A Scotsman as Piano Judge in Indiana

How refreshing, inspiring, hopeful and spiritually re-invigorating it has been for me on my first ever visit to Indianapolis this past week!   I visited ‘Indy’ from April 14 as an overseas guest judge on a panel of five jurors.  We were invited to listen to five outstanding American young pianists; (Sean Chen, Sara Daneshpour, Claire Huangci, Andrew Staupe and Eric Zuber) perform in the American Pianists Association (APA) Piano competition finals.


Photo by Lamar Richcreek

All five ‘performers ‘ (I do prefer to call music competition entrants that rather than ‘competitors’ as it downplays the sporty aspect!) were American citizens, aged between 18 and 30, and hugely gifted.  They were all already vastly experienced in prestigious competitions and concertizing, and had won numerous awards and accolades between them.  I must say at this point though that throughout the competition I made a conscious point of not finding out too much about them – judges must do all they can to remain as impartial as possible. Too much background info can corrupt that ideal! For similar reasons, my fellow judges and I refrained from discussing the performances until after the final notes had been heard and the result decided. That did not prevent us from having lots to say and discuss on every other issue, topic and subject imaginable!

Of course information post concert about the performers themselves was eventually most welcome to receive.  It turned out that prior to this week and between them they had notched up a truly remarkable tally of achievements in other prestigious competitions around the globe (wins, prizes and placings in competitions that included Leeds, Arthur Rubinstein, Sydney and Cleveland). Equally impressive were the names of famous institutions where the finalists had studied (Juilliard, Yale, Hannover, Curtis, etc.) and the teachers whom have helped them there (legendary mentors such as Leon Fleisher, Arie Vardi, Jerome Lowenthal, Matti Raekallio, Jon Kimura Parker, Claude Frank, Robert McDonald and Yoheved Kaplinsky).

The ‘fab five’, as I like to call the finalists as a group, were selected after long, intensive rounds of elimination. This involved an initial nomination process, as well as CD recording selections before closed juries. Initially, around three dozen young U.S. pianists were recommended for this award by outstanding musicians of standing. From this number the finalists eventually emerged through the thorough selection process. All in all the painstaking efforts to find the 2013 winner took over a year, such was the care and sensitivity  devoted by the APA to the competition.

I entered this process along with four others for the final phase of the judging. We succeeded other jury groups who worked for the competition last year.

My four jury colleagues were a most friendly and impressive group of individuals from contrasting and important parts of the classical music world: José Feghali (concert pianist, teacher and a former winner of the Van Cliburn competition); Anthony Fogg (Artistic Administrator of the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival); Charles Hamlen (former IMG chairman and now director of planning of the NY-based Orchestra of St. Luke’s) and Christopher Taylor (concert pianist, Associate Professor in Wisconsin and the winner of this competition in 2000). Our remit as a panel was to choose one pianist as winner from the ‘fab five’ finalists.  The victor would then receive the ‘2013 DeHaan Classical Fellowship’.  This is one of the most significant awards that a young pianist in the 21st Century can be given, amounting to some $50,000 in prize money as well as two years of management support and guidance, including a whole series of prestigious engagements.  Clearly our task on the jury was to find a truly exceptional young American concert pianist.

It quickly became evident from early on in the week of performances that all of our finalists were ‘truly exceptional’, and that our listening hours showed consistent high achievement, artistry and imagination from each one. As we became intoxicated with the pleasure and indeed the privilege of listening to so many wonderful performances, it was crystal clear in my own mind that our task may be extremely pleasurable but that ultimately we would not have an easy decision to make…

The APA, American Pianists Association, has its headquarters in Indianapolis, which of course is why this event is staged here biannually, alternating fellowships for classical pianists with equally prestigious fellowships for Jazz pianists. To an outsider such as myself, Indianapolis feels extremely welcoming. It is indeed a strikingly handsome city, a place also internationally famous for its sports tournaments and violin competition.

The piano competition this past week has simply been a unique experience for me.  I have spent years travelling as a judge to participate in many piano competitions prior to this one, but I can honestly say that it is  unlike anything else in the piano world!  Perhaps the main reason for this is that it searches for the well-rounded musician rather than just a young Lion (or Lioness) of the ivories who can rattle off solo and concerto repertoire.  In order to win, the young aspirants here are required to show a whole range of skills over a substantial period of time. The American Pianists Association offers them lots of personal support in the build up to and during and indeed after the final stages of the competition.

Though I arrived from England feeling jet-lagged and jaded, by the end of the first day of my stay in Indy, I really was feeling energised, buoyant, and joyful- genuinely much more excited about music’s future than before arriving here. Let me explain why:

Coming from the United Kingdom and being a solo concert performer who is busily involved in education and the arts means that I am, like so many others in these fields, accustomed to a sense of struggle, even pessimism, over the future for the young and talented in my field. It is not that creativity, integrity, talent and hard graft are lacking in budding artists, musicians and writers from the under 30s in Europe, nor indeed in anywhere else in the world today. Far from it. Rather and sadly the problems revolve around a lack of financial security, support and encouragement.  In England we have of course had a tradition going back for decades of enormous state subsidies for our orchestras, festivals, opera companies and so on.  But with current austerity measures in place, old pre-held assumptions no longer follow, and successive governments have seen the Arts as an easy target for cuts. Many noble and selfless organisations in the UK now face at best struggle mixed with uncertainty and, at worst, extinction….

