The Voice! American Idol! Dancing With the Stars! Talent competitions are more popular than ever these days. New Mexicans, still celebrating Farmington native Chevel Shepherd’s first-place finish on The Voice last year, now have a competition of their own and can even vote on who gets one of the event’s cash prizes.
It’s Stars of the Future: Olga Kern International Piano Competition, which took place in Albuquerque over seven whirlwind days this week. The big decision is made on Saturday, Nov. 2, after the four finalists have performed a complete concerto at the University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall, accompanied by the New Mexico Philharmonic and conducted by its music director, Roberto Minczuk.
Keyboard-playing contests have been around for centuries. One of the earliest was scheduled in 1717 between J.S. Bach and his rival Louis Marchand. The Frenchman wimped out just before it began, supposedly because he heard Bach warming up at the harpsichord and realized he was done for. Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt all took part in them as well.
American jazz took up the tradition in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s with “cutting contests” between stride piano greats such as Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and James P. Johnson. Stride was the fast, showy music that succeeded ragtime, and its complexity was reflected in song titles like “Finger Buster” and “Handful of Keys.”
The heritage lives on today in the competitions that help early-career classical pianists gain greater recognition. Olga Kern is one such performer, having won the Czech Republic’s Concertino Praga competition at age 11 and the inaugural Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition at 17.
She shot to international attention in 2001 when she became the first woman in more than 30 years to take first prize in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which is generally considered one of the world’s top five such competitions. (Van Cliburn was the lanky Texan who won the piano prize at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, causing Russian maidens to swoon and throw flowers, and garnering a ticker-tape parade in New York City afterward.)
“I absolutely love New Mexico,” says the Moscow-born Kern, who now considers the state her second home. “My first visit was in 2001, right after the Van Cliburn competition. Fantastic nature, bright and beautiful sunshine, wonderful warm people! Since that time, I have come back regularly to Albuquerque and Santa Fe to perform. Here, I feel like I am a part of this very friendly community which loves and appreciates classical music and art.”
Kern is something of a whirlwind whose life resembles her passionate, vigorous pianism. In addition to the competition, between now and the end of January she’s giving 18 concerts and recitals in the United States and abroad, playing a benefit to support Albuquerque’s historic KiMo Theatre and its education programs, and continuing to serve on the piano faculty at the Manhattan School of Music.
Kern launched the triennial competition in 2016, in association with the New Mexico Philharmonic, and serves as its artistic director and jury chair. Marian Tanau, a co-founder, is the executive director of the Kern competition, as well as the New Mexico Philharmonic.
Tanau is pleased with the career path that 2016 finalists have taken over the recent years. “First-prize winner Antonio Chen Guang will go to South Africa this season to perform with Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and will give a number of recitals in Europe and the United States,” he says. “Second-prize winner Anna Dmytrenko just recorded her first CD and has won several more important competitions.”
This year’s competition includes a cash award of $15,000 for the first-prize winner, as well as a professional recording on the Steinway & Sons label, and performances in New York, Moscow, Milan, Romania, South Africa, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, California, Virginia, and Florida, in addition to Albuquerque.
Applications were received from more than 100 young pianists who go through a rigorous screening process and a week of competition that’s both physically and mentally demanding. Over the summer, a six-member selection jury evaluated the 40- to 50-minute videos submitted by applicants and chose 27 to invite to the in-person contest. They range in age from 19 to 32 and come from Brazil, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Ukraine, and the United States.
Now they’re in Albuquerque performing for a 12-member jury of professional pianists. Here’s what the jam-packed competition week looks like for them: The preliminary round was held from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Oct. 28 and 29. Each contestant played a 45-minute program drawn from a provided roster of pieces that span the Baroque, Classical, early Romantic, and late-Romantic eras. Ten were chosen to continue to the next round.
The semifinals ran from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 30 and 31. These were 60-minute programs of each player’s choice of music, plus “Metta Bhavana.” This new work was written for the Kern competition by South African/British composer David Earl, who joined the jury for this round.
The four finalists rehearse with Minczuk and the orchestra on the afternoon and evening of Friday, Nov. 1, and the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 2. The finals concert takes place that evening, with each contestant playing his or her choice of one of 25 heavy-duty concertos by Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Gershwin, Grieg, Liszt, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Schumann, Scriabin, or Tchaikovsky.
The jury deliberates immediately afterward, while attendees vote for the Audience Award, and the winners are then announced from the stage.
You might think a day off is in order after all that, but you’d be wrong. Everyone reconvenes at Popejoy Hall at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 3, for the awards ceremony ($25, students $10) and, yes, more piano music played by the winners. ◀
▼ Stars of the Future: Olga Kern International Piano Competition Finals
▼ 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2
▼ Popejoy Hall, University of New Mexico, 203 Cornell Dr. NE, Albuquerque