2012 Chautauqua Piano Competition open to interpretation


Charles Parsons practices the piano in one of the School of Music practice shacks on Wednesday in preparation for the Chautauqua Piano Competition this weekend. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

Eighty-eight keys. Twenty-two pianists. There can only be one winner.

The annual Chautauqua Piano Competition is 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday in Sherwood-Marsh Studios. It features the entire 2012 School of Music class and acclaimed guest judges. And it grants the winner $7,500, and second place is $3,000.

“You never know how things are going to play out,” said Rebecca Penneys, piano chair, about the annual event.

It is not so much a competition as it is a creative outlet. The competition was created to give the students a space to push each other musically without a master class structure.

But that does not change the fact that the young musicians are in it to give it their all.

And for Penneys’ understudy Jaio Sun, who was the 2011 runner-up, it means trying to outshine what she did a summer ago.

“I learned a lot in preparing from the competition last year,” Sun said. “I remember a lot of things that I overcame.”

Still, Sun, 21, does not see herself as having any clear advantage over her competition, who she has come to see more as friends than anything else.

“I have totally different friends from last year, and they’ve changed my life,” Sun said. “You have different connections with everyone, and it will affect your mood.”

Sun also has a new, far-reaching musicality.

“I have totally different repertoire for the competition,” she said. “And it will help me to learn a lot of different, new things.”

One important new thing Sun and the other competitors have had to learn is how to capture the essence of Doug Opel’s newly commissioned piece, “Serried with a Tinge of Bop,” which all the pianists must play during the competition.

Yuenen Kim, 22, who also studied at the Eastman School of Music with Penneys, looks to bring out her personality through the competition, especially with the Opel piece.

“I feel the groove,” she said. “And I feel the rhythm. And it’s really fun.”

Kim, who will attend Northwestern University to study with Alan Chow, said Opel allows a great space for individuals to put their unique imprints on the piece while guiding them to retain its integrity.

“It has to be simple in rhythm,” Kim said. “I just follow the instructions and make it very vertical. It really is different from other repertoire.”

It is easy to get lost in the music when playing in such an intense competition. The sheer thought of missing a note strikes fear in any young musician dedicated to performing his or her best. And it can become counterproductive if a pianist sizes up the competition, rather than the work at hand.

“Comparing yourself to other people is pretty much futile, because everyone’s background is different,” piano student Charles Parsons said. “So, I’m going to go in and do my best.”

“My initial reaction to this was, ‘Huh?’ ” Parsons said about the piece. “But as I dug into it, I felt it was kind of catchy.”

It is a common reaction among classical pianists to be very cautious when dealing with modern compositions. And because Opel’s piece blends classical with bebop, the initial response is based on what pianists are accustomed to, not what goes against the grain.

“I think we tend to see modern music as too abstract and different from what we have come to appreciate in the classics,” Parsons said. “But if you think about Beethoven, he was sometimes considered strange, and people disapproved his works. Now, his works are canon.”

Parsons attends California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he studies under Nadia Shpachenko. And Parsons, along with his peers, will try his hands at making a grand impression on the judges today.

“The hardest thing is connecting ideas and making it into music, as opposed to playing a bunch of black notes,” Parsons said.

No matter what interpretations the pianists take on Opel’s piece or any other work, it will be up to the guest judges to decide who wins the competition.

“We all have our own taste in what we like to hear and how we like to hear it,” guest judge Christopher Harding said. “So, I’m looking for character and real depth of understanding in the performance.”

Harding is the piano chair at the University of Michigan. He will present a lecture recital and master class during his stay at Chautauqua. Brian Preston, a prize-winning pianist and teacher, will also join Harding in the judging process and master class teaching.

“What I am specifically looking at is if someone’s performance is thoroughly honest and musically informed,” he said, “and someone who has meaning behind what they are doing, so that it’s not just a science but there’s something human behind it.”

The semi-final round is from 1:30–6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, and the final round is from 1–5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4 in Lenna Hall.