Pianist Rachel Cheung Wai-ching came home from the United States as the most popular young talent at the famed Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Following 17 days of stringent competition involving hour-long recitals, chamber music and concerto performances, Cheung successfully caught the hearts of music fans and won the audience award, voted on by more than 20,000.
For Cheung, the only female of the six finalists, the takeaway from the competition was much more than the US$12,500 (HK$97,500) prize money and trophy. Having gained global attention from her outstanding performance, Cheung has already secured a late summer booking in South Korea, followed by a concerto performance in France.
"I now understand myself more as a musician and see myself growing. I am really happy now that more people know about my music," Cheung said.
Her interpretation of Beethoven's Fourth Concerto was positively reviewed by critics, with Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News describing the 25-year-old pianist as a poet.
"It was spellbinding, start to finish," he said. "She was a poet, but also a dramatist, hesitating boldly - and tellingly - in her tender, even vulnerable, responses to the orchestra's gruff first-movement threats."
After concluding the concerto on a high note, Cheung received a minute- long standing ovation from the audience in the Bass Performance Hall in Forth Worth, Texas, and shed tears of joy.
Though Cheung has spent several days catching up with pals, she is still trying to adjust to life away from the glitz and glamour of the concert hall.
"It's like waking from a dream. After an arduous process and lots of practice, it is all suddenly gone. But I feel my efforts paid off," she said. "When my parents and sister picked me up from the airport last Thursday, I realized time flies in the blink of an eye."
Cheung said she enjoyed her mum's home-cooked food that evening.
"I would just like to rest," she said.
She also joked that her phone has exploded with texts, as she had been abstaining from social media during the competition in order to stay focused.
The quadrennial competition took place from May 25 to June 10 in Fort Worth. It is named after American pianist Van Cliburn, who died in 2013. Known as the Olympics of classical music, it is one of the finest international showcases for young pianists.
Of the 290 pianists who applied, South Korean Yekwon Sunwoo came tops, taking the gold medal. Americans Kenneth Broberg and Daniel Hsu were second and third. The gold medal carries a US$50,000 cash prize and three years of career management with US and international concert dates.