Crescendo Builds for Kapell Contenders

By Andrew Lindemann Malone
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Ayoung pianist is playing in a large hall, trying to survive the preliminary rounds of the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival. The competition jury is disappointed; the audience is tense. The jury has repeatedly called out for different pieces from her repertoire, but everything has sounded tentative and faltering.

Another request from the judges -- another failure she has to get past. She pauses for a moment, draws her arms inward, straightens up on the piano bench. When she opens back up and begins to play, suddenly her tone is pearlescent, her phrasing effortless, her interpretation confident and imaginative. The doubts of the jury are swept aside, the nervous hopes of the audience are fulfilled, and the pianist survives to play for a few more days.

Dramatic moments like that stand out in remembrance of Kapell competitions past, even after the specifics of who won or lost are long since forgotten. They're one reason devotees have flocked to the University of Maryland to attend the Kapell since its inception in 1971. Another is the possibility of hearing the next Hot Young Artist who will soon scorch the ivories all over the world.

The 2007 edition of the quadrennial event runs Tuesday through July 21 at the university's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park. Culled from a pool of nearly 200 applicants, 25 pianists between the ages of 18 and 33 will get the opportunity to go home with a higher profile, invaluable contacts and a first prize of $25,000.

But the Kapell is not just a competition. As part of the festival, successful pianists will discuss what it takes to make a career -- from collaboration to programming to getting the instrument to sound its best. And concerts by these experienced players will give the audience yet more fine musicianship to enjoy.

For the competitors, of course, the major concern is what it's going to take to win. Santiago Rodriguez, the chair of the competition's jury and winner of the competition (way back in 1975), says he's looking for "somebody who's an individual. Somebody who colors outside the lines. Somebody who really has a bent on the repertory they're playing, who has a real personality for transmitting it. A lot of kids are blessed with great hands and even great coordination, but it's going to take a lot more than that to get through this one."

That ideal sounds a lot like William Kapell, the Brooklyn-born pianist whose prodigious technical capabilities were matched only by his bold interpretations and his championship of American repertoire.

In honor of Kapell, whose life was cut short at age 31 by a plane crash in 1953, this year competitors must prepare one of two American works: the second movement of Aaron Copland's piano sonata, or the boogie-woogie-inspired "Toccata" of Robert Palmer (a pupil of Copland's, not the "Addicted to Love" guy).

Otherwise, the pianists can play whatever they want -- and they should. "At this point, they're either going to be good at one thing or two things. It's insane to ask a kid to play a balanced recital," Rodriguez says. "I think it's important for these young pianists to know that no one wants to know what they do almost as good as someone else."

If they survive the drama of the preliminary rounds, which run Tuesday through Thursday, the nine competitors will get to repeat the experience for a longer time in the semifinals Friday through Sunday. But they'll also have to rush to prepare one of six preselected piano trios with violinist David Salness and cellist Evelyn Elsing, both Maryland faculty artists, for the chamber rounds on July 17 and 18.

With only two hours total for rehearsal, the chamber rounds should pose an exciting (and possibly nerve-racking) challenge for everyone involved. Salness hopes that the process "exposes some glaring weaknesses that you might not [see] otherwise, or it ups the cachet of pianists. Maybe you wouldn't have known this about them -- that they have a probing intellect, that they understand how music works with other people, not just between hands but between parts."

The spotlight shines further on the collaborative process on July 17 when the husband-and-wife duo of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han will lecture on the topic in the morning and show how it's done in the evening. On July 18, another spousal team, pianist Marilyn Nonken and composer Jason Eckardt, will discuss how a performer can engage modern repertoire. Later that day there will be a rare solo keyboard performance by composer Philip Glass, which has already sold out. And jazz legend Ahmad Jamal will appear with his trio on July 20.

Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott will play an all-Haydn program on the evening of July 19 and discuss the thinking behind it the next morning. "The Haydn sonatas are just so alive, and they have such a story to tell and such drama," she says. "And I think in this day and age, it's very important for young artists to put together intelligently thought-out programming that comes from a very sincere place. The public responds to that more, to having a story behind the program."

In past years, the Kapell has drawn fans who attend every lecture and cheer their favorites through the competition. This year, the Smith Center has given those enthusiasts a "Piano Lounge" in which to socialize and a couple of ways to get involved with the judging.

To qualify to be on the volunteer jury, which has a $1,000 prize to give to its favorite semifinalist, you have to show up for all the semifinal rounds. And after the final round on July 21, in which three finalists will each play a concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the competition jury will select the prizewinners, but the audience at that concert will also have another grand to give to its favorite.

The festival is even hosting an Open Piano Night on Friday, where anyone who signs up can have five minutes to shine on stage. It's just for fun, of course -- but it's also a way to get a small taste of the drama that 25 young pianists will be living out for the next two weeks.

For more information on the events, call 301-405-ARTS or visit

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