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The piano Olympics

The 13th Eastman Young Artists International Piano Competition


While the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will be held on Friday, July 27, something like a piano version of the Olympics will have its opening recital a day later at Kilbourn Hall in the Eastman School of Music. Starting on Saturday, July 28, 20 classical pianists from eight countries, all aged 15 to 18, will begin six straight days of performances for a chance to win more than $500,000 in cash prizes and scholarships to Rochester's world-renowned music school.

Much like the athletes competing in the Olympic games, preparing for the ESM competition has required years of practice, sacrifice, and dedication for these young musicians. Like any competition, all the hard work will come down to precious few moments of performance, in this case, approximately 90 minutes combined between two rounds and a master class, and, for just five finalists, perhaps an additional 30 minutes of performance in the final concerto round.

The public is invited to view the entire competition. The first two rounds will be conducted in Kilbourn Hall, and the master-class round will take place in Hatch Recital Hall, both at the Eastman School of Music. The final round will be conducted with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at Kodak Hall in the Eastman Theatre.

When spectators arrive at the Young Artists International Piano Competition, they will be given a program with profiles of the 20 contestants and a list of the works that each one will play in each round, profiles of the seven judges, and additional information about the competition. Audience members will take an open seat in the air-conditioned halls and feel the electricity in the air as each contestant takes the stage. Some pieces will be cut short, as the judges attempt to hear at least portions of all programmed works. The audience will clap and cheer, and possibly even chat with fellow viewers and jockey for votes for their favorite contestants (an audience prize is given at the final round for the performer who receives the most public votes).

Mostly, audiences will be amazed at the level of talent offered by these young pianists, and reassured that the future of classical music is very bright, indeed.

"They're not just great kids who magically got that way," says Veda Zuponcic, one of the seven judges for the competition. "The student has to have an extraordinary level of ability to begin with, and it can't be done with less than a year and a half of preparation."

Zuponcic is a classical pianist and a piano teacher, as well as a judge for various competitions. She took part in competitions growing up, and now coaches her own students at Rowan University of New Jersey through similar contest. Zuponcic made her American debut at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in 1973 and has performed on four continents, and recorded two albums. She is also the artistic director of the Northern Lights Music Festival in Aurora, Minnesota.

Zuponcic says that she sits down with her students about two years in advance of a competition to develop a program. She makes sure her students try out their competition programs at least three or four times with an audience. "It's a cumulative thing," she says.

The very idea of "developing a program" for a piano competition is fraught with limitations. Piano competitions at the level of the put on by ESM prescribe a list of repertoire from which the pianist must select and perform.

Judges, conductor, and orchestra must also prepare for the competition. "If you are being asked to judge at a top competition, you shouldn't have to be poring over the score the whole time," says Zuponcic. "If you don't play every single one [on the repertoire list] you probably will have taught every one. You shouldn't be judging these competitions unless you have a backlog of repertoire."

And it's not just the competitors and the judges who must prepare. The musicians of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Neil Varon must also ready themselves, since the final round involves five finalists performing one movement from a piano concerto with the group.

Of the 32 concertos prescribed on the ESM competition concerto repertoire list, this time the 20 contestants clustered around only 11 of the concertos. The prescribed list spans Mozart to Saint-Saens, but the popular choices for this year's competition clustered around Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Brahms.

Varon says he has to go through all 11 of the concerto movements selected by all 20 of the contestants to make sure that they are all "ready to go." Varon and the RPO will only learn which five movements they will be performing when the five finalists are announced on the evening of Thursday, August 2.

The morning after, the five finalists will individually meet with Varon to go through their selected concerto movements. Then, each finalist will rehearse with the RPO that afternoon, and again on the Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night, the finalists will perform in the final round before the judges and the audience in Kodak Hall, which has a seating capacity of 2,260.

"It's a large hall," says Varon. "A lot of the kids will never have played in a hall that big. The acoustic level on stage is not always easy to deal with. It's not as dry as it used to be. It's a warmer sound [since the renovations in 2009], but with that comes a little more difficulty in timing. Performers have to listen."

Varon, a professor of conducting and ensembles at ESM, places a personal emphasis on helping these young artists. He explains that "listening" means understanding the sound-distance relationship between conductor, orchestral instruments, and the piano. "The piano reacts on a dime," says Varon. "The reaction times of instruments like horns and low brass in the back of the orchestra are slower — that's where things can go topsy-turvy. If the pianist goes into a really fast tempo at the wrong place, it can start a train wreck."

