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Young pianists compete in Cape Vincent

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CAPE VINCENT — On a Steinway piano inside a white tent feet from the banks of the St. Lawrence River, 15 talented young pianists spent the weekend performing repertoires ranging from Baroque to modern during the 11th annual 1000 Islands International Piano Competition for Young People, a competition as unusual as it is prestigious.

The pianists, ranging in age from 14 to 25, hailed from cities across the U.S., China, Canada and South America, with most now studying in renowned music schools in the States.

“It’s amazing to be able to bring the community together with music for a weekend in this unique environment,” said Brian M. Preston, artistic director for the competition and one of three judges. “The fact that it’s outdoors — it’s charming, it’s folksy, it works really well.”

Mr. Preston, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and now teaches piano in Rochester, attended the competition for three years as a teacher before becoming a judge four years ago. As the artistic director, he helps hone the rules and musical programming each year.

“It’s very different from any other competition I’ve ever judged,” said William R. Wolfram, a New York City-based piano performer and a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music who judged the competition for the first time this year. “It’s more community friendly and the setting is beautiful.”

The outdoor, “home-spun” setting also gives participants an opportunity to overcome distractions such as bugs and noises from the nearby road, he said, experience that can be useful for future outdoor performances.

The competition has been held at Maple Grove Estate, 596 W. Broadway, for the past five years. It was started by the late Dr. William J. Grant, a Watertown native who loved classical music and spent summers in Cape Vincent after his career as a physician. It now is sponsored by the Chopin Society of the Thousand Islands and the Cape Vincent Arts Council. Fundraisers and donations help cover the $20,000 cost of the event, co-chairwoman Elisabeth P. Brennan said.

Contestants compete in two divisions, under 19 and 19 to 25, and perform a full three rounds, with programs of approximately 20 minutes Friday, 23 minutes Saturday and 18 minutes Sunday. Friday’s and Saturday’s programs must include work from the Baroque Era, the Classical Era and the 20th or 21st Century, while Sunday’s program must be one major Chopin work or several shorter works.

Judges award $2,000 for first place, $1,000 for second and $500 for third following Sunday’s shorter slate of performances. A prize also is awarded to the audience favorite in both divisions, which started last year. Mr. Preston said the judges give contestants feedback and offer them an opportunity to talk with them. Mr. Preston called the judging process “very involved,” taking into account everything from the basics of the pianist’s rhythm and clarity of notes to the way the pianist balances the tradition of the piece and composer with his or her own personality.

Contestants learn of it primarily through word of mouth; Mr. Preston said about 20 pianists typically apply, and the competition accepts the first 15, placing the rest on the waiting list in case someone drops out. The competition’s requirements of a substantial repertoire and a high level of playing by memory are sufficient for a self-selecting form of audition, but Mr. Preston said he anticipates the competition could become well-known enough that auditions might be necessary within the next decade.

“The level of playing is incredibly high here,” said Gary R. Fisher, the third judge, who also judged in 2008 and teaches in Rochester, where he earned a doctoral degree from the Eastman School. He considers the invitation to judge gratifying and a “very meaningful sign of respect” from colleagues.

“This competition is really remarkable and continues to be more and more,” he said.

Vivian Ni, 14, from Fredericton, New Brunswick, said her teacher, who sent another student in the past, recommended the competition.

“It’s really interesting — usually competitions are held in churches or big halls,” she said. “It’s really relaxing. It doesn’t feel like a competition.”

Ms. Ni, who has been playing since she was 5 and has competed in three other competitions, including the Canada Music Competition, said she “would love to come back.”

Her mother, Wendy Hu, said it “doesn’t feel like a competition to the parents” either, noting her and Vivian’s host family prepared their meals even though they aren’t required to. “It’s like a vacation for us,” she said. “It’s too touching.”

All but one of the 15 contestants stayed with a host family in Cape Vincent; one family even hosted four, Ms. Brennan said. The competition encourages participants to get to know each other and stay in touch, and a picnic for contestants and their families was held Friday night.

Ms. Brennan praised the support of the community and volunteers, as well as donations of the main piano and two others for practicing.

“There are things that are tearing Cape Vincent apart, but this is bringing people together,” she said.

To further reach out to the community, one participant, Chao Tang, 25, of Shanghai, China, who started studying for a performance diploma at Indiana University this fall, will spend today playing at the Thousand Islands middle and high school, inspiring students and teaching them about what he does.

“The town is very generous and supportive. It’s a really great experience here,” said Kaori Y. Azzi, mother of Nadia Azzi, 15, of Palm Harbor, Fla., who began studying at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division last September and is one of two contestants who returned for a second time this year.

The setting on the river also resonated with performers.

Clayton B. Stephenson, 14, Brooklyn, who also studies at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division and learned of the competition through a friend who came two years ago, said he walks down to the river before each performance.

“I think it calms me. It helps prepare me,” he said. Parts of two of his pieces describe a river at night, though he said he did not choose them specifically for that reason.

“I want to represent the river, so I have to go down and look at it to be able to impersonate it,” he said. “Since it’s here, I had to represent it to its full extent.”

Claudio Espejo Araneda, 21, of Temuco, Chile, a senior studying piano performance at the Eastman School, agreed. “This place is amazingly quiet and I love it,” he said.

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