I have no hesitation in saying that last week I was on the jury of a   unique and almost ‘anti competitive’ competition!  It was actually started in the early 1980s in New York and over the years has built up a most impressive list of former winners. I can only marvel in awe at the amazing financial support that has been found for it from business and from exceptionally devoted individuals, (the support of local individuals has been especially striking in recent years- since Joel Harrison was appointed President of the Association).

Having being introduced to so many of the people in the Indiana community here this last week  who support this competition in a variety of different ways, I am deeply touched by the sense of universal faith, trust and goodwill towards it.

We, the jury, sat next to the concertgoers of Indianapolis throughout.   The fab five had each already had periods of residency in Indianapolis towards the end of 2012 when they were assessed by a different jury watching them in solo recital, concerto performance with chamber orchestra, as well as in collaborative ‘outreach’ work with local schools. The eventual ‘winner’ was to be chosen from what was achieved both in the periods of residency last year as well as on what happening in this the ‘Classical Discovery’ week of final performances.

This last week the fab five were given an intense schedule of performances and rehearsals.  They were required to perform five times apiece in what may sound to a bystander like some grim musical ordeal   equivalent to the trials of Hercules.  But in fact what we the listeners and jury experienced was a most glorious festival of varied music making in all the major formats that classical professional pianists are likely to encounter in their careers.  In any other competitions in which I have worked, finalists only have to do a closing round solo recital programme or, in the bigger competitions, a concerto with orchestra. Competitors in most competitions tend to avoid socialising and view the whole competitive process as something of a strain, to say the least. Not so here; the finalists all seem to interact and get along really well not only with the organising committee members, audiences and host families that take them under their kindly wings, but also and most touchingly, amongst themselves. How lovely to see finalists supporting each other by attending each other’s recitals. How reassuring to see them sharing jokes and smiling together as a group during one of the many and memorable competition receptions that are generously hosted by patrons of the competition. But let’s get back to the musical content of this last week….

The ‘fab five’ concluded their busy week in Indianapolis with concertos. They were heard at the weekend with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz in some of the most challenging and exciting concertos ever written, including concertos by Chopin, (no. 1) Rachmaninov (2 and 3), Prokofiev’s 3rd and Bartok’s 2nd (their own choices). In these wonderful works they were given phenomenal support and guidance from the excellent orchestra under the baton of the extraordinarily gifted and sympathetic Gerard Schwarz. What a privilege for a pianist of any age!

The build-up to this thrilling concerto climax had included solo recital programmes, chamber music performances (quintets with the wonderful Linden String Quartet, and Lieder accompaniment in concert with the equally magnificent soprano Jessica Rivera), as well as world premiere performances of specially composed new solo piano pieces from a group of five American female composers (Lisa Bielawa, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Margaret Brouwer, Missy Mazzoli and Gabriela Lena Frank) – completely contrasted works that all made an impact in their world premieres from the finalists on Monday night.

By the time we got to the concertos at the weekend with the Indianapolis Symphony, I felt that I had already become very familiar with the fab five. They all had wonderful strengths and were totally different from each other. In their own way they all convinced. Each left special highlights to remember. How would these wonderful pianists fare in a larger concert hall? Would they manage to cope with the pressures of stamina, projection, rhythmic control and memory that concerto playing demands? Would they be able to find a way to communicate and share a love of great music with a four-figure audience that was full of expectation?

I need not have worried. Each rose to the demands of the occasion in their individual ways. With Sarah Daneshpour in Chopin, Claire Huangci in Prokofiev, Eric Zuber in Rachmaninov’s Second, Sean Chen in Bartok’s second and finally Andrew Staupe in Rachmaninov’s third we had pianists giving their all, thrilling the audience and receiving sensitive and supportive collaboration from Schwarz and the highly impressive local Indianapolis Symphony.

All the performers were stars in their own right, but of course there has to be a winner, and this was 24 year-old Californian Sean Chen, already a semi-finalist in last year’s Leeds competition in England, and clearly a remarkably insightful, talented and spirited artist with a huge future ahead.  His performance of Bartok’s phenomenally demanding second concerto was exceptionally convincing and powerful, and will long be remembered.

In concluding this reminiscence of a delightful week, I can only wish for similarities elsewhere. How sad that there does not seem to be other competitions like this one for young musicians.  Europe could be inspired to look towards the Indianapolis model in order to achieve something that is ultimately much more subtle, sensitive and imaginative than the usual piano competition, as well as more beneficial in terms of support, opportunity and follow-through with after care. Bravo American Pianists Association!

Murray McLachlan

Discovery Week Jury

Photo by Janet Nine

Author: americanpianistsassociation

The mission of the American Pianists Association is to discover, promote and advance the careers of young, American jazz and classical pianists.

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