Finalists in the San Antonio International Piano Competition relax at its conclusion. From left: Saetbyeol Kim, Sung Chang, Scott Cuellar, Osip Nikiforov and Joseph Choi. Photo by Susan Riley.
Finalists in the San Antonio International Piano Competition relax at its conclusion. From left: Saetbyeol Kim, Sung Chang, Scott Cuellar, Osip Nikiforov and Joseph Choi. Photo by Susan Riley.

The competitors in the 2016 San Antonio International Piano Competition spent last week living with local host families, preparing for competitive recitals and doing a little sightseeing at the River Walk, El Mercado and the Tower of the Americas. By the time the winners’ reception was held late last Sunday afternoon in an outdoor pavilion, they knew all about San Antonio’s summer heat. Perspiring through suits and black dresses, none of the 12 pianists seemed to mind. The stressful week has passed and everyone went home, from the Ukraine to Israel, with more money and prestige.

“My Facebook page lit up with congratulations,” said gold medalist Scott Cuellar, 27, who is in the music doctoral program at Rice University. “The outpouring of support from family and friends has been great.

Gold medalist Scott Cuellar visits with Matthew Mason, composer of the Andrew Russell Gurwitz Memorial Commissioned Work. Photo by Susan Riley.
Gold medalist Scott Cuellar (left) visits with Matthew Mason, composer of the Andrew Russell Gurwitz Memorial Commissioned Work. Photo by Susan Riley.

Between 2014 and 2017, only 10 or so comparable competitions are scheduled worldwide, according to research by SAIPC Co-President James Lucas. San Antonio’s is held only every four years, enabling total prize money of $53,000. Funds are raised through events and underwriting of awards, and is considered healthy in the world of piano competitions. It includes the gold medal prize of $15,000, a silver medal of $10,000, a bronze of $5,000, genre performance prizes and $1,000 for each of the seven semifinalists.

Aside from the lucre, participants said they like San Antonio’s intimate competition size, focusing on 12 world-class pianists ages 20 through 32, rather than including younger age categories and more contestants as do many competitions. The 12 participants were selected from a record-high 96 applicants from more than 20 countries.

“It’s probably the smallest number you can encounter on today’s piano competition market,” said bronze medalist Osip Nikiforov, 22, of Russia. His Winners’ Recital performance of Danse Macabre almost blew the roof off Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall and prompted one of several standing ovations of the afternoon.

“Along with that,” Nikiforov wrote in an email, “it allows participants to share more music before any elimination can take place, since the competition has two full rounds for competitors to perform.”

Thomas G. Duckworth, underwriter of the Silver Medal, congratulates this year's silver medalist Sung Chang.  Photo by Susan Riley.
Thomas G. Duckworth, underwriter of the Silver Medal, congratulates this year’s silver medalist Sung Chang. Photo by Susan Riley.

SAIPC gold and silver medalists also are invited to perform concerts in San Antonio and environs during the next year, enhancing their CVs and reputations.

“Our 2012 Gold Medalist Lo-An Lin has been back in San Antonio or our region eight or nine times since she won,” said SAIPC Executive Director Suzan Lambilotte, “for concerts in this area. That is amazing. Building an audience and helping promote the careers of these pianists is the heart of the competition and what we strive for. The exposure can jump-start a career.”

Cuellar will perform as a soloist next year with the San Antonio Symphony, the Cactus Pear Festival and the Fredericksburg Music Club while silver medalist Sung Chang will perform in the Arts at Coker concert series.

All the contestants will take some of San Antonio’s patina with them as they continue their studies or concertizing. The consensus is that the SAIPC committee made the visiting pianists feel “as comfortable as you can feel” during a “very stressful competition,” said Cuellar, who is back in Houston.

Nikiforov complimented his hosts, John and Ana Thornton, on making his experience easy.

“I purely concentrated on the competition with everything else being taken care of, and that is something not every competition can provide its participants,” he wrote in an email. “I really enjoyed making music on the stage, making social connections off it, and experiencing a beautiful and vibrant city like San Antonio.”

Nikiforov is back in Russia with his family for the summer before returning to the University of Minnesota for his senior year.

Silver medalist Sung Chang, 30, who gave his debut concert age five in Seoul, Korea, was moving to a new place in Los Angeles this week but wrote to praise both the competition committee and responsive audiences. He will play concerts in China and South Korea this summer, then return to graduate studies at USC, as will his girlfriend Esther Lee, a semifinalist in the piano competition.

Board member Deborah Moore (left) enjoys the winners' reception with Anna and Bruce Liesman, who hosted SAIPC contestant Jeanette Aufiero of New Jersey (right).  Photo by Susan Riley.
Board member Deborah Moore (left) enjoys the winners’ reception with Anna and Bruce Liesman, who hosted SAIPC contestant Jeanette Aufiero of New Jersey (right). Photo by Susan Riley.
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Top image: Finalists in the San Antonio International Piano Competition relax at its conclusion. From left:  Saetbyeol Kim, Sung Chang, Scott Cuellar, Osip Nikiforov and Joseph Choi.  Photo by Susan Riley.

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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.