Finding their rhythms: Meet three of the seven 2015 Piano Competition finalists

Tim Stephenson, Christine Wu and Elizabeth Crecca have more in common than just their age. The Piano Program cultivates talent from all over the country and creates a setting where musicians can learn firsthand from leaders within the piano world. John Milbauer, interim co-chair of the Piano Program, said these three students have refined their ability to perform at a high caliber and project well in front of an audience. “All three are very strong performers,” he said. “The program keeps getting stronger.” Each student participated at the apex of the program — the 2015 Chautauqua Piano Competition — and advanced through the preliminary round and into the finals Thursday. Crecca and Wu tied for first place and Chloe Zhang placed third; the winner recital is at 4 p.m. today in Fletcher Music Hall. These three profiles offer a small sample of the vast talent the Piano Program nurtures.

Tim Stephenson

When he was 10 years old, Tim Stephenson could play “Für Elise” from memory. And he did — during an adjudication at a performance in Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

“He was so little and sitting at this big piano,” said his mother, Kathy Stephenson. Kathy sat in the front row, nervous for her only child and trying not to show it when the adjudicator whipped his head around to face the audience and asked where Stephenson’s mother was.

“He said, ‘One day, he will be sitting in my chair,’ and I had no idea what he meant by that,” she said. “Little did I know how prophetic those words were going to be — this guy knew, at age 10, what Tim was going to be.”

Stephenson, now 22, is in his first summer at Chautauqua Institution, and he will pursue his master’s degree at Florida State University in the fall. Unlike the adjudicator, he didn’t always know he’d become a pianist.

“I kind of had a late start to music,” Stephenson said. “The only thing I knew was that I enjoyed playing piano.”

He took up piano at age 8 — more so for his parents than for himself. It wasn’t until an “epiphany” in his junior year of high school that he realized piano was what he wanted to pursue, he said.

“He didn’t know he was going to pursue piano, but we all knew he was going to pursue piano,” Kathy said. “It was very obvious from the get-go. He was destined to do music — piano, it’s every part of his body.”

When Stephenson began his undergraduate degree at Florida State University at Tallahassee, his relationship with Read Gainsford blossomed. Gainsford, a concert pianist who has taught at FSU since 2005, quickly became Stephenson’s mentor.

“He’s definitely my No. 1 influential person,” Stephenson said. “I’ve been with him for four years, and I’m just trying to soak up everything he has to offer.”

Gainsford suggested the Piano Program at Chautauqua, and has provided Stephenson with a magnitude of knowledge. Stephenson said their relationship has evolved from that of a student and teacher to a mutual bond between professionals and friends.

“He kind of laid down the law, but he’s brought me so far,” Stephenson said. “He’s a great guy. It’s great to have a teacher that you can enjoy in that capacity.”

Kathy broke into tears as she described the effect Gainsford has had on her son.

“Dr. Gainsford is amazing,” she said. “Tim met him in his senior year competing for a scholarship. Dr. Gainsford actually came up to us — he’s from New Zealand — and said, ‘Are you Tim’s mum? I want to meet him.’ And from that moment on, he was it. He’s been his professor, and he’s mentored him. I’m thankful for him, as a mom.”

Milbauer said Stephenson’s blending of his pieces during the competition preliminaries on Monday was handled beautifully.

“He paid attention to harmony and made his pieces very seamless,” Milbauer said. “He’s a very thoughtful and sensitive musician — he has a bit of old-school elegance that is increasingly rare.”

This sensitivity and ability to be in tune with the music was evident before he could even play, Kathy said. She said she tried her best to establish his confidence and encourage him to pursue any dream he had — or didn’t know he had.

“I have pictures where he couldn’t even walk yet, holding on to my husband’s arms while he was playing piano — just feeling the rhythms,” she said. “We all knew it, and it was just waiting for him to know it and discover it for himself.”

Elizabeth Crecca

Growing up in Wyoming — the state with the smallest population in the country — didn’t prevent Elizabeth Crecca from colliding with Alla Latchininsky, who had traveled thousands of miles to the same small town.

When Crecca’s mother heard about Latchininsky, her time playing show tunes on the piano came to a halt.

“I liked playing little Disney tunes, but then I got with Alla on a fluke,” Crecca said. “I think I was really fortunate, meeting Alla.”

Latchininsky was Crecca’s piano teacher for seven years. Latchininsky, a Russian pianist who studied at St. Petersburg Conservatory, introduced Crecca to classical music when she was nine — often with scolding and a “piercing gaze.”

“She’s definitely mellowed, but 13 years ago, she was a lot stricter,” Crecca said. “I was scared of her at first. But a few years later, she was the one who showed me how to express emotion in music. We formed a very close relationship.”

It was two pieces Latchininsky taught Crecca that spoke to her as a musician.

“The Chopin Waltz in B minor and ‘Montagues and Capulets’ by Prokofiev — playing those two pieces and playing with Alla was when I really started loving music,” Crecca said. “In classical music, I found depth, intimacy, self-expression and challenges that I couldn’t find anywhere else.”

Latchininsky said she lets her students choose what they want to learn. When she played for Crecca, she saw her young student’s eyes light up every time.

“I always try to talk to my students about the history, the composers. Sometimes, I create stories to keep them interested,” Latchininsky said. “What is very special about Lizzie is she was listening from the very beginning — she was very interested, looking at me with very big eyes, and I got excited about her.”

Because her parents have careers in science, Crecca was nervous to follow her heart into music. She studied with Latchininsky, but Crecca still considered dual majoring in chemistry as well as piano performance when she began her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan.

“I was always good at math and science, but I didn’t love those like I loved music,” Crecca said. “I was kind of afraid to take the plunge into music — if I majored in music and science, though, then music would suffer.”

Growing up with Russian pianism and a classical education enabled Latchininsky to become a successful teacher and artist, she said. When a student like Crecca began to express a mature identity through her music, Latchininsky said she knew Crecca was special.

“She opened up emotionally, and that’s what’s so special about her now — she started to express her feelings as a pianist,” Latchininsky said. “She is a performing artist. Her musical identity is just outstanding.”

Milbauer said Crecca’s open attitude and flexibility grant her mobility and talent as a musician.

“At such a young age, she already has a distinctive voice,” Milbauer said. “She’s open to changes within her repertoire and any adjustments that are thrown her way — she’s tried all of them.”

Latchininsky said Crecca plays with a personal message. Crecca’s voice is apparent and her interest is clear when she performs, she said.

“There’s a lot of people who can play fast and loud. Lizzie posses it all, but she has an identity and a unique approach to her music,” Latchininsky said. “She is so sure of what she is doing and she is so confident in it. That’s what we’re all looking for — to be different. That’s what makes you real.”

Christine Wu

Christine Wu says yes to everything.

“As a pianist, you have to be flexible,” she said. “It’s not smart to say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and go into life with tunnel vision. Say yes to everything you’re asked. I’ll do what I can. I’m just hoping to stay in the music world — that’s all I can picture.”

Wu became a finalist in the Chautauqua Piano Competition Monday. She is 22 years old.

According to Wu, Chautauqua’s reputation, generous scholarships and vast performance opportunities had initially enticed her. Declining an opportunity to spend a summer with the Piano Program had not been an option.

“I’ve had so many lessons here, and I really admire John [Milbauer]’s dedication,” she said. “The community is very, very involved and very, very generous — they leave their doors open for me, and they’ve been so great.”

In addition to Chautauqua’s welcoming Connections community and Piano faculty, Wu said her family has been by her side through her entire career as a musician.

Wu’s sister, June, also played piano as a young adult. But when it came to choosing a career, June took a different road.

“My sister is an amateur pianist,” Wu said. “The two of us took piano pretty seriously — we basically grew up listening to classical music. That was a big influence to have that world.”

June said she and her sister have always been close. Piano was one of their shared activities. As the older sibling by two and a half years, there was always some rivalry, and Wu often had to follow in June’s footsteps until they went to college. Wu will return to Juilliard School of Music in the fall to pursue her master’s degree.

June has since returned to the bench, but Wu acts as her teacher now.

“My sister is definitely a very inspirational musician for me. Her musical ideas are really unique and special,” June said. “I didn’t find that weird at all, and I was sort of pleasantly surprised at the role change. She’ll give me feedback in my playing — she’s one of the best teachers I’ve had.”

Milbauer said Wu’s technique as a pianist and her focus as a musician are tremendous, and those skills are especially evident in the pieces she performed for the Piano Competition.

“Christine has chosen some repertoire that is uncomfortable, and she’s navigated it with finesse,” he said. “She’s playing Beethoven’s last sonata with maturity and sophistication that is unusual for someone her age.”

Beethoven sonatas are nothing new to the Wu family, June said.

“My dad would always have some sort of Beethoven sonata playing in the background,” June said. “It just so happened that we both loved classical music, and we wanted to pursue it at different degrees.”

While Wu admitted June always left a great reputation and high standards to follow, June said the roles have reversed, and it’s her sister who now keeps her on her toes.

“Whenever I hear her talk about music I’m always very impressed by the level of thought she’s put into the music and how clear her ideas are,” June said. “I really love that she has her own ideas about the music, how she finds her own interpretation based on the context.”

That appreciation and understanding of classical music is what makes Wu shine as a musician, June said.

“I think she has that special something that really moves you as an audience member,” June said. “At the end of the day, the performance has to move the audience, bring them to tears and make them feel, and I think she has that spark.”