestra three times before the final performance: twice in the weeks leading up to the concert, and once at the venue the day of the concert.

Ultimately, despite this being her first time performing a concerto with an orchestra, the performance was an enormous success. The end of the third movement, she says, was especially “exhilarating” to play. “There’s something magical about the way all the instruments’ parts come together to bring the piece to life. I also really enjoy making music with others – it was such a pleasure to work with conductor Daniel Warren and all the members of the UWaterloo orchestra for this performance.”

Finishing this experience, she says, leaves her with mixed emotions. “I feel happy since the performance went well, but at the same time there’s a bittersweet feeling now that it’s over – the kind of feeling that you get after finishing a good book. I’ve been looking forward to this performance for months. I almost wish it was tomorrow instead of a week ago, just so I could experience it again.”

You can learn more about the Concerto and Aria Competition on the Music website.