The participants at the 12th annual San Antonio International Piano Competition (SAIPC) didn’t make it easy for their judges. Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn may be distinguished experts on classical music and piano performance, but it’s doubtful that they could say with certainty which of the 12 competitors out-performed the rest. Alas, they will have to choose a winner who will take home $15,000 and a major career booster this Sunday.
The first two rounds of SAIPC recitals were held Tuesday through Thursday at Trinity University’s Ruth Taylor Recital Hall. While piano competitions are ubiquitous worldwide, the SAIPC is specifically designed for pianists with significant experience and education. The twelve contestants in the 2016 batch are between the ages of 20 and 32 and have spent countless hours on piano benches in the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, Israel, Brazil, and Ukraine working for this kind of opportunity.
Concerts continue through the weekend and are free and open to the public. The judges will award the gold medal along with $15,000 and a prestigious concert performance opportunity Sunday at 3 p.m. at Ruth Taylor Recital Hall. The runner up will take home $10,000 as well as a concert opportunity, and the bronze medal winner gets $5,000.
Further honors include awards for the best performance of a commissioned work composed especially for the competition, for works from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th and 21st century eras, as well as for performances of works by Russian, Spanish, Latin American, and Impressionistic composers. All winners will perform at the winners’ recital.
“Winning can be huge, it can launch a whole career,” said Jim Lucas, co-president of the board of trustees. “Two of our jury members were former winners. One of them (Boris Slutsky) is now head of the Peabody Conservatory’s piano department.”
In addition to the cash prize, underwritten by the Russell Hill Rogers Fund for the Arts, the SAIPC gold medalist gains prestige and exposure performing with the San Antonio Symphony, the Cactus Pear Music Festival, and the Fredericksburg Music Club.
“This might be the best group of musicians we have ever had,” said Anne Johnson, longtime trustee of the SAIPC board. “They are super.”
One of them, 27-year-old Scott Cuellar, has already won multiple prizes, holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School, and is a doctoral student at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Despite his experience and accolades, he’s not immune to the excitement of the competition. The first thing he did after completing his passionate performance Thursday was text his mom in Minneapolis.
“I’ve been playing since I was five years old,” Cuellar said. “It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that something clicked and I started listening to my mom’s classical music collection. Before, it was a hobby, a parlor trick. (As I matured), I was affected on an emotional and intellectual level.”
The “crazy” intensity of being a concert pianist – Cuellar’s teacher performs around 100 concerts a year and once took an overnight taxi from Santa Fe to Vail to make a gig – has steered him in the direction of teaching his craft. Still, performing well at competitions such as SAIPC is important, not just for prestige but also for exposure and networking.
“The concerts are the most important part, and not all competitions have as many (categories as SAIPC),” Cuellar said.
While witnessing the live performances is an experience in itself, piano enthusiasts can also tune in from afar through live streaming.
Our city’s competition was incorporated in 1983. The first event took place a year later and now recurs every four years, as does the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth.
SAIPC commissioned Texas composer Matthew Mason to produce an original piece, which all 12 semi-finalists are required to learn. Five finalists will perform a world premiere of Mason’s work on Saturday. However daunting this may sound, Cuellar said “it was not that hard to learn, despite some tricky parts.”
Contestants must memorize all performances with the exception of the commissioned piece, in which sheet music is allowed.
This year, SAIPC received 96 applications, more than ever before.
“Everyone (had to) submit a video online of a required performance,” said Suzan Lambillotte, SAIPC executive director. “They had to play repertoire from specific style periods, which was reviewed by judges.”
Four women who helped build SAIPC’s status in the music world are being memorialized during the competition. One of them is my own mother, Bette Cook, who deeply loved the organization and its people. The other three are her friends Linda Winston, Nancy Plourde, and Ruth Jean Gurwitz, in whose memory the 2016 competition is presented.
The Junior Jury Award is generously underwritten by the Plourde Family.
A group of young pianists will observe the entire competition and then award a $500 Junior Jury Award to one chosen competitor.
2016 Junior Jury
- Gabriela Escalante
- Erin Guetzloe
- Helen Nebeker
- Mark Rogers
- Katherine Sheridan
- Paul Overlie
Top image: Twelve contestants will compete for SAIPC’s highest honors. Photo by Susan Riley.