So what will the judges listen for during the competition? "It's very simple: yes, no, maybe," says judge Mirian Conti. "Usually, you can tell in the first five or 10 minutes the personality of the pianists and what they can do with the music, no matter what composer they tackle. They are all equally talented, otherwise they wouldn't be competing. But then there's something that stands out — expressiveness, musicality, charisma."

Also important to Conti is the consistency of the contestant in each round. She explains that sometimes you hear a great first round, but then the second round is "a mess."

Conti says, "Whether you are having a bad day or a good day, if you are really secure with your repertoire, it comes out. You have to be responsible and give 100 percent, not just give half of your talent. When someone gives 101 percent, you can see it right away, whether it's classical, pop, rock, whatever. You can see it right away."

Conti says that part of the purpose of these major competitions is to spur students to learn a lot of repertoire at an early age and to get exposure performing. "Even though it's very stressful, like any competition, even in sports, the positive thing is that you're learning so much out of this," says Conti. "You're learning great repertoire, great teachers are going to hear you, and maybe somebody will hear you and invite you to perform somewhere else."

Conti, an Argentine/American pianist, is a graduate of The Juilliard School, and was named one of "100 Outstanding Alumni" in celebration of Juilliard's centennial in 2005. Conti has performed in countries around the world, and created Teachers del Norte-Pianists del Sur, which facilitates an exchange of music educators between Argentina and the United States. Conti is the sponsor of a special prize at the ESM Young Artists International Piano Competition for "Best Performance of a Work Written by a Spanish, Latin, or North American Composer."

Thomas Schumacher, chair for the panel of judges, agrees. "We have scores, but it's beyond the page what we listen for. It's what's between the notes, so to speak. The notes are the guide. It's the artistry in the students."

Schumacher points out that it's not just the contestants who will need their stamina for the competition; it is also the judges. "It's a lot of hours, and after a while we get very tired and our ears begin to feel numb. But it is amazing after listening to hours of performing, some special person will come and sit down and we will be revived."

Schumacher's background as a pianist included winning the JUGG Competition while he was a graduate student at The Juilliard School, which gave him a fully paid New York City debut recital in 1963. Teaching since 1969, Schumacher is a professor emeritus of piano at ESM.

Paul Tuntland Sanchez knows well the Eastman Young Artists International Piano Competition, and the life of a classical pianist. Sanchez was a finalist in the 1998 ESM competition, which was founded in 1997 by Douglas Humphreys, chair of the piano department at ESM. Sanchez had entered a few competitions around that time when he was approximately 15 or 16 years old, and the ESM competition became part of a summer that was "an all-around life-changing time," he says.

"It was a good experience for me," says Sanchez. "What I really remember [about the ESM competition] is that the culture there was very open and friendly. It wasn't cut throat. This is really due to Dr. Humphreys' leadership, which makes a huge difference for the participants. He set it up in a way that fostered healthy relationships between everyone. Even in the final round, we were sitting back stage and everybody was saying good luck to each other."

Sanchez went on to obtain his undergraduate degree from Texas Christian University and was the first freshman to win that school's Piano Concerto Competition, gaining him full academic scholarship for his studies. He obtained a master's degree in Spanish music from the Academia Granados-Marshall in Barcelona, Spain, as part of a 2005 Fulbright scholarship to study with Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha. And, because of the impression created on Sanchez during the ESM competition, he returned to ESM for his master's degree and currently studies at ESM with Humphreys for his doctor of musical arts degree. Sanchez is also a composer, and the founder and artistic director of the Dakota Sky International Piano Festival in his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Sanchez supports piano competitions "if it's the right time for somebody," he says. Sanchez explains, "A piano competition can be a very good thing if there's one coming along that fits with what you're doing in terms of your own development — if pieces are what you would be studying anyway, if it wouldn't require you to continue to do old things that would prevent you from learning new things, if it won't cause you injury in some way, and if it wouldn't stress you too much."

For Sanchez, who particularly enjoys Spanish music, competitions did not represent a certain path for where he wanted to take his career. In another competition not at ESM, Sanchez inquired whether he could perform a concerto that was not on the list of repertoire, a concerto by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. While the answer from the competition was no, Sanchez later went on to perform it with the South Dakota Symphony.

When asked what he might offer to this year's contestants by way of advice, Sanchez says, "If you're really passionate and you're doing quality work, you will find a way to make it work."

World-famous classical pianist Jon Nakamatsu also knows the rigors of competition, and he is one of the few pianists in the world to have claimed the coveted gold medal from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Nakamatsu also has advice for this year's ESM contestants, particularly considering that he was eliminated during the 1993 screening auditions to the Van Cliburn. Nakamatsu auditioned again for the 1997 competition, and it was the year that he won.

