Music competitions today seem to sprout up practically anywhere that there are instruments, such that the array of contest names in winners’ biographies rapidly becomes a blur, from the first annual This prize to second national That award. I must confess that, because of this blur, it took me a while to take notice of the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation’s New York International Piano Competition (NYIPC), which started in 2002. Naturally I had known the names of duo-pianists Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz (no, not that Horowitz!), as the duo had enjoyed decades as a performing team since 1951, including being the dedicatees of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra and giving it its premiere. In addition, the duo had created a school, a foundation, teaching publications, and more. What I had not realized, though, was that these two musicians, along with their distinguished colleagues and friends, were on a mission to do something very big for the future piano world. They have done just that with the NYIPC.
Unbeknownst to me (as I sometimes only briefly scan the biographies of young artists I review), I had already reviewed or heard some of this foundation’s prior winners, several of whom are now firmly ensconced in their young careers or appearing as finalists and winners of competitions around the world (click here for a list of past winners- New York International Piano Competition Winners List). Clearly this competition has become a magnet for some of the best young pianists today, and the reasons are many. Naturally the total of $50,000 in prizes is one reason (the First Prize winner taking home at least $10,000). Exposure is another, with leaders in the field hearing these winners, learning about them in glossy brochures, and even reading personal statements on music written by the contestants themselves. This year’s brochure incidentally featured letters from our governor, mayor, and others, with a cover illustration of an official Competition Egg created by none other than Theo Fabergé (late grandson of the legendary Peter Carl Fabergé)!
Apart from ever-growing prestige, an additional draw of the NYIPC is the care shown for each contestant, evident in the humane contest rules whereby no contestant is eliminated from round to round – every contestant gets to play every round. Muffing a passage in an etude does not render one unheard in one’s stronger offerings, say, a sonata or a concerto. Such rules evolve when musicians are running things! Beyond these considerations, each of twenty-something participants, not just the top winner, leaves with enough cash to compensate for the effort (even for those travelling from China, Russia, the Republic of Georgia, and the United Kingdom), while also gaining a lasting relationship with this foundation through concerts, mentoring, and more. Oh, that I were twenty-one again (the age range is 16-21)!
If it seems that I have acquired a case of Stockholm Syndrome on behalf of the NYIPC, I did sit through an hour-long set of speeches detailing these strengths, prior to hearing this year’s winners all too briefly – necessary pomp, one supposes, given the considerable fundraising behind it all. Fortunately, all was enlivened by the witty commentary of renowned radio personality Robert Sherman, who also briefly interviewed each of the four performing winners; one wished, nonetheless, for more music.
The first performer up was Daniel Kim, as winner of the Best Performance of Commissioned Work, Nocturno Nazqueño, by Gabriela Lena Frank. Ms. Frank, a brilliant composer of multicultural background (Chinese, Peruvian, Lithuanian, Jewish) seems to favor her Latin American side, in a style evocative of South American landscapes and folklore. Seventeen-year-old Mr. Kim projected the musical imagery sensitively and convincingly, a remarkable feat considering the scant few months he had to get to know this music. On being asked by Robert Sherman how he felt when first looking at the score, he replied with candor, “the first thing that went through my head was probably panic.” Indeed there were considerable challenges, interpretively and technically, including the need for nuances in timbre, rapid repeated notes, wide stretches, and, as one was led to understand, some aleatoric elements to reveal each player’s uniqueness. Mr. Kim went on to say, though, how he enjoyed it as he started to embrace the elements of mystery and dance and the feeling of the lives of the rancheros. All of these were very much present in his performance, and if they were half as present in the twenty-odd performances of other contestants, then Ms. Frank is quite fortunate – as well as the young pianists. The commissioning of such a work to be disseminated throughout the world is a win-win enterprise.
The next performance was of a four-hand piece by Franz Schubert, Rondeau in D Major, subtitled “Notre amitié est invariable” (“our friendship is unchanging”) and performed by the First Prize winners of The Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz Prize for one-piano, four hands, Thomas Steigerwald (21) and Max Ma (17). A touching reminder of the years of performing together for Stecher and Horowitz, the piece seemed also to allude to the friendships that are inevitably launched as these young performers team up with their ostensible “rivals” – a beautiful element to include in a competition. Mr. Steigerwald and Mr. Ma, after just a week of rehearsal, seemed already to have forged a collegial bond and performed with good mutual sensitivity. What was perhaps not quite there in terms of unity of conception was more than compensated for by hair-trigger reflexes and acute listening.
Daniel Kim returned to the stage to perform as soloist winner of the Second Prize, this time playing the first movement of Schumann’s G Minor Sonata, Op. 22. With a good sense of the drive that suits this work so well, Mr. Kim gave the movement a good solid delivery, no small achievement in such a challenging environment. One could see tremendous potential in this performance, and the fact that it was subject to the slightly “on edge” feeling that comes from an awards concert was in fact an advantage, as an impetuous spirit is an asset here. One looks forward, nonetheless, to hearing Mr. Kim in more extensive performance and in a more controlled setting.
Last of the performers was First Prize Winner (Joyce B. Cowin Prize), Jun Hwi Cho, age 18, performing Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 (the “Heroic”). Speaking beforehand about having hurt his right hand, Mr. Cho was jokingly reminded by Robert Sherman that in his accompanying statement he had written, “I will overcome any hardship I have in order to become a great pianist.” Overcome he did, and there was power and speed enough in his left hand to more than compensate for whatever might have affected his right hand – and frankly the right hand sounded quite capable as well. Mr. Cho showed a good deal of the firepower one expects to hear in a prizewinner, and one looks forward to hearing much more from him with the coming years.
One would have loved to hear in addition the prizewinners Yilin Liu (19), Seol Hwa Kim (21), Ning Yuen Li (20), Ling-Yu Lee (20), and all the others, but alas, there are limits. For that matter, one might have wanted to hear members of the jury, which included Tong-Il Han, Jane Coop, Jon Nakamatsu, Thomas Schumacher, Orli Shaham, Jeffrey Swann, and a screening jury of Francis Brancaleone and Anthony LaMagra – perhaps another time. Meanwhile, one eagerly awaits the festivities of 2016!