William Kapell. ( Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center)

He was a small man, but a big pianist. He was a virtuosic technician who leapt into the spotlight early with flashy, eye-popping repertory — the Khachaturian concerto, Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz — and then spent the rest of his life working on deepening his maturity and insight in, for instance, subtler works by Schubert and Bach. He died at 31 when the plane he was on hit a mountain near San Francisco in 1953. His name is William Kapell, and he is the namesake of the piano competition and festival that starts this week at the Clarice Smith Center.

Kapell himself was the kind of pianist who was good at competitions — he won his first one at the age of 10. The prize was a turkey dinner with the pianist Jose Iturbi. The Kapell competition offers rather more substantial fare: first prize comes with an award of $25,000. (Second prize is worth $15,000; third, $10,000.) In 1985, when Jeffrey Biegel won the competition — then known as the University of Maryland Piano Competition and Festival — victory came with a prize of $15,000, the highest-ever, at that time, for a piano competition. It no longer holds that distinction; but the prize money is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

When the competition began in 1971, it was as the University of Maryland International Piano Festival and Competition, and it had nothing to do with Kapell at all. It didn’t bear the pianist’s name, in fact, until the pianist Eugene Istomin, a slightly younger friend whom Kapell did a great deal to promote, became its director and renamed it in Kapell’s honor in 1986. In the beginning, it was held annually, attracting a whole range of piano manufacturers, music publishers, educators and other piano-world figures. Biegel remembers “hanging around the booths and meeting so many people.”

Today, the festival that bears Kapell’s name is operated by UMD’s Clarice Smith Center, and held every four years — more or less. The last competition was in 2007; the financial crisis in 2008 led the festival to postpone its next iteration by one year. “We just couldn’t see far enough in the future to know what might happen,” said Paul Brohan, the center’s director of artistic initiatives. Brohan says it’s difficult to break down the exact costs of funding the festival, but “it’s well into the six figures.”

The 2007 competition introduced a couple of innovations: It streamlined the number of competitors (there are 25 this year, winnowed down from some 185 applicants) and added a chamber-music component for the first time. This year, participants had to choose either a cello or a violin sonata, from a list of eight; 10 have chosen cello, and 15 have chosen violin. “Chances are good that we’ll get some of both,” says Jarl Hulbert, the competition coordinator, “but there’s always a chance we’ll get nine people playing cello sonatas.”

Leon Fleisher. (Eli Turner)

Another recurring factor is an emphasis on American repertory — a nod to Kapell, who championed American work and whom composer Ned Rorem once called “the first — and, alas, the only — big-time American pianist for whom the present was on a par with the past.” This year’s contestants had to choose a work by one of six American composers: George Walker, Samuel Adler, Michael Torke, Leon Kirchner, Judith Lang Zaimont or Hilary Tann.

For the public, the festival element of the original conception is still very much present. The competition’s two weeks (it lasts until July 21) include public concerts by some major figures, including Richard Egarr, Jeremy Denk, Vijay Iyer, and Leon Fleisher. There are also lectures, master classes, and even a Grand Piano Party that celebrates every aspect of keyboard music and includes demonstrations of Moog synthesizers and digital reproducing pianos and a recital by the winners of the young artists competition in May, a new component of the festival.

The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival is in a nearly unique position among major international competitions in that it’s sponsored by a performing arts center rather than being a stand-alone event. This year’s directors made a concerted effort to draw in the University of Maryland, consulting with members of its piano faculty and inviting them to give master classes.

One result of this is the presence of Fleisher, who the UMD staff felt was particularly important because of his reputation for high-quality master classes, Brohan said. Fleisher also happens to have been a friend of Kapell’s, and called him, in his memoir “My Nine Lives,” (which I co-authored) “probably the greatest American pianist who ever lived.” Kapell, he said, was sometimes devastating in his frankness when criticizing a young artist’s playing, but he was also strikingly generous. It was Kapell, for instance, who recommended that Fleisher take part in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, which Fleisher won in 1952, and which paved the way for his international career.

The problem with competitions is that careers are never guaranteed. Only a few of the past Kapell Competition winners have established themselves — among them the most recent winner, Sofya Gulyak, who went on to become the first woman ever to win the prestigious Leeds competition in 2009. Another, Santiago Rodriguez, who won in 1975, is chairing this year’s jury; other past winners include Enrique Graf and Diane Walsh.

“Unlike other competitions,” Brohan says, “we don’t manage or offer any career advice specifically to our winners. We don’t offer a recording deal.” The festival does offer “an opportunity for them to establish a profile in the United States,” Brohan says, and, of course, there is the prize money. “We’re very competitive in our prize amounts,” he says.

For Biegel, the 1985 winner, who has an active career performing around the country with mid-level orchestras (he’ll be at the Fairfax Symphony in September), the competition initially seemed to propel him to a new level.

Jeremy Denk. (Michael Wilson)

He had just finished his master’s degree at Juilliard; after his win, one of the jury members invited him to compete in a brand-new competition in Norway, where he also took a prize. Because of these victories, Juilliard asked him to represent the school at an event honoring Leonard Bernstein, whose enthusiastic praise helped Biegel secure the prestigious Petschek Piano Debut Award, involving a debut at New York’s Alice Tully Hall. It was a pretty high-flying beginning. But even such promising achievements don’t mean an automatic ticket to a big-time career.

“I became a very impatient young artist,” Biegel said, “thinking the whole world was going to open up. That’s not the way it works,” he laughed wryly. “But the competition did open a few doors, added a few pieces to the puzzle.”

Kapell International Piano Festival and Competition

starts this week (the first round is Sunday to Tuesday) and continues through July 21. For a schedule, go to http://claricesmithcenter.umd.edu/2010