Olympics of the Piano Begins With Chopin Competition

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This Saturday at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, the Eighth Annual Chopin Competition gets under way, as 21 young pianists vie for prizes and concert bookings before a jury of established figures in the world of classical music.

This is the Chopin bicentenary year (he was born March 1, 1810), which adds special import to the proceedings. The first three rounds — preliminaries, quarter-finals and semi-finals — can be seen for free from Sunday through Thursday at the Auditorium, and this can be a lot of fun if you want to try and spot the big talents of the future.

And this competition has seen major careers develop for pianists who have won its prizes: Gabriela Montero, Ian Hobson, Jeffrey Kahane and Kevin Kenner all have taken home some recognition from the competition. And the 2000 grand prize winner, Jon Nakamatsu, is soloing this afternoon at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, playing the Brahms First Concerto with Justus Frantz and the Philharmonia of the Nations.

The finals of the competition take place Feb. 27 and 28, when the six top players will perform with the Frost Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sleeper. The Feb. 28 concert ends with the awards ceremony, and everyone will then learn who has taken top honors. Tickets for the first finals concert range from $18-$28; the second costs from $28-$38.

The Miami-based Chopin Foundation has assembled a good jury for the contest, including Bella Davidovich and Agustin Anievas, both names well-known to piano connoisseurs. Davidovich, now in her 80s, won the International Chopin Competition, based in Warsaw, back in 1949.

The National Competition is a prelude to this year’s Warsaw contest, and the top prize winner here is automatically entered into the international competition, set for April. That winner also gets a $20,000 prize and a debut recital at Carnegie Hall in New York.

All of the music in the competition will be by Chopin, and the official list includes some of the composer’s most treacherous pieces, and rules about performing full sets of mazurkas collected under single opus numbers and the like. The two piano concerti, of course, are the pieces available for the six soloists in the finals.

It is all something very much like the Olympics now going on in Vancouver: Very talented people execute very difficult physical activities, which are then judged on minute points of technique and style, but that also provide sheer aesthetic enjoyment for non-initiates.

Here is a list of the contestants: Jun Asai, Nora Bartosik, Yelena Beriyeva, Daniela Bracchi, Sean Chen, Claire Huangci, Conley Johnson, Sean Kennard, Henry Kramer, Naomi Kudo, Esther Park, Christopher Schmitt, Elizabeth Schumann, Rhed Shi, Kenric Tam, Emy Todoroki-Schwartz, Andrew Tyson, Vijay Venkatesh, Evan Wong, Josh Wright and Eric Zuber. (A 22nd contestant, Victoria Chan, withdrew this week.) Some of these pianists are at the beginning of their musical careers, and others have already established themselves as professional musicians.

So if you’re in the Olympics spirit, and you love the music of Chopin, it might be worth your while to check out some of the gleaming piano talents in the United States starting this weekend at the Miami-Dade Auditorium.