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Tinkling Treble, Rolling Bass


This week at the University of Maryland College Park's Tawes Theater, aspiring young keyboard titans are participating in the biennial William Kapell Piano Competition and Piano Festival. The 31 pianists entered range in age from 18 to 32 and represent 19 nations. At stake is more than $50,000 in cash prizes and several recital engagements, including one in New York's prestigious Alice Tully Hall.

The Kapell contest is the only major competition that has a piano festival associated with it. Six internationally acclaimed pianists -- Garrick Ohlsson, Cecile Ousset, Barry Douglas, Angela Cheg, Horacio Gutierrez and Nelson Freire -- will give evening recitals. The festivities also will feature many musical master classes, lecture-recitals, demonstrations and symposiums. As The Sun's music critic Stephen Wigler has written, "it may be the only competition in which early-round losers stay around."

The young artists competing in the event were selected from more than 200 pianists who submitted tape recordings of their playing. The geographic mix of contestants reflects the growth in the Kapell's importance in recent years. This year, 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, making this a truly world-class event, ranking just below the Cliburn and Tchaikovsky festivals.

The contest consists of a preliminary round, in which each pianist plays requests from the judges for 20 minutes. From the results of that round, 12 semifinalists are chosen; each will play 30 minutes of requests from the judges. The three finalists will then give an hour-long recital of complete works of their own choosing and play a concerto Saturday with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Music competitions like the Kapell traditionally have been a springboard from which young artists have launched their careers. Past winners of the Kapell, which started in 1971, include Emanuel Ax and Santiago Rodriguez, who have gone on to major international acclaim.

Contests are a time of tears and triumph, elation and despair, heart-stopping anxiety and transcendent awe. And for the lucky winner, they mean recognition that years of hard work and study may finally pay off with the chance every artist dreams of -- to move the hearts and minds of music lovers the world over.

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