In the age of American Idol and other superficial searches for talent (now downgraded to include a willingness to do disgusting things for the chance to win lots of money), a competition aimed at determining the best classical pianist out of a multinational field may seem rather quaint. And a top prize of $20,000 may seem puny, compared with the bucks dangled in front of "reality" contestants roughing it in some exotic locale with a TV crew in tow.
But there's still value to be had in a good old-fashioned, genuine competition among young, gifted musicians with dreams of concert careers. Such an event starts Wednesday at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.
Over the course of 10 days, 40 pianists, ages 18 to 33, from 17 countries will vie for the prize money and exposure that make the William Kapell Interna-tional Piano Competition one of the major enterprises of its kind in the classical-music world.
This year marks the 25th Kapell Competition, and the 50th anniversary of the death of its remarkable namesake. It's also the 25th anniversary of the International Piano Archives at Maryland, a unique repository of nearly every classical piano recording ever made, plus countless scores and publications, all housed at the Smith Center.
A weeklong festival, with lectures, master classes, recitals and more, will provide extra benefits for competitors and public alike.
Known initially as the University of Maryland Inter-national Piano Festival and Competition, the venture was founded in 1971 by Stewart Gordon, then chairman of the university's School of Music, who returns as a member of this year's jury. The competition continually grew in quality and in attractiveness to budding pianists. (Emanuel Ax, one of today's most admired keyboard artists, was among the inaugural contestants, but went home without a prize.) The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra became involved with the final, concerto round as early as 1976.
Noted pianist Eugene Istomin, who directed the competition for a short time in the 1980s, suggested renaming it to honor one of America's greatest pianists. Kapell, who died at 31 in a plane crash in 1953 on his way home from an Australian concert tour, enjoys legendary status today, defining for many piano fans the essence of keyboard virtuosity and artistic insight.
Although initially an annual enterprise, the Kapell Compe-tition later became biennial and then quadrennial, which explains how a 32-year-old venture is only now marking its 25th anniversary. Actually, that anniversary would have taken place in 2002 but was delayed so that the competition activities could move smoothly into the recently constructed Smith Center.
"That extra year delay was a source of concern," says current Kapell director Christopher Patton, "but when we got 205 applicants from 26 countries, we realized we'd be OK. It was an exceptional crop of young pianists. I was really impressed with the recordings they submitted with their applications. I'm glad I wasn't on the selection committee."
That committee whittled the number down to the 40 who will be given 20 minutes to strut their pianistic stuff in the preliminary rounds, playing repertoire of their own choosing. Twelve will be advanced to the semifinals, when they will play more of their chosen solo music as well as excerpts from concertos, in 40-minute rounds. Three finalists will perform a complete concerto with the BSO, conducted by David Locking-ton.
Analysts of piano competitions, from the highest-profile (such as the Van Cliburn in Texas) to more modest affairs, regularly complain about the kind of pianism typically rewarded. Prizes often seem to go to players with faultless techniques and dullest-common-denominator interpretations that can't offend anyone on the jury.
"They used to be the bane of piano competitions," Patton says. "But I think a sea change has been happening in piano pedagogy. It seems to me we are not getting the phalanxes of pianists who are incredibly technically accomplished, but have no understanding of a composer's intentions. I heard more artistry and less pure technique on the recordings from this year's applicants. We've got 40 really accomplished artists coming in."
One of those artists is Inna Faliks, who just finished her studies with Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory. With several competition wins to her credit already, the 24-year-old Ukrainian-born Faliks brings a clear-headed perspective to College Park.
"I would never cater my playing to a competition jury," she says. "If they like it, if they feel I have something to say, great. If not, and if I know I have been honest with myself and the music, then I'm happy. This competition allows artists to be themselves. It doesn't seem to be about who can stand the pressure."