Why would anyone in his right mind voluntarily participate in a piano competition? That was the looming question as you walked into the second Washington International Piano Amateur Competition, which occurred at various locations around town over the weekend. The overly pressurized, grueling competitions are a necessary evil for young musicians: If you want to be the next Van Cliburn, you need a grand laurel or two.
It defied imagination, then, that a field of competitors who are older and established -- a successful doctor, software engineer or homemaker -- would subject their piano-playing skills and artistry to the microscope of discerning panel of judges without any prospect for major performing careers. But an amateur competition, it turns out, is a completely different beast.
And the last two rounds of the competition made clear these competitors' far different motivations. Participants seemed to take sheer pleasure in refining their technique and playing before an audience. It was also apparent that the amateur piano-playing world is a bit of an incestuous society, and the event was as much a chance for the participants to catch up with old friends as an opportunity to hone their Schubert or Beethoven. There was a nice purity to it all: comfortable people reveling in all the aspects of music and piano playing.
Still, an atmosphere of seriousness never lurked too far from the event. The gravity was due in large part to the presence of the jury, which was composed of professional piano teachers and performers. Austrian cultural attache and onetime concert pianist Christoph Meran chaired the group of eight, which was joined in the finals by three members of the press, including Washington Post contributors Cecelia Porter and Gail Wein.
The famous performer and musical intellectual Charles Rosen has written extensively about the sheer difficulty of Beethoven's piano sonatas, and performances of these 32 masterworks truly filtered out the field. In the semifinals at George Washington University, Suzanne Fremon, a computer programmer from New York, gave a solid account of Beethoven's ethereal Piano Sonata, Op. 110. Unfortunately, the sublime fugue of the finale was too much for her, and she lost her place a couple of times. Retired German software salesman Eberhard Zagrosek nailed his Beethoven and moved to the finals, unlike Fremon.
Overly vibrant pyrotechnic displays failed to win favor with the jury, and those who indulged in such showiness were eliminated.
California biophysicist Rocky Nevin and Canadian radio station administrator Thomas Maurice dashed off strong renderings of works of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Unfortunately, listening to their playing was sometimes akin to reading an essay boldfaced and underlined throughout.
Top honors during the final round on Sunday afternoon at the Ronald Reagan Building auditorium went to local favorite Jim Allison, program manager at classical radio station WGMS. Allison is somewhat of a Rachmaninoff specialist, and he performed the original (lengthier) version of the Russian composer's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor with power, intelligence and emotional sensitivity. His articulate pianism, alive to the natural balances among the voices, often belied his amateur status. He didn't always produce the nicest tone on the gleaming Steinway piano, but his phrasing had a straightforward sense of naturalness and integrity.
In contrast, Zagrosek took the most artistic license on the final afternoon, willfully exaggerating the tempos of many of Chopin's Preludes, Op. 28.
He clearly had the strongest conception of the music, and this ever-present vision attracted the jury despite some apparent fatigue that surfaced toward the end of his performance.
Zagrosek tied for second place with British telecommunications engineer Robert Finley. There was a real sense of physical struggle in Finley's playing, which translated into an energizing and often highly pleasing account of Chopin's and Grieg's masterworks. In the former's "Grande Polonaise," his left hand served up a lovely bass accompaniment to the singing treble line, which he played with a fleet, flowing right.
The petite, red-haired Averill Piers-Baker, wife of a Canadian senator, offered a rhythmic, lyrical and sometimes impassioned rendering of the "Symphonic Etudes" of Robert Schumann that won her the audience choice and press awards, along with a fourth-place showing overall.
Two medical doctors, New York psychiatrist Mark Cannon and Utah neurologist Nancy Futrell, came in fifth and sixth, respectively.
It took almost an hour for the jury to deliberate. While waiting for the announcement, the finalists mingled with friends and loved ones in the audience. For all of these eager overachievers, who appear to take piano as seriously as they do their full-time professional commitments, the results were in many ways beside the point.
This was their little utopia.