His pep talk "Loser's Club," given in his role as judge at the Van Cliburn Foundation's International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, confesses to a litany of losses, beginning at the age of 10 at the Junior Bach Festival in Berkeley, California, and later including such notables as being eliminated in the first found at the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition (England) and at the International Chopin Piano Competition (Poland), and in the second round at the International Clara Schumann Piano Competition (Germany). Nakamatsu is not surprised the video of "Loser's Club" is popular on YouTube, and offers further advice for ESM competition contestants.

"If you lose no one will know," says Nakamatsu. "The key to a successful performing career is to change, grow, and redo, but, once you have an idea, you're going to have to go up on the stage and deliver that idea with as much conviction as you possibly have. Competitions are a test of whether you can take your convictions and put them out there. You need some mental toughness."

When Nakamatsu played the final round of the Van Cliburn in 1997, he performed the entirety of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor. "The reason I programmed it was because I never thought I would play it. When I first heard it, I thought, How can any human do this? I had a recording of Horowitz playing it and of Rachmaninoff himself playing it. It then became a life's ambition to learn it."

Nakamatsu believes that he has grown more through his losses than his wins because of the motivation and reflection that comes from facing personal struggles, leaving comfort zones, investing great amounts of time and money, and exposing himself to public judgment with something intensely personal — "all for the promise of nothing," he says.

"It's such a privilege to play this music and to sit at the piano and have those sounds emanate," says Nakamatsu. "The only thing that you can do is remember what joy and inspiration brought you to this place in the first place. There's no point in focusing on the difficulties and the technical aspects of the performance — we've done all that work — we're bringing it to this stage in front of people. If you get to the point to play with the orchestra, it doesn't matter what happens. Just enjoy the fact that you are one of the very few people who are going to get to do that."

Schedule of Events

7:30 p.m.: Competition Opening Concert/Guest Artists Recital: Hong Xu, Piano Internationally acclaimed concert pianist, member of the competition jury, ESM and Julliard School alumni, professor of piano at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music in China. Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. $10-$20. 454-2100,

3-5:30 p.m.: Competition Master Class w/Thomas Schumacher Professor Emeritus of piano at ESM. Hatch Recital Hall, 433 E. Main St. Free.

9:30 a.m.-noon: Competition Master Class w/Rebecca Penneys Professor of piano at ESM. Hatch Recital Hall, 433 E. Main St. Free.

1:30-3:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round I Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

4-5:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round I Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

7:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round I Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

9:30 a.m.-noon: Competition Master Class w/Mirian Conti Member of the International Jury Hatch Recital Hall, 433 E. Main St. Free.

1:30-3:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round I Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

4-5:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round I Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

7:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round I Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

9:30 a.m.-noon: Competition Master Class w/Douglas Humpherys Professor of piano at ESM. Hatch Recital Hall, 433 E. Main St. Free.

1:30-3:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round II Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

4-5:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round II Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

7:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round II Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

9:30 a.m.-noon: Competition Master Class w/Enrico Elisi Professor of piano, ESM. Hatch Recital Hall, 433 E. Main St. Free.

1:30-3:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round II Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

4-5:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round II Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

7:30 p.m.: Competition Preliminary Round II Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St. Free.

7:30 p.m.: Competition Final Round Concerto performances with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Neil Varon, conductor. Awards ceremony following the final round. Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. $20. 454-2100,

2012 Competitors

Kevin Ahfat, 17, of Centennial, Colo. | Naomi Causby, 18, of Columbia, S.C., and Korea | Junhui Chen, 17, Shanghai, China | Leonardo Colafelice, 16, Bari, Italy | Bryan Ho, 16, Potomac, Md. | Seika Ishida, 15, Yamaguchi City, Japan | Jaeyoung Kim, 17, Glen Rock, N.J., and Korea | Sang-Won Kim, 17, Guwon City, Korea | Baichao Lan, 16, Shanghai, China | Dong-Won Lee, 18, Redmond, Wash. | Kate Liu, 16, Winnetka, Ill., and Singapore | Mengjia Liu, 16, Shanghai, China | Chaeyoung Park, 15, Lawrence, Kan. | Heather Shen, 16, Birmingham, Mich. | Katelan Tran Terrell, 18, Fort Worth, Tex. | Miles Walter, 17, Keene, N.H. | Si Yi Wu, 17, Richmond, B.C., Canada | Yuechen Xiao, 17, Beijing, China | Jing-Quan Xie, 16, Shanghai, China | Amiran Zenaishvili, 16, Moscow, Russia.