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Finals Week Opens at Indianapolis Piano Competition

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L-R: Andrew Staupe, Claire Huangci, Eric Zuber, Sean Chen, Sara Daneshpour
Photo credit: Lamar Richcreek

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, Indianapolis seems even more than usual like an extremely safe and solidly middle American stronghold. The nine-story Indiana Power & Light building next to Hilbert Center Theatre, where the Indianapolis Symphony plays, usually displays a grid of oblong lighted squares in alternating colors. During Christmas, it displays a Christmas tree. Monday at midnight, it changed to an American flag.

It is the final week of the American Pianists Association's ProLiance Energy Classical Fellowship Awards competition. For the five remaining hopefuls it holds the promise for the winner of a $50,000 cash prize plus two years of career assistance including recitals and a recording opportunity. Indianapolis, which has hosted the awards and the companion jazz awards in alternating years since their inception in 1981, seems like a perfect intersection of American culture and commerce.

After months of grueling rounds of the usual knuckle-grinding etudes and superhuman virtuoso showpieces, the last week began on Monday with the first of five free noontime concerts at Christ Church Cathedral across from Lilly Hall; at each one of the finalists will play a short recital of solo pieces followed by a major piano quintet with the young, Cleveland-based Linden String Quartet.

The atmosphere on Monday at noon was electric. With the five internationally-renowned judges (three distinguished pianists and two industry executives) comfortably ensconced in the organ loft, Eric Zuber played Schubert dreamily and Liszt brilliantly before diving into a rousing performance of Dvorak's Piano Quintet Op. 81, which explored and exploited the inevitable musical dynamics between a virtuoso pianist and a virtuoso string quartet. It was just the beginning of the week's musical fireworks.

The competition continued on Monday night, at Butler University's Eidson Duckwall Recital Hall, where the five finalists each played a specially commissioned short piece (five to eight minutes long) by American composers, each of which was well crafted to give the contestants something to sink their chops into on both a musical and pianistic level.

Missy Mazzoli's Heartbreaker (played by Sara Daneshpour) was the shortest and edgiest, and the most satisfying musical experience; Gabriela Lena Frank's Karnavalito #1 (played by Claire Huangci), with its delightful comic book accents and lyrical energy, was the most delightful. (An interesting human if totally non-musical observation was that each of the three men made a legitimately practical and entertaining show of adjusting the height of the piano bench while the two women didn't even bother.) On Thursday night at the Glick Indiana History Center, each of the five will collaborate with superstar soprano Jessica Rivera in an ambitious program of songs by Mompou, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Turina and Barber.

The stakes will ratchet up on Friday and Saturday nights when the finalists each play a complete major concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz: Chopin No. 1 (Daneshpour), Prokofiev No. 3 (Huangci), Bartok No. 2 (Sean Chen), and Rachmaninoff No. 2 (Eric Zuber) and No. 3 (Andrew Staupe).

Despite their being a mainstay of the classical music business, competitions remain a controversial practice. Even pianists who have survived and thrived on competitions often decry the lack of substance and an emphasis on a "game" mentality; looking over the list of Indianapolis winners yields only a few who have made it to the highest levels of their profession, most notably Frederick Chiu and Stephen Prutsman. The challenge of facing down rivals, judges and audiences (including radio listeners to live broadcasts of the noon concerts on WFMT Radio Network and a four-program, eight-hour syndicated series to air in October on WFMT Radio Network), all keen on the spectacle and hoping to discover the next Van Cliburn, can leave the losers, and the winners, too, as disoriented and disillusioned as Texas cheerleaders.

Even in the gloom of an intermittently rainy Tuesday morning, however, the excitement of the competition has put all such considerations into the shadows. Right now, there is only hope. When the winner is announced at the conclusion of Saturday's night concert, the future (for the winner, at least) will seem very bright indeed.