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It's a time of summer-school doldrums right now for most American universities, but not at the University of Maryland in College Park. Excitement is building at the school's sprawling Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as the quadrennial William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival moves toward the weekend's nail-biting climax. The event is named after a brilliant young American pianist whose career came to an abrupt end when he was killed in a 1953 plane crash.

The Kapell Competition began on July 10 with nearly 30 talented young classical pianists vying for a $25,000 first prize plus lucrative concert offers that are sure to follow. It's sort of like the "American Idol" of piano competitions, drawing musicians, students and classical piano fanatics from around the globe to hear great music and engage in animated discussions about who the winners might be.

This year's event has added a new competition feature designed to reflect the late Mr. Kapell's notable commitment to performing the music of American composers. As part of the first round last week pianists were required to have 110 to 120 minutes of solo repertoire prepared, which had to include one of two American pieces chosen for this year: the second movement of Aaron Copland's spiky "Piano Sonata," or Robert Palmer's difficult "Toccata Ostinato."

Unlike many piano competitions, the Kapell has mounted significant outreach efforts in recent years to attract interest in classical pianism from outside the usual realm of keyboard aficionados and specialists. One innovation this year is the impaneling of a volunteer jury, a self-selected group of fans who will confer and vote for their own favorite among the nine semifinalists. The winner will take home a special Volunteer Jury Award of $1,000.

It's still going to be up to the competition's official jurors to select the winner of the 2007 prize and the two runners-up. This year's jury is chaired by University of Maryland professor, pianist and artist-in-residence Santiago Rodriguez.

Other distinguished jurors include pianist Nina Kavtaradze of Denmark; U.S. pianist and curator of the International Piano Archives at Maryland, Donald Manildi; British teacher, writer and media personality Bryce Morrison; German pianist Peter Roesel; Italian-American pianist and teacher James Tocco; and Israeli pianist Ilana Vered.

While the competition formally opened early last week, it gathered steam on Thursday when pianist Garrick Ohlsson appeared in the afternoon to chat about his experiences on the competition circuit and his decades-long stint as one of the world's most distinguished musicians. His victory in the 1970 Chopin Piano Competition helped propel his professional career. Mr. Ohlsson also appeared in a formal recital that evening.

Other distinguished artists will play in special recitals throughout the remainder of the competition, including composer-pianist Philip Glass, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, cello-piano duo David Finkel and Wu Han, and jazz pianist and composer Ahmad Jamal.

Bracketing Mr. Ohlsson's Thursday appearances, the competition's nine semifinalists were announced promptly at 4 p.m. via a videoscreen set up in the Smith Center's spacious lobby. This field will be whittled down to three survivors by late this week after they compete in a suite of events including solo programs, selections from various piano concertos with an accompanist, and specially selected piano trios for the panel of judges.

The three finalists will each perform an entire piano concerto in a tension-filled concert performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Lockington on Saturday. These performances will determine the winner.

Many events during this year's competition are free, while others require tickets with prices ranging from $15 to $30. Tickets for Saturday's Concerto Round range from $30 to $50 and will go fast. For a complete list of competition events, background on the artists and performers, and ticket purchase information, visit www.clarice smithcenter.umd.edu/, or call 301-405-ARTS.

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