Would-be competitors weren’t the only people in the Kapell competition affected by visa problems. Elisso Virsaladze, scheduled to serve on the international jury, had to withdraw at the last minute due to a visa problem. This necessitated an eleventh-hour replacement: Dr. Stewart Gordon, who founded the competition in 1971 and ran it, as he says, for much of his professional career, flew in from California, where he teaches at USC, landing only a matter of hours before the first round began on Tuesday morning.
The competition was founded partly as a PR move. At the time, Dr. Gordon says, the school of music, which didn’t even have a proper home of its own and “was not very well developed,” was looking for ways to win wider recognition in the music world. “So I got the idea,” he said, “let’s have a big piano festival and competition.” The competition grew out of an annual festival the school had been co-hosting with the followers of the British piano pedagogue Tobias Matthey, including Evelyn Swarthout Hayes, the wife of Patrick Hayes, the WPAS founder. But the Matthey connection, though it continued to play some role, was never officially part of the competition; linking the new endeavor with one piano school would be, Gordon said, too limiting.
And limits were one thing the competition didn’t need. The first year, everyone who applied was accepted to compete, because the competition was so little known that there were only 15 applicants. One of them was a 22-year-old Juilliard student named Emanuel Ax; he didn’t win, though he got a special citation as the best competitor who didn’t advance to the finals.
Not everyone was convinced in any case. According to Dr. Gordon, the Washington Evening Star ran a big piece headlined “Maryland Announces Another Competition: Who Needs It?” However, the dean of the university’s summer school was enthusiastic and agreed to fund the second year on as large a scale as Dr. Gordon could envisage. (He couldn’t, however, do anything about the piano Steinway sent for Lili Kraus’s recital that second year; one of the B flat keys stopped working midway through the performance.) The Evening Star critic eventually came around.
Changing the name to the William Kapell Competition in 1986, a step initiated by the festival’s new director, Eugene Istomin, may also have helped boost the competition’s profile. Dr. Gordon, who retired from his post before Istomin took over, certainly thought it made sense. The Gina Bachauer competition, which Paul Pollei founded in Utah, was modeled on the Maryland competition in that it also included a festival component, and, says Dr. Gordon, “I saw that naming it for Gina Bachauer brought a lot of instant recognition and publicity, so I was not at all adverse to the fact that when Istomin took [the Maryland competition] over, he wanted to name it for William Kapell.” Gordon himself studied for a time with Olga Samaroff (born Lucy Mary Agnes Hickenlooper), who was Kapell’s teacher, so he felt something of a link with Kapell, who has been characterized as one of the greatest American pianists who ever lived.
In 1980, the competition became the second piano competition in this country (after the Cliburn) to be accepted into the International Federation of Competitions. By that time, the finals were already accompanied by full orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Lockington, will play this year’s final on July 21). It’s added a chamber music component (the semi-finalists this year will have to play either a violin or a piano sonata) and a focus on American work, yet, Dr. Gordon says, “It’s stayed pretty much the same.”