In 1975, Santiago Rodriguez won first place in the University of Maryland’s Piano Competition. Thirty-seven years later, the competition has a new name and a new home at the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Rodriguez now is a world-renowned pianist who has graced the stages of Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Avery Fisher Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“If it were not for the competition, I would not have my career,” Rodriguez says. This year, he is set to open what is now the William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival, with a recital Saturday night.
The competition and festival were renamed in 1986 in honor of William Kapell, considered by many to be the greatest American-born pianist. Kapell’s life was cut short in 1953 when he was killed in a plane crash on his way home from an Australian tour. He was only 31.
The solo competition is held every four years and is a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.
“The main thing we’re trying to do is honor [Kapell’s] memory and honor American music,” says competition coordinator Jarl Hulbert. While most concert repertoires are made up of pieces from great English pianists, Kapell had been a proponent of the performance of more American pieces.
“That was one of the things that was very important to him,” Hulbert says. In an effort to honor Kapell’s memory, competitors are required to prepare an hour of American music for the event.
In December, approximately 180 soloists submitted an application along with a CD sample of their work for consideration. A selection jury composed of piano professors from schools like the Peabody Institute and the conservatory at the University of Cincinnati narrowed the field and extended an invitation to the competition to 33 pianists. Twenty-six soloists representing 11 countries will play in the preliminary rounds July 10-12.
From there, an international jury of seven, headed by Rodriguez, will choose semifinalists. Three finalists will have the opportunity to play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the chance at first place and $25,000 on July 21.
For most competitors, all of whom are between the ages of 18 and 33, money isn’t the motivator.
“Competitions provide opportunities to young people who don’t have the connections to the business of music,” Rodriguez says.
“It helps them in their career as a concert performer,” Hulbert adds.
In 2007, Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak won first place in the Kapell Competition. She went on to take first prize at the Leeds Competition in the United Kingdom, and now travels the world doing recitals.
“That was very heartwarming ... that they go on to do bigger and greater things,” Rodriguez says. “We were there before ... recognizing that this woman is a special talent.”
As for what the judges are looking for in a winner this year, Rodriguez and Hulbert say it’s not all about technique.
“The jury is not necessarily just looking to judge people on their mistakes,” Hulbert says. