- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

After an unbearable five-year hiatus, area piano aficionados are breathing a sigh of relief as the William Kapell International Piano Festival and Competition returns to the campus of the University of Maryland this week and next.

Once just another local music festival, the Kapell has grown in stature through the years. It is now considered of equal rank with the internationally renowned Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn competitions and attracts worldwide enthusiasm. As Christopher Patton, coordinator of this year’s competition notes, the Kapell is “a lot like the Olympics — dynamic young people who have spent years preparing and coming from all over the world to compete.”

This year’s event includes recitals and master classes by the competition’s judges as well as competitive recitals by a batch of up-and-coming young pianists from more than a dozen countries. The judges include Angela Cheng (Canada), Larissa Dedova (United States), Ruth Laredo (United States), Cecile Ousset (France), Peter Rosel (Germany), John O’Conor (Ireland) and festival founder Stewart Gordon, former chairman of the piano division of the University of Maryland’s Department of Music.

This now famous event began as a modest summer concert series. Since 1965, the university had been holding annual music festivals on its campus that featured lectures, workshops and recitals by young pianists. In 1970, Mr. Gordon, hoping to draw attention to the school as a major center for the performing arts, pushed for an expansion of this largely local effort to an international competition.

Thus, in 1971, the university’s International Piano Festival and Competition was born. The initial effort at an expanded venue attracted a higher level of talent and offered $4,000 in prize money. The competition that year was won by Mark Westcott, but another young unknown named Emanuel Ax was recognized as a rising talent.

By 1976, the competition had begun to draw increased prominence as it added a “concerto round” to determine the first-, second- and third-prize winners. During the concerto round, the three finalists who have survived the week’s recital competitions vie for top honors in a single concert in which each plays a full concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Concerto rounds originally were performed at the Kennedy Center.

In 1980, the competition was admitted to the Federation of International Music Competitions, an organization headquartered in Geneva. The competition also increased the amount of prize money in its pot and now awards in excess of $50,000 to the major contestants — not to mention the prestige and concert offers that winning such an event confers on a young pianist eager for a career boost.

When pianist Eugene Istomin took the reins of the competition, he arranged to have it renamed in memory of American pianist William Kapell, whose archives are housed at the university. Kapell was killed in 1953, at age 31, when the plane that was carrying him back to the United States from a triumphal Australian tour crashed and burned near San Francisco.

In the frequently Eurocentric world of classical music, internationally celebrated American-born pianists were a rarity early in the century just concluded. While the eccentric Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the more aristocratic Edward MacDowell had gained worldwide recognition as pianists and occasional composers in the 19th century, Kapell was arguably the first American pianist in the 20th century to achieve near-universal esteem from critics and concertgoers alike.

Born on New York’s Upper East Side in 1922 of Spanish, Polish and Russian Jewish stock, Kapell was recognized early as a prodigy. By 1934, he was giving private recitals, and he was performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra by 1940. At 19, he became the youngest recipient of the Town Hall Endowment Series Award.

In 1942, he first performed the brand-new piano concerto of Aram Khachaturian, which proved an immediate and enormous hit with audiences. Although he was later to sour on the concerto — familiarity can breed contempt — it established his popularity around the globe, and he frequently performed it on tour. Kapell’s specialty was actually the late-19th-century repertoire, but he also came to champion the works of modern American composers, including Aaron Copland, whose atonal and spiky early compositions remain largely unknown to concertgoers even today.

Kapell’s death in 1953 was greatly mourned, although his star faded for a time, eclipsed by vintage Romantic barnstormers such as Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubenstein, imported from the old country to the delight of American audiences, who even today prefer a lot of bravado in their pianists. The competition has revived interest in Kapell’s recordings, however, and many of them, long unobtainable, are becoming available once again.

The Kapell competition became a biennial affair after 1990. In 1998, the organization decided to adopt the quadrennial format of the other major competitions, meaning, of course, the next competition would be in 2002. In the intervening years, however, the university had planned and built the magnificent Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on its campus. Competition organizers decided to move the entire competition and festival to this exciting new venue, which required adjusting its schedule to mesh with that of the arts complex. This delayed the Kapell’s return to the university for a full year.

Now, the Kapell is back, and there are plenty of events for everyone at all price points. Preliminary rounds conclude this afternoon, during which the field of about 40 pianists is narrowed down to 12. Semifinal rounds run through Tuesday, when the three finalists will be chosen. The concerto round will then take place on July 25 at 8 p.m. — for the first time in the new Dekelboum Concert Hall at the Smith Center.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of David Lockington, will accompany the finalists in each of three concertos, which, of course, have yet to be announced. Typically, however, competitors choose a large, showy concerto such as the Tchaikovsky, the Rachmaninoff 2nd or 3rd, the Prokofiev 3rd or other sonic extravaganzas.

During the festival portion of this event, some of the judges typically give recitals or master classes open to the public. Tomorrow, Irish pianist and judge John O’Conor will present a recital, and a free piano jam session will take place Sunday afternoon. Tuesday, the festival will break the mold of the usual classical event by featuring jazz events all day, including an evening concert by the McCoy Tyner Trio in the Kay Theatre.

By July 25, all attention will again return to the competition. The concerto round is one of the more exciting moments in the world of classical music. Like sports teams, each pianist has his or her partisans, and the judges’ selections are not always popular with the masses.

On three occasions, a first prize has not been awarded, prompting a lusty and atypical chorus of boos from the galleries. At other times, the judging has gone on long into the night, which also makes the partisans restless — and they don’t mind complaining vociferously. After all, this is not your normal, buttoned-down classical concert.

“We hope to have jury response by 11 p.m. that evening,” e-mails Amy Harbison, associate director of communications at the Smith Center. However, in an event like this, styles, standards and personalities can clash, and there are no guarantees — except that the Kapell Competition will always be one of the most exciting evenings of a Washington summer season.

WHAT: The William Kapell International Piano Festival and Competition

WHEN: Through July 25, 2003

WHERE: The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Maryland.

TICKETS: For tickets, package prices, other information, call 301/405-ARTS, or go to the Smith Center Web site at www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

EVENTS: All events are ticketed, although a few are free. Inquire at the box office.

RECITALS: Tomorrow at 8:30 p.m., pianist John O’Conor; Monday, 8:30 p.m., Rita Sloan and “Music From Aspen”; Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., McCoy Tyner Trio; Wednesday, 8:30 p.m., pianist Larissa Dedova; Thursday, 8:30 p.m., pianist and 1990 competition winner Christopher Taylor. Tickets for each of these events: $25.

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