Peggy Sue Dunigan

A graceful duet

By - Mar 31st, 2008 02:52 pm
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The stomach twists into a knot, the palms springs tiny beads of sweat, and the heart flutters. These are the agonizing symptoms of performance in a piano recital, and they may occur as well in an anxious audience, holding its collective breath, waiting for every note to sound clearly and correctly. Yet PianoArts, a Milwaukee organization that hosts their own Biennial National Piano Competition, seeks to alleviate these physical feelings of insecurity and replace them with confidence.

This year the PianoArts 2008 National Piano Competition runs from June 19 through June 24. Twelve chosen semifinalists will compete to be selected as one of three finalists; three finalists then perform with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in conjunction with Andrew Sill, musical director for PianoArts. The elite standards that PianoArts asks of these youths, from ages 15 to 19, includes speaking to the judges about their music, why they selected their piece and what these musical movements mean to them. The finalists perform a duet involving cello or violin as well as an entire concerto with the MSO, conducted by Sill. They are also asked to perform a solo to further elevate the level of competition.

But before any of this happens, members of the PianoArts faculty use two days of the week before the final recital to help each of the semifinalists perfect their performance skills. This is critical to the competition, as the mission of PianoArts, slightly simplified, is to “develop innovative ways to foster appreciation and performance of classical music… through identifying and training America’s future concert artists.” This literally means that as every semifinalist practices on the piano, they concurrently study how to move on stage, present themselves to the public and make connections with an audience when they discuss their music.

Sue Medford, manager and a co-founder of the PianoArts Competition in 1999, explains this unique aspect of their competition. “Today’s audiences like to be brought into the experience; they like to connect with the people on stage.” Her enthusiasm for their commitment shows as she continues. “Classical music is a form of true art, reflecting what we are as a culture, and the performing artist, the pianist, must bring that concept to life and to the audience.”

After the competition concludes, first and second place winners (with prizes of $8,000 and $5,000, respectively) return for artist-in-residence programs that allow them to practice their skills on an on-going basis. PianoArts professionals mentor these award winners by encouraging them in their continuing musical education, often at prestigious college programs, offering fine-tuning and support for their performance schedules.

A typical artist-in-residence pianist may be in the city from three days to three weeks, contributing to educational programs and family concerts. This enhances not only the pianist’s abilities, but provides opportunities to enrich elementary-age students with classical music. These outreach programs also help develop future audiences for symphonies and concert venues, not only in Milwaukee, but throughout the nation. The PianoArts winners travel worldwide to promote the prevailing mission of the organization – to “foster appreciation and the performance of classical music.” This year’s winner of the competition will be showcased at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts as part of their Classical Series Concerts next season, and all the winners usually continue to create excitement on the national classical piano circuit.

The 2003 First Place winner, Jie Chen, performs internationally and engages in outreach programs with children or community organizations. Recently featured in the Winter 2008 issue of Symphony Magazine as an up-and-coming concert artist, Chen received the silver medal in the first Villa-Lobos International Piano Competition on her 21st birthday. And in 2006, The Curtis Institute awarded her their Festorazzi Prize for Best Pianist of the Year.

Elizabeth Joy Roe, who won the initial 1st Place PianoArts Prize in 1999, now serves as an advisor to the organization. Her career leads her around the globe as part of the Anderson and Roe Piano Duo, with Greg Anderson as both her piano partner and composer. They recently played for the PianoArts Club 88 Cabaret in May 2007, which offers exceptional musical performances outside an educational setting to adults 16 through 25 years of age. Every PianoArts program that connects to their 21st century patrons, even the intimate soirees they host in private homes, creates an impetus for sponsoring the competition in a continual search for the concert artists of tomorrow. As Medford tells me, “Our real goal is to prepare these classical pianists, the future artists of America. The Biennial Piano competition is just our way of identifying them.”

In another effort to assist future pianists in the city, two sisters, Lidia and Monika Sobierajski, created the Chopin Youth Piano Competition, also in 1999, to fulfill their own dreams of hosting a significant piano event. Staged every year in June, on the Sunday of Milwaukee’s Polish Fest, this piano recital plays live in front of the festival audience.

Ten to 15 finalists perform their chosen musical compositions after selection by audition. For 2008, the submission deadline is May 15, with the final competition beginning at noon on June 22. Two categories, Juniors (14 years and younger) and Seniors (15-18 years) complete in this local piano competition for cash prizes.

While less strenuous than the PianoArts programs, the Chopin Youth Competition instills similar values into young artists and introduces a surprising classical element to Milwaukee’s summer festivals, with the Sunday afternoon performances headlining the Polish Fest Weekend. As every musician and performer might agree, whether in New York’s Carnegie Hall or a small church in Oconomowoc, perhaps even more intimately in a family’s living room, audiences of all sizes welcome the enduring gift of the pianist – the live classical music providing soothing moments in today’s recorded and downloaded society. VS

Public Events for the PianoArts National Piano Competition and Music Festival begin on June 20 at 8:00 p.m. at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. The Awards Concert is June 24 at 8:00 p.m., with a non-competitive performance beginning at 3:00 p.m. the same day, at Wisconsin Lutheran College. For tickets or information: 414.962.3055 or
Polish Fest begins the Summer Festival season in Milwaukee on June 20 -22.

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