Competitive ivory counts in Kapell piano contest

Pianist Eun Joo Chung walked on stage at Tawes Theatre at the University of Maryland College Park. Four gleaming grand pianos greeted her. The young musician seated herself at the first, a Steinway made in Hamburg, Germany, played the opening phrases of a Mozart sonata and immediately stood up and moved to a Steinway made in New York.

She played more of the Mozart, some Chopin and some of Samuel Barber's Sonata. Then she moved again -- this time to a Yamaha grand -- but only for a short time before moving to the fourth instrument, a Baldwin. There, she explored the infernal depths and vertiginous heights of Liszt's "Dante Sonata."


Then she walked back to the Hamburg Steinway and started all over again.

Earlier this week, this scenario was repeated by 30 other young pianists. The occasion was the university's biennial William Kapell Piano Competition and Piano Festival. The 31 pianists, ranging in age from 18 to 32 and representing 19 nations, were selecting the instrument they thought would best help them compete.


At stake is more than $50,000 dollars in cash prizes and several recital engagements, including one in New York's prestigious Alice Tully Hall.

The Kapell, which started in 1971, is a major international competition that ranks a notch under those such as the Tchaikovsky in Moscow or the Cliburn in Fort Worth, Texas. It was an annual competition until 1991, when it began alternating with either a vocal or cello competition.

Past winners have included Emanuel Ax and Santiago Rodriguez, who have gone on to major international careers. Rodriguez now teaches at UM.

The competition began Thursday and concludes next Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

It is the only major competition that has a piano festival associated with it. Six internationally important pianists will give evening recitals and there is a cornucopia of master classes, lecture-recitals, demonstrations and symposiums. It may be the only competition in which early-round losers stay around.

As it turned out, the Korean-born Miss Chung, now a resident of Seattle, finally settled on the Hamburg Steinway.

"It's not perfect -- I'll need to lighten up on my left hand when I play it," said the 23-year-old.

"But I didn't like the sound of the New York instrument; the Hamburg had more possibilities -- different kinds of sounds and color."


The Baldwin and the Yamaha were rejected because Miss Chung felt they lacked power.

"If you don't have an instrument that can project, it's not going to help you win a competition," she said.

Her choice of pianos was shared by a plurality of the competing pianists. By Thursday's start of the preliminary rounds, 15 pianists had chosen the Hamburg Steinway, 10 the one from New York, with only six opting for the Yamaha and none for the pTC Baldwin.

In past years, most Kapell contestants have chosen New York Steinways. That the Hamburg instrument is now the most popular choice is an index to how the Kapell Competition, has changed.

In its early years, most of the contestants came from the United States, with a scattering from Europe and Asia, and none from the Soviet Union. But the competition's growth in stature (and increased prize money), as well as the breakup of the Soviet Union, has radically changed the Kapell's composition. Now only eight of the pianists come from the United States; the rest are from Europe (including 12 from the republics of the former Soviet Union) and Asia.

"Pianists tend to choose the instruments with which they are most comfortable," said Dirk Dickten, one of Steinway's chief technicians, who was sent to College Park to care for the company's pianos.


"Pianists in Europe are most familiar with German Steinways, much less with our New York pianos and with Yamahas, and still less with Baldwins. In a competition, very few pianists want to try out something new."

There are indeed differences between the German and American instruments, said Dickten.

"The one from New York has a much bigger sound, the Hamburg is more delicate," he said. "The one made in New York reflects something of the American character in that is somewhat brash and aggressive.

"But it developed in that way partly because American halls tend to be bigger than those in Europe and pianists need to be able to project more. Still, every pianist has individual needs and will find something different in each instrument."

That was confirmed by the young pianists themselves.

"I like the the Steinway from the U.S.A. because it's big," said Leonel Morales, a 29-year-old Cuban-born pianist now living in Spain. "But I like more the Hamburg because it's sweet. I think the ideal piano would combine both. There may come a time when I will find both, but not today."


The 31 competitors were selected from the submitted tape recordings of more than 200 pianists. The competition consists of a preliminary round, in which each pianist plays requests from the judges for 20 minutes; 12 semifinalists are chosen, who will each play 30 minutes of requests from the judges.

The three finalists then have to give an hour-long recital of complete works of their own choosing, in addition to playing a concerto with the National Symphony.


Highlights of the University of Maryland's William Kapell Piano Competition and Piano Festival:

July 17: Garrick Ohlsson

July 18: Cecile Ousset


July 19: Barry Douglas

July 20: Angela Cheng with the Colorado Quartet

July 21: Nelson Freire

July 22: Horacio Gutierrez

July 23: Final round of competition

The recitals take place at 8:30 p.m. in Tawes Theater, University of Maryland College Park. Tickets are $12-$17.50. The finals, at 8:30 p.m. next Saturday, is in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center, in Washington. Tickets are $10-$35. Call (301) 405-6538.