Backstage at the 2024 Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition: 33 quarterfinalists from 11 countries set to arrive later this week in Salt Lake City

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Utah Review is pleased to present extensive coverage of the 2024 Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition. Each day this week, we will present profiles of the quarterfinalists. This week will focus on preview features and beginning June 17, a daily diary will be published about competition highlights. 

The nation’s second largest piano competition goes into full gear for two weeks, beginning June 17, when the Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition brings 33 quarterfinalists from 11 counties to Salt Lake City. The two weeks of competition, which will begin in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City, will see the numbers winnow down to 12 semifinalists and then three finalists who will perform with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall on June 28-29.  

The competition has expanded substantially since it was held in 1976. This is the 18th time that pianists, ranging in age from 19 to 32, will compete in the International Artists tier, one of three competitions that the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation sponsors. In 2021, Bachauer held competitions for Junior Artists (11-14) and Young Artists (15-18). This year’s quarterfinalists were drawn from the largest pool of applicants in Bachauer history: 333 from 40 countries, up more than 54% from 2018, the last time the International Artists competition was held.  

The jury, comprising internationally known performers and teachers, selected 120 to compete in preliminary rounds. These included individual short recital programs, which were held  in Hamburg (Germany), New York City (U.S.), Hong Kong (China), and Salt Lake City (U.S.). All 33 will perform twice during the quarterfinal round. The 12 semifinalists will perform Two Andean Portraits, a commissioned work written by Gabriela Lena Frank, one of America’s most prolific and well-known composers who is currently composer-in-residence with The Philadelphia Orchestra. The three finalists will each perform twice with the Utah Symphony in two evenings of piano concerto offerings. By the time medals are awarded, the finalists will have performed approximately three hours of music plus two appearances as concerto soloists. 

Gabriela Lena Frank.

The pianists are free to choose any combination of works and composers for each quarterfinal program. The competition offers $106,000 in cash prizes, along with other important amenities essential to a concert career. First prize includes a $50,000 grant, commemorative gold medal, concert engagement for New York City, concerto engagement with the Utah Symphony and a recording contract, along with other items. Second prize includes $25,000, commemorative silver medal, concerto engagement with the Utah Symphony and other items. Third prize includes $15,000, commemorative bronze medal and concert engagements. Finalists also will have a Bachauer recording of their selected repertoire. 

Other prizes include a $1,500 cash prize to each of the nine remaining competitors who reach the semifinals, a $1,500 cash prize for best performance of the commissioned work written by Frank; a cash award of $1,000 to a non-finalist, as determined by the jury, which is provided by Sascha Gorodnitzki Foundation; an audience favorite prize of $1,000 cash, as selected from the three finalists, and a student jury prize of $1,000, which will be awarded to a semi finalist, as determined by a student jury.   

International Artists Competition Legacy

The level of piano artistry at Bachauer competitions has been exceptional on all counts. Changyong Shin of Korea won the International Artists gold medal in 2018, at the age of 23, during an impressive run at international competitions. He took top honors in four international piano competitions within a two-year period. In addition to his 2018 gold medal at Bachauer, he won top prizes at the 2018 Rencontre Internationale des Pianistes Prix Zygmunt Zaleski in Paris, the 2017 Seoul International Piano Competition and the 2016 Hilton Head International Piano Competition. In 2022, he won the Raymond E. Buck Jury Discretionary Award at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

In a previously published interview with The Utah Review, Shin, who now lives in Boston, said news of his winning the Bachauer competition was highlighted in Korea, where he became a major music personality, As soon as the pandemic eased and concerts returned in 2020 in the performing arts calendar in and around Seoul, Shin was in hot demand. A recital tour in Seoul, Incheon, Gwangj and Ansan sold out quickly, as did a recital at the Seoul Art Center, which also featured a festival of concerts by 15 orchestras based in the country, in which Shin participated as a concerto soloist. His Carnegie Hall recital in 2021 was critically acclaimed and he returned to Salt Lake City in 2022 for a performance with the Utah Symphony and then in March 2023 for a Bachauer concert series performance.  

