Five pianists put their pedals to the medal

March 30, 2009
This week, one of the Midwest's most unusual music contests swings into high gear with the start of the final round of the American Pianists Association's 2009 Classical Fellowship Awards.

Staged every three years by the Indianapolis-based APA, the Classical Fellowship Awards are structured to minimize the tension of head-to-head combat by stretching the competition out over eight months. APA judges sift through audition recordings from about 50 nominees, and then bring in five finalists for solo performances, and ultimately, a round known as Discovery Week.

This week, though, all five competitors are in one place—and only two fellows will score the $75,000 prize packages—so comparison is inevitable. And fun.

The pianists plead their cases beginning Monday via free noon concerts at Christ Church Cathedral, a new music program and a separate evening of lieder songs at Butler and the Gala Finals with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

There's a lot going on. And only the greatest keyboard devotees could be expected to find time for more than a dozen hours of piano concerts. For many, it makes more sense to pick and choose, based on personal taste. Here are a few suggestions:

For the neophyte: The Classical Fellowship Awards isn't a horserace but it might be fun to pick a favorite after attending one or more of the free concerts (noon Monday through Friday at the Cathedral), then attend one or both Gala Finals concerts with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Hilbert Circle Theatre. $25 each concert, or $40 for both). Details are available at www.americanpianists.org.

For the generalist: If you love classical music, but not primarily the piano, you should probably gravitate to the Gala Finals. But you might choose based on a composer. Programs will feature music by Bela Bartok, Samuel Barber and Frederic Chopin on Friday, and selections by Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Corigliano on Saturday. If you love choral music or the opera, consider art songs with soprano Elisabeth Hoegberg and baritone Alan Dunbar. (7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Butler's Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall.

For fans of the offbeat: Check out a free new music concert. It will feature selections by Butler University professor Frank Felice and 10 Butler students. You may be among the first (and in some cases, the last) to hear these works. (7:30 p.m. Monday, Eidson-Duckwall).

For the pianophile: These listeners might have been serious piano students at one time, or might not be musicians, but still own multiple recordings of the same piece. Besides the Gala Finals concerts, they may want to sample one or more of the five free concerts. They will feature each soloist in recital, and with the Parker String Quartet, which takes its name from the hotel that claims to be the home of the Boston cream pie.

Warning: While the audience may be handicapping the competitors, APA President and Artistic Director Joel Harrison has been known to bristle when people write the event off as only a contest.

"In athletics, it's simply who gets across the finish line," Harrison said. "At the APA, there is no finish line. It's not about how fast or how loud you can play. It's whether you can make a compelling case with the music."

No matter what your take on artists as competitors, there's no denying that there's a lot at stake for young, American musicians in this event.

Frederic Chiu, a Connecticut concert artist who grew up in Indianapolis, and won a Classical Fellowship early in the competition's history, said that when he was named a "laureate of the APA (then the Beethoven Foundation) in 1985, I was only 18. The APA provided me with great, most-needed opportunities to perform, in small and large venues. At that age, it wasn't the quality that really had an impact, but the quantity. I was able to try out repertoire, meet different audiences, overcome the challenge of playing unknown instruments, and generally observe myself as a performing artist. It was invaluable."
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