Carmel Music Society’s Piano Competition Hits All the Right Notes

Hans Boepple, Harold Gray, Max Bragado-Darman, Tanya Gabrielian, Igor Panchevski & Irene Kim

Eight talented, exciting young pianists were in town this weekend to compete as finalists in the Carmel Music Society’s 34th Annual Competition. In 1977 the Carmel Music Society decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary by creating a competition for young California musicians – either those currently residing and studying music professionally in California, or California residents studying music professionally elsewhere. The principal idea, unusual at the time, was not just to have a competition and award cash prizes, but to select a grand prize winner on the brink of a career and, in addition to a cash award, offer them a contract as a “Young California Artist” to appear on the Carmel Music Society’s regular subscription series the following season. The competition evolved into a cyclical competition held in alternate years for pianists, vocalists and instrumentalists.

Preparations for this year’s competition for pianists started several months ago with the printing and distribution of brochures announcing the competition, which were then mailed to music departments in several states. Thirty-two qualified applicants sent in three copies each of a CD containing approximately 25 minutes of solo piano music, which were then screened by distinguished local pianists, Rudolf Schroeter, Barbara Ruzicka and Erik Dyar. The screeners listened separately to the disks, which contained no information about the contestants’ teachers or academic achievements, and the disks themselves were identified only by a number in order to conceal the gender and age of each contestant.

After the eight selected finalists arrived on Friday to settle in with their host families and to try out the Hamburg Steinway at Sunset Center in Carmel, the fateful competition day arrived this morning as a small but enthusiastic audience gathered at in Sunset Theater to hear Anne Thorp, President of the Carmel Music Society, greet the audience and introduce the three distinguished judges, master pianist and teacher from Santa Clara University Hans Boepple, Professor Emeritus from Portland State University Harold Gray, and Conductor and Music Director of the Monterey Symphony Max Bragado-Darman.

What followed during the morning and afternoon sessions was a Smorgasbord of pianistic delights for the community’s piano buffs, since it presented an opportunity to hear some very talented young pianists playing an astonishing variety of piano music. For the contestants and the judges, it was in some respects a gladiatorial contest. Fortunately, the contestants battled each other, not directly with mace and chain, but more appropriately took turns “slaying the dragon,” the dragon, of course being the Hamburg Steinway concert grand on stage. The whole point of the event was to seduce and charm the dragon and make music that would capture the hearts of the judges and inspire them to select three winners.

Finally, at about 4 pm, after many hours of listening and a brief period of deliberation, CMS President Anne Thorp, came out on stage at Sunset Center and announced that although it had been a difficult decision, the jurors had selected three winners: Third Prize Winner Igor Panchevski ($1500), Second Prize Winner Irene Kim ($2000), and the Grand Prize Winner Tanya Gabrielian, who would receive initially a check for $3000 plus a contract to appear on the Carmel Music Society’s season next year for an additional $2000. Each of the remaining finalists would be receiving checks for $500 to offset their travel expenses.

Later, at 8 pm, a larger crowd than expected gathered at Sunset Center. After a brief ceremony on stage for the presentation of checks, the audience settled back to hear the winners in reverse order. Opening the concert was third prize winner Igor Panchevski, 24, a native of Skopje, Macedonia, a graduate of Oberlin and a candidate for a master’s degree at the San Francisco Conservatory where he studies piano with Yoshikazu Nagai. Presenting one of the most interesting programs heard from the competition finalists, Panchevski delighted us with three selections that were so stylistically different that if you listened with your eyes closed, he sounded like three different pianists. A soothing Prelude and contrasting fiery Etude-Tableau by Rachmaninoff were followed by a stylish performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata. In his fleet and beautifully articulated performance of the Beethoven, among the magic moments were the muted recitatives in the development section where by a combination of extended pedaling (or even perhaps sympathetic vibrations from chords depressed silently in the base), Panchevski created lovely and ghostly sounds that were supremely effective. The crown jewel of his performance, however, was his playing of the Chorale and Variations from the Dutilleux Piano Sonata. This was bold dramatic playing that demonstrated his mastery of an astonishing variety of technical challenges, plus an amazing control of dynamic shading and lovely shaping of phrases.

Second prize winner Irene Kim, 24, a candidate for a DMA at the Peabody Conservatory where she studies with Boris Slutsky, opened her brief program with a dazzling performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3. Although this was a really fast performance, at times so light and fleet that it sounded like a Scarlatti Sonata, it nevertheless was stylistically pure and made a strong impression. Her performance of Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca No. 104 that followed was gorgeous! Her control of the contrasting moods of alternating tenderness and violent anger produced some of the loveliest sounds heard from the stage during the competition. She ended her program with a fine performance of Ravel’s La Valse, a performance that stressed the elegant components of this work rather than the over-the-top bombast we occasionally hear.

Ending the evening, we heard the grand prize winner Tanya Gabrielian, who, it turns out from her CV, is already a seasoned artist at the age of 26 with an impressive series of awards and performances in Europe and the USA. Her appearance on stage, both during the afternoon session and during the awards concert displayed a totally confident mastery and command. On stage, she is a presence, a force to be reckoned with, and this was plainly obvious before she even played a note, and when she started to play, the impression of total control and mastery was even more apparent. However, the repertoire she selected for her participation in this competition might strike one as peculiar – an anachronistic Bach Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, gussied up by Franz Liszt (whose knowledge of, and interest in, matters Baroque was nonexistent) and two contemporary works by Janacek and Bartok. This poses a question about her appearance next year on the Carmel Music Society’s subscription series. Is she likely to come prepared to play a program dominated by selections of works by Boulez, Crumb and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen?

Perhaps she gave us a clue as to what we might expect when she played an encore after her fabulous performances of her chosen works by Janacek and Bartok. She played “The Lark,” a song by Glinka in a concert paraphrase by Balakirev. This was partially a barnstorming Lisztian-like concert paraphrase, but also a stylishly lovely transcription that preserved the haunting essence of the original song. The principal melody is often lightly interwoven between wispy gossamer-like ornamental passages that are as delicious as they are moving. This was a performance I never wanted to end. Speaking with her during the lovely reception in the lobby, she mentioned that she is currently producing a new CD that will contain “The Lark.” We can order a copy of this CD from her web page, in a few months, of course. While we are waiting, we can still access her terrific web page and listen to “The Lark” to our hearts content.

Anyone who was unable to hear the finalists’ performances during the day missed hearing some very fine playing from the other young finalists. Jane Lee, 22, a candidate for a DMA at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore impressed us with her performance of the Presto first movement from “Gargoyles” by Lieberman and a lovely rendering of Chopin’s “Aeolian Harp” etude. Franky Leung, 25, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory, played a thrilling performance of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz and the Scriabin Sonata No. 4. Krissy Han, 22, a student at the San Francisco Conservatory, delighted us with a silky smooth performance of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’Ocean and a fleet first movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata. Akane Lida, 28, a graduate of USC’s Thornton School of Music, astonished us with extraordinary mixes and blends of impressionistic color in her rendering of Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree Sketch” and Ravel’s Jeux d’eauYerin Choi, 27, a DMA candidate at USC’s Thornton School of Music, made a strong impression with her performance of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata.

So concluded this year’s Piano Competition, and next year we will look forward to the Instrumental Competition.


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