PianoArts Festival Features Rising Stars

Young competition winners and skilled veterans perform in North American event.

By - May 28th, 2024 01:31 pm
Ailun Zheng performing in the 2022 North American Piano Competition with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Yaniv Dinur. Photo courtesy of PianoArts.

Ailun Zheng performing in the 2022 North American Piano Competition with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Conductor Yaniv Dinur. Photo by Pat Robinson. Courtesy of PianoArts.

The North American Piano Competition and Music Festival returns this week as PianoArts celebrates 25 years of sponsoring piano competitions. As the series has continued, the biennial competition for pianists ages 17-22, living or studying in North America, has increasingly attracted first-class competitors. The PianoArts mission is “to identify and train new generations of pianists with exceptional musical and verbal communication skills, prepare them for performance, and present them to diverse audiences,” and the competition and concerts appeal to a range of audiences.

The first audience is the competitors themselves, young, emerging piano professionals. Piano competitions have been an important step toward professional status. A jury selected semi-finalists through recorded submissions. This year’s contestants are Lucas Amory, Wanqing Jiang, Tanner Jorden, Benjamin Keating, Angeline Ma, Emma Taggart, Taylor Wang, and Vanessa Yu. The profiles of the semi-finalists reveal substantial initiative in developing their careers, involvement in public performances, and recognition in other competitions.

Sue Medford, the co-founder and director of PianoArts stresses the unique characteristics of this competition. Professional development seminars are built into the schedule for competitors. Performances include requirements that each competitor talk with the audience about a work in their solo recital.

The competition focus is less on solo performance than on collaborative piano. The second round of competition involves chamber music performances, duos with members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO). For the final round, three finalists perform complete piano concertos with the MSO. Selections for repertoire are detailed on the PianoArts website.

Reflecting on the impact of the program on the participants over 25 years, Medford reflects, “I’m just really humbled and overwhelmed at the number of young people who’ve been in this competition, who’ve really done something with music. They brought music to the world. They’re all engaged in community work. PianoArts is known by the people who’ve been in our competition. And we’re very proud of that.”

The second audience is those of us who relish a high-quality musical experience.

On June 3, members of the competition jury share their talents in a separate Concert by the Masters on the intimate stage of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Each teams with members of the Milwaukee Symphony in a chamber music work. Jurists Aaron Wunsch, Peter Takács, and Sean Chen will appear with local artists, pianist Stefanie Jacob, violinist Paul Hauer and Ilana Setapen, cellist Madeleine Kabat and hornist Matthew Annin.

On June 4, the Milwaukee Symphony with Yaniv Dinur, artistic director of the New Bedford, Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and former Associate Director of the MSO will perform three complete piano concertos in one evening. Events before the concerto concert include a pre-talk by Meaghan Heinrich, interviews with the finalists and short concerts by the other semi-finalists.

The third audience is those who want to binge on this biennial opportunity to hear great piano music and admire the next generation of piano artists. Plan to sample some sessions before the final concert and hear all eight pianists present their best work.

Forty-five-minute solo recitals are scheduled for Friday afternoon and evening, May 31. The solo competitions are particularly interesting because competitors have mastered the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire.

The collaborative chamber music continues Saturday morning and afternoon, May 31. MSO collaborators include violinists Ji-Yeon Lee, Dylana Leung, and Kyung Ah Oh along with cellists Madeleine Kabat and Adrien Zitoun.

Each marathon day costs $15 for a day pass. Most who attend choose a more limited time to attend.

The fourth audience is not as obvious. Many of the contestants return to Milwaukee to contribute to another important PianoArts initiative. Throughout the year winners return as individuals to participate in concerts at local Milwaukee schools expanding their opportunity to talk with and interact with an audience, and inspire the young musicians in these audiences.

Two past competition winners, Godwin Friesen and Solomon Ge, have been invited back to Milwaukee to inaugurate the festival. This public concert on Thursday, May 30, mirrors the concerts that are a part of the private educational program. Ge was the winner in 2022, as one of the youngest in this competition. Godwin returned to Milwaukee a number of times. He has also become an accomplished composer and will play one of his own competitions.

PianoArts co-sponsors a second biennial competition, the Wisconsin Youth Piano Competition for youth ages 10-17, with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra planned for June 2025.

Festival Details:

Except for the Finale all events are held at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Conservatory tickets may be purchased online for $15 to $20 per event.

Prelude Concert
Thursday, May 30, 7:30 p.m.
Two PianoArts winning pianists, Godwin Friesen and Solomon Ge

Solo Recitals – Semifinal Round
Friday, May 31, 1:00 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.

Duo Recitals – Semifinal Round
Saturday, June 1, 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Concert By The Masters
Monday, June 3, 7:30 p.m.
Juror Aaron Wunsch and Conservatory pianist Stefanie Jacob open with Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor. Peter Takács performs Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat with MSO violinist Paul Hauer and cellist Madeleine Kabat. The concert finale is Brahms’s Horn Trio with Sean Chen, MSO First Associate Concertmaster Ilana Setapen, and Principal Horn Matthew Annin.

Grand Finale
Tuesday, June 4, 7:30 p.m. Three finalists with the Milwaukee Symphony at the Bradley Symphony Center.

Online tickets to the Finale for $30 ($15 for students) are managed through the Bradley Symphony Center ticket office. The several pre-concerto events begin at 4:30 p.m.

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