Backstage at the 2024 Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition: How the Abravanel-Bachauer friendship established roots of relationship with Utah Symphony

While Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City will be the site of the final round in the 2024 Gina Bachauer International Artists Competition, when three pianists will perform concertos with the Utah Symphony on both the evenings of June 28-29, the connection between the Bachauer Foundation and the Utah Symphony goes much deeper, starting years before the competition was launched in 1976.

It was Maurice Abravanel, the late Utah Symphony conductor and musical director, who set his sights on bringing Gina Bachauer, an  internationally renowned pianist, to Utah. She made eight appearances with the symphony but, most importantly, Bachauer, who was born in Greece, arranged for the Utah Symphony’s first international tour in 1966, which included a performance at the famed Athens Festival. 

As the late Paul Pollei, who founded the Bachauer Foundation, recalled, Abravanel, who was born in Thessaloniki, respected Bachauer so profoundly that he called her, “Saint Gina.” Indeed, the relationship between two Greek natives cemented the fact that Utah would become the home not only to her archives at Brigham Young University but also Salt Lake City would become the eventual home of the Bachauer Foundation and its competitions.

David Green, chief operating officer and senior vice president of the Utah Symphony, said, in an interview with The Utah Review, “Utah is very lucky to have such major institutions as the Utah Symphony and Bachauer so close to each other and right at the front door steps in the city.” Both institutions have also been prominent in educational outreach performances, demonstrations and events that have been presented in every school district in Utah.

From one logistical perspective, having a major symphony orchestra with a year-round schedule has made it feasible to make the final round of the Bachauer competition, which is held in June, as thrilling as possible not only for the pianists but also for audiences as well. While the jury will decide which of the three finalists will take first prize and the gold medal, audience members will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite pianist, to determine an additional cash prize ($1,000) in the competition. 

Nevertheless, the logistical considerations for the final round of the competition can be daunting, at least to the eyes of an outsider peering into this event. Normally, an orchestra with a guest soloist usually has several rehearsals within the week prior to the concert and the featured concerto has been set many months prior . However, for Bachauer, which is a two-week competition, the finalists will only be determined three days before their first appearance with the Utah Symphony. For each of their two appearances with the orchestra, they will select from a rather lengthy list of concertos which the Utah Symphony has parts immediately available for in their library. Each finalist will have just one rehearsal with the symphony for each performance.

For the first round on June 28, finalists will select from a list that includes Beethoven’s first two piano concertos and ten by Mozart. For the second round on June 29, finalists will select from a list of 19: concertos, many of which are the greatest warhorses in the piano literature, by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Grieg, Liszt, Prokofiev, Ravel, Ramchaninoff, Schumann and Tchaikovsky. Conner Covington, who is well suited for the demands of quickly preparing for an ideal synergy between the orchestra and the soloist, will conduct both evenings. “It is shock and awe but also stunning for just how fascinating and cool it is,” Green added.

The eventual winners of the Bachauer gold and silver medal prizes will return at a later date as a soloist for a Utah Symphony concert. Two years ago, Changyong Shin, who won the gold medal in the 2018 International Artists Competition, played in a Deer Valley Series concert in 2022. This summer, Aristo Sham, silver medalist from that same year, will perform the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 on July 26 at Deer Valley with the Utah Symphony. 

For tickets and more competition information, see the Bachauer website. For more information about summer symphony concerts, see the Utah Symphony website.

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