The University of Maryland International Piano Festival ended in a chorus of boos from a near-capacity audience outraged that first-place honors had been withheld. It was a curious finale for an evening that had been a feast for lovers of piano concertos -- an evening in which the National Symphony and three young soloists played Tchaikovsky's First, Brahms' Second and Prokofiev's Third in that order.

A half hour before the boos, the audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Saturday night had been on its feet giving a standing ovation to 31-year-old William Wolfram, the only American-born finalist in the festival's William Kapell Competition.

The boos -- with shouts of "No!" and "Shame!" -- greeted artistic director Eugene Istomin's announcement around midnight that no $15,000 first prize would be awarded this year and Wolfram would receive the second prize of $10,000. Wolfram also received the $1,000 Abram Chasins Prize, awarded "to the leading American finalist."

Besides suffering a $5,000 reduction in his prize money and the loss of first-place honors, Wolfram lost the right to seven concert engagements, including an October recital at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center in New York, a concert next summer with the Philadelphia Orchestra and a broadcast recital early next year at the Phillips Collection here.

Third prizes of $5,000 each were given to Kathryn Selby, 24, of Australia and Caleb Tsai, 29, of Hong Kong.

"What can I say except the obvious? I'm very disappointed," Wolfram said later. "The money is still good, of course; from that point of view, I did well. But I would have liked those concerts."

Wolfram has won several previous prizes, including a second prize in the 1983 Naumburg Competition and a bronze medal in the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He is living in New York, supporting himself with income from concerts, and has already given recitals at locations that range from the Gardner Museum in Boston to the Prado in Madrid. His orchestral engagements have included the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony and the Boston Pops.

At a reception following the final round of the competition and the judges' controversial decision, Wolfram was approached by Melvin Bernstein, dean of summer programs at the University of Maryland. "I'm sorry about this," Bernstein told him. "We will see that you get the New York concert. I can't promise Philadelphia, but we will try." Wolfram looked considerably happier as Bernstein walked away.

Well over six feet tall, square jawed and topped by a crown of slightly undisciplined curly hair, Wolfram looks like the archetypal young romantic pianist and even has a remote physical resemblance to the young Van Cliburn. If the winners had been chosen by audience ballot, he would have been $5,000 richer today.

In his performance of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Wolfram soon had the audience -- as well as the music -- in the palm of his hand. The concerto is a "competition piece" to the hilt, at least for the proverbial competitions in which the prize money goes to those who can play loudest and fastest. Wolfram managed that spectacularly, performing the brilliant solo part with impressive power, agility and accuracy. With Sixten Ehrling conducting the National Symphony effectively in Prokofiev's dazzling orchestration, the effect was quite enough to justify the standing ovation.

But did the audience's obvious partisanship have a negative effect on the jurors? Did tactical errors -- in choice of repertoire, for example -- affect the outcome as much as musical ability? Was the decision not to award a first prize (which is unusual but not unprecedented) reached without any kind of discussion, conflict and compromise among the jurors?

One can only speculate, since the deliberations were secret and several jurors declined to comment. According to Istomin, the jurors simply handed in ballots without discussion. Whatever they did, it took them a half hour after the final notes of the Prokofiev faded away at 11:10 p.m.

The credentials of the jury are impressive. In addition to conductor Ehrling (a late substitute for conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski), the panel reads almost like a Who's Who of international-level pianists of the older generation: Paul Badura-Skoda, John Browning, Shura Cherkassky, Nikita Magaloff and Ivan Moravec. Istomin, who is retiring as the festival's artistic director, added himself to the panel in the absence of Youri Egorov, who was kept away by illness.

"We intend to put this competition on a par with any in the world, including the Tchaikovsky or the Cliburn," Istomin said in a conversation after the tumult. "To do this, we have to maintain certain standards. And if these standards are not met, we will not award a first prize."

Does this mean that a winner of a bronze medal in the Tchaikovsky can expect no more than a second place in the Kapell? Whether or not that is the unwritten rule, that's what happened this year.

It may be that Wolfram's choice of the Prokofiev Third Concerto was a tactical error. A brilliant recording of that work is one of the prime remaining mementos of Kapell, for whom the competition is named, and Wolfram's peformance may have evoked unconscious comparisons in the minds of some jurors. It would be very difficult (at least in the judgment of pianists who were his contemporaries) for any young pianist today to survive comparison with Kapell, who died in a 1953 plane crash shortly after his 31st birthday.

Or it may be that the choice of a cliche'd "competition piece" was considered a reflection on this competition, which clearly has higher aspirations (though the Prokofiev has won first prize at Maryland in the past). It is fair to say that the Prokofiev, while it can excite an audience to a frenzy, leaves serious questions about a pianist's musicianship (legato and cantabile playing, ease with traditional forms, etc.) substantially unanswered. Wolfram may have shown those qualities in earlier rounds of the competition, but the jurors had to base their judgment entirely on what happened Saturday night.

A secondary injustice was derived from the failure to award a first prize. Selby was unrealistically put on a par with Tsai in third place. Their performances on Saturday night were by no means equal. Selby is a promising young artist who needs further seasoning and development, and she made a serious tactical error in choosing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto as her competition piece. She did well in the music's more poetic moments, but in passages that called for pure muscle -- notably, right at the beginning and the end -- she simply didn't have it. She might have made a better impression in a Mozart concerto -- or perhaps Beethoven's Fourth.

In the Brahms Second, Tsai showed the evening's most impressive musicianship. He had all the power that was needed for the big moments and played with wonderful sensitivity in the quiet passages -- particularly an exquisite duet with cellist John Martin in the slow movement. He might have taken the first prize, straightening out the whole situation, had he had a bit more of the undefinable quality -- call it showmanship, charisma or stage presence -- that can't be taught in a conservatory.

Perhaps that shouldn't matter in a music competition, and some of the jurors might say it didn't on Saturday night. But one can't help wondering whether Wolfram had a little bit too much and Tsai didn't have quite enough.