9-year-old Singaporean wins overall prize at international violin competition in Italy

Singapore: Little Travis Wong spent almost a week in Italy in May and left Europe with a couple of very special items in his luggage: a specially crafted violin and a Medal of the Senate of the Italian Republic.

The young Singaporean musician also added another accolade to his burgeoning list of milestones.

Just weeks after turning nine, Travis was named the “absolute” – or overall – winner of the 31st Andrea Postacchini International Violin Competition in Fermo, in central Italy, besting participants more than three times older.

The talented boy, however, was confused when he was called up on stage at the over 200-year-old Teatro dell’Aquila opera house on May 25 and presented with a Stradivari model violin, made by luthier Giacomo Nibid, and a bow by bow maker Walter Barbiero.

“The compere was speaking in Italian, so I didn’t understand what was happening,” said Travis with an embarrassed smile.

“I had thought they wanted me to play again and was wondering why didn’t they pass me my own violin… It was only after I went backstage that they explained to me that I was the absolute winner.”

Travis had played twice earlier that day – to the judges in the morning and in front of a large crowd at night – with a borrowed three-quarter-sized violin.

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The Fairfield Methodist School pupil’s overall win came on top of him winning Category A (aged eight to 11) of the competition, which came with a €1,400 (S$2,040) cash prize.

In all, more than 100 participants from around the world took part in the competition, which is open to those between the ages of eight and 32, and has four categories.

Travis said he took part in the competition simply to gain exposure, adding that it was his first time performing in front of a big crowd abroad like the one at Teatro dell’Aquila, which can seat more than 800 people.

“I was quite nervous before I went on stage,” he said, “but (when) I started playing my first note, I felt completely fine and could enjoy my music.”

The prestigious competition, which was first held in 1994, draws musicians from around the world and has developed a reputation as an event for talent-spotting prodigies.

Singapore’s Chloe Chua, whom Travis looks up to, won Category A (eight to 11 years old) of the competition when she was 10 in 2017. She is currently an artist-in-residence with Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Travis first grabbed headlines in 2021 at the age of five when he achieved a distinction in the Grade 8 violin performance examination conducted by the London-based Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM).

For violin exams by ABRSM, Grade 8 is the highest level before the suite of diplomas taken at the professional level.

He first picked up the violin at age three, after watching a YouTube orchestra video featuring Jurassic Park songs.

In the past three years, Travis has attended violin master classes in Oxford, Britain, and won in competitions such as the GSF Singapore Festival 2023 and 2024 Concert Artists International Competition.

His mother, Ms Joleen Toh, said his progress surpassed her expectations.

“I will support his passion for as long as he is still loving it. We’ll take it one day at a time,” said the housewife, who is in her 40s.

“My hope for him is that he will always be happy in whatever he chooses to do.”

Travis still loves dinosaurs, and sports the same bowl haircut he did when he was five.

But he has learnt to express himself more confidently when playing the violin – the result of playing the instrument daily for up to two hours, and up to four hours when preparing for a competition.

When ST visited him on June 12, the cherubic, bubbly boy transformed into a focused virtuoso the moment the violin rested on his collarbone, playing it with verve and energy, and with emotion etched on his face.

His experience in Italy has stoked his ambitions to continue playing in front of audiences, and eventually become a professional violinist.

“I think I can tell (the audience) a story through my music,” he said.

“I always imagine different parts of my music have different story plots in my head, and I use that to express myself when I play. When I see my audience enjoying my music, I feel happy.”