When San Antonio Symphony music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing learned about changes to the Gurwitz International Piano Competition (formerly the San Antonio International Piano Competition) he said, “The last thing the world needs is another piano competition. But this is anything but just another piano competition.”

Since its formation by local piano lovers in 1983, the event’s top prize of $25,000 has attracted the best young concert pianists from all over the world, with several winners coming from China, Russia, and South Korea.

The 12 finalists for 2020 are indeed global. Five are from Russia, three are from South Korea, and Italy, China, Canada and the United States are represented by one contestant each. Finalists are hosted by local families whose homes have a grand piano so their guest may practice.

The contestants for 2020 are Leonardo Colafelice, Anna Gershtein, Anna Grot, Jongyun Kim, Yedam Kim, Artem Kuznetsov, Jiale Li, Nikita Lukinov, Alexander Malikov, Alexey Sychev, Alan Woo, and Yonjoon Yoon.

After merging with Musical Bridges Around the World in 2017, the competition has made strides that position it as one of the leading such events in the world, and the only one with performance rounds of classical music from other parts of the world. This is largely through the vision of Anya Grokhovski, artistic director and CEO of Musical Bridges Around the World.

“I think for any city it’s a great honor to have an international competition of this caliber,” she said. “It puts San Antonio on the radar of important cultural centers because only well-developed cultural cities recognize the importance of a piano competition and support it. We have a high caliber committee – very reputable movers and shakers who understand the importance of having such a jewel of a competition in San Antonio.”

On Wednesday, Musical Bridges and City officials announced the 12 contestants for the 2020 competition with a champagne toast at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.  Officials of Musical Bridges and partners, including the San Antonio Symphony, City of San Antonio, and Bexar County raised champagne flutes to the finalists after presentations by former city manager Sheryl Sculley, Tracy Wolff, and Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the Department of Arts and Culture.

Flags representing the 21 home countries of 76 applicants flanked the gathering of 50 or so board members, supporters, and committee members, including Sculley, who said she hopes in her retirement to return to playing her piano.

Guests – including San Antonio Symphony board chair Kathleen Vale, Linda Hardberger, County Judge Nelson Wolff, and members of the former San Antonio International Piano Competition board – were treated to Liszt and Chopin performed by former competition finalist Mei Rui of Houston.

Mei Rui, formerly of Shanghai, China, is a former Gurwitz Competition finalist. Credit: Courtesy / Musical Bridges Around the World

In addition to the top honor, contestants will vie for a second place prize of $15,000 and third place prize of $10,000. Other awards include an Audience Favorite Award, an award for the Best Performance of a Work by a Spanish or Latin American Composer, and a Junior Jury Award.

The kind of community support needed to present such awards came when Charlie Amato, SWBC founder and chairman, presented a check for $25,000.

“I’m a jock,” he said in his jovial presentation. “I’m trying to learn. But we believe in music and it’s power to transform. Without the arts, we’d be half a community.”

In 2018, the Gurwitz was accepted for membership in the Geneva-based World Federation of International Music Competitions, an exclusive governing body for 125 competitions, such as the acclaimed Van Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth. One of the Federation’s requirements is the final round must be performed with a live symphony orchestra.

Finalists will perform as part of the San Antonio Symphony’s regular season on Feb. 1.

Symphony director Sebastian Lang-Lessing is chairing the jury, which includes five other internationally known musicians and professors like Olga Kern, former pianist in residence with the San Antonio Symphony, and Carolyn True, piano professor at Trinity University.

Grokhovski visited Fort Worth soon after taking responsibility for managing the competition.

“We wanted to get the Van Cliburn Competition’s blessing and seek their advice,” Grokhovski said. “They were very helpful in structuring our competition because we have expanded it.”

Acknowledging that the Van Cliburn has a long history and sizable endowment, Grokhovski envisions the same support in San Antonio.  “In Fort Worth, the city, business community are involved, and people fly in from all over world. It’s an economic driver. We are aiming for the same thing in San Antonio.”

With its mission of uniting, educating and inspiring people through culturally diverse performance, Musical Bridges was bound to introduce an international edge to the traditionally classical competition.

The new Gurwitz will challenge musicians to perform music of their native cultures as well as music by Spanish and Latin American composers, celebrating San Antonio’s cultural makeup. In a chamber music round setting it apart from other competitions, contestants will perform a newly commissioned work – composed by San Antonio’s Ethan Wickman – in collaboration with two members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble on clarinet and percussion.

Via video, Lang-Lessing congratulated the Gurwitz for expanding the competition globally.

“Especially during this day and age when people talk about protectionism and closing borders, we should, as artists, be doing the exact opposite: opening borders,” he said.  “Let’s not forget Van Cliburn was the first American artist to really open the doors during the Cold War and start a dialogue. It was a musician who did that. We as musicians need to be doing that.”

Ruth Jean Gurwitz, who died in 2015, was the driving force of the San Antonio International Piano Competition for decades. Those who worked for years to make the competition a success were volunteers who accomplished near-miracles, but many were past retirement age or passing away.

“We were at a crossroads,” said Anne Johnson, SAIPC board member since 2004 who led the move to merge with Musical Bridges. “The goal is to give the competition the notoriety it deserves, and having Sebastian willing to conduct for the finals and serve as a juror gives it terrific credibility. Having the finals with the Symphony was Ruth Jean’s dream.”

Son Jonathan Gurwitz said his mother would also have appreciated Musical Bridges’ continuation of the competition’s involving young pianists as ambassadors.

“Mother began playing piano when she was three, and when she was six, asked her grandmother for a Steinway for her birthday.  She got it.”

The 2020 Gurwitz International Piano Competition will be held Jan. 26 – Feb. 1. Details for how to attend can be found here.

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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.