Changyong Shin

Two of Shin’s competition wins also led to recording contracts with the Steinway & Sons label. After winning the Hilton Head Competition, he recorded an album of works by Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. After winning Bachauer, he recorded pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. Living in Boston, Shin is studying as an Artist Diploma student with Wha Kyung Byun at the New England Conservatory.

Also, this summer, for the Utah Symphony’s Deer Valley Music Festival in Park City, Aristo Sham, who won the silver medal in 2018 after winning the top prize 10 years earlier in the Bachauer junior competition, will perform Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto on July 26. Sham also opened the 2023-24 Bachauer concert series last fall. “Bachauer has given me very important milestones in my life,” Sham explained in a 2023 interview with The Utah Review.“The first was in 2008 at the peak of my childhood and then in 2018 right after deciding in the previous summer to dedicate myself fully to music. I had a new mindset and I was fortunate and grateful to win the silver medal.”

Aristo Sham

Andrey Gugnin, the 2014 gold medalist, saw immediate rewards from the Bachauer. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev invited him as a soloist in performances by the Mariinsky Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Gugnin, who performed in November 2022 as part of the Bachauer concert series, has performed around the world in solo recitals and in guest appearances with major orchestras. His performances of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes have been enthusiastically acclaimed. Gugnin has been invited to perform as a guest artist with notable orchestras worldwide, such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia, the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony. He has also collaborated in chamber music with the Asko Schönberg ensemble, Orchestre de Chambre de Genève, Jerusalem Camerata and Camerata Salzburg and on several occasions as the duo partner of violinist Tasmin Little. As a recording artist, Gugnin has published a broad scope of repertoire ranging from solo piano to symphonic works. His release of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes (Piano Classics, 2018) was commended as an Editor’s Choice, and distinguished Gugnin as “one to watch” (Gramophone). Gugnin performed a Bachauer solo concert in November 2022. 

The last American to win a Bachauer gold medal in this specific competition, Stephen Beus (2006) also took first place in the Vendome Prize International Competition in Lisbon and was awarded the Max I. Allen Fellowship of the American Pianists Association in Indianapolis. Now on the Brigham Young University faculty, he made his Carnegie Hall debut with the Juilliard Orchestra and James DePreist, playing Prokofiev Concerto No. 3. He has also performed as guest soloist with the Gulbenkian Symphony (Lisbon), Oxford Philomusica, the Tivoli Symphony (Copenhagen), the Tbilisi National Opera Orchestra, the Northwest Sinfonietta (Seattle), the Royal Philharmonic of Morocco (Casablanca), the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Finland) as well as with the Hamburg, Indianapolis, Nashville, Santa Fe, Utah, Fort Worth, Tucson, Yakima, Bellevue, Salt Lake, Eastern Sierra, Corvallis, Jacksonville, Texarkana and Walla Walla Symphonies. As a soloist, he has performed at Wigmore Hall, the Salle Gaveau and Salle Cortot (Paris), Merkin Hall, the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, the Central Conservatory (Beijing), Teatro San Carlo (Naples), Carnegie Hall (Weill Recital Hall), the Queluz Palace (Lisbon) and has performed for the Dame Myra Hess and Fazioli Salon series (Chicago), the International Keyboard Institute and Festival (New York City), and has given recitals across the United States as well as in Kazakhstan, Russia, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Georgia, China, France, Italy, Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Morocco. 

Douglas Humpherys.

International Perspective in 2024

What is most apparent in international competitions in Bachauer is how the pianists reflect a 21st century mindset about how piano pedagogy has become a multicultural, multinational phenomenon of cross-pollination and cross-fertilization. This has continued to anchor the bar of excellence for artistic, technical and performance standards, which have been the hallmarks of Bachauer competitions.

Douglas Humpherys, the first Bachauer gold medalist in 1976 who is now the foundation’s artistic director and is professor of piano at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, said that this year’s record number of submissions for the competition signifies encouraging insights about the state of piano performance and pedagogy going into the second quarter of the 21st century. “No question, the breadth is impressive,” he said, adding that the jury in preliminary rounds considered the “level of playing is extraordinarily high and the competition is projecting great promise for the future in terms of outstanding piano playing and continuing the traditions of competitions such as Bachauer.” 

There also are subtle changes among the contemporary generation of pianists who are just beginning to come into the prime of their careers. Of course, people still speak about distinctions between and among Russian, Korean, American, Chinese and European schools of pedagogy. But, now, thanks in part to globalization, travel and access to a vast catalog of online sources, recordings and pedagogy (which expanded greatly during the pandemic shutdowns), the current crop of pianists draw upon an amalgam of the elements from different languages and practices of piano pedagogy they find most fitting and relevant to their artistic development and maturation.

Going further, it does not seem all that surprising when Asia, which has nearly 60% of the world’s population, is likely to have an ever-growing number of pianists who are inspired to pursue their artistic careers on an international scale. Humpherys said that of the 22 students in his Eastman studio, 19 come from Asia. This year’s Bachauer quarterfinalists include a substantial contingent from China, Korea and Japan. 

Indeed, within barely three decades, China bounced back at an astounding pace after the Cultural Revolution ended in the mid-1970s, to rejuvenate the music conservatories which essentially stopped when teachers and musicians were sent to work in factories or the fields, starting in the 1960s.  

Xiang Dong Kong of China, who won the Bachauer gold medal in 1988, had gained a bit of international prominence eight years before he performed at the competition. During the Cultural Revolution, when China criminalized any teaching or performance of Western art and music, pianists had to go to extraordinary measures to ensure their neighbors would not hear them play or listen to classical music.

Kong’s mother made a cardboard replica of a keyboard so that the boy could practice safely while he and his mother quietly sang the notes. Kong was 11 when he played for the late violinist Isaac Stern, as shown in the 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart, directed by Murray Lerner. At 17, in 1986, he was the youngest prizewinner ever in the legendary Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. As he said in a 1995 interview with The Los Angeles Times, “I got about 100 engagements in 17 countries from the Bachauer. The Tchaikovsky, that was rubles–and that was it, you know?”

Photo: Kelli Freshman.

The 2020 documentary Beethoven in Beijing, produced by Sam Katz’s History-Making Productions, chronicles the Philadelphia Orchestra tour, which became the first U.S. symphony to perform in China in 1973, when the country was eight years into the Cultural Revolution. In the documentary, Tan Dun, the Chinese composer who won an Academy Award for his score for the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film, recalled hearing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (The Pastoral) or any western classical music for the first time over a loudspeaker as a middle school student when he was working in a commune. Recalling that moment for the film, Dun said that he was told, “‘Do you want to hear some interesting music? … This  is called symphony. … The Philadelphia Orchestra … is in China.’”

The documentary was released during the pandemic but it also became a definitive testament to the resilience of great music  “It was supposed to be the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020 but about 100 all-Beethoven concerts for Carnegie Hall were canceled,” Humpherys said in a 2021 interview, a sentiment that rings just as compellingly three years later, in a time of great geopolitical stress and disturbing news headlines.  “And, it caused me to think about what is it about this music that captures our lives and transcends such difficult circumstances. Many composers worked through plagues, revolutions, genocides and the Holocaust. Russian composers labored under threats by Stalin and Hitler, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich. It is encouraging at least from the standpoint to see how the hurdle to musical life and the discipline needed to do so has been cleared during the pandemic and beyond. The art has endured many far worse hurdles in history. Their music will outlive all of us.” 

In coordination with The Blocks Art District, Mundi Project, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Dayne’s Music and Salt Lake County Arts and Culture, Bachauer organized an outdoor public art installation, featuring six upcycled pianos turned into artworks by local artists Ryan Harrington, Chuck Landvatter, Evan Jed Memmott, Richard Taylor, Kalani Tonga Tufuaku and Ben Wiemeyer. The installation is available on the Abravanel Plaza in downtown Salt Lake City through the summer. In addition, half-hour concerts will be presented on the fourth Friday of every month (June 28, July 26, Aug. 23 and Sept. 26). For tickets and more information, see the Bachauer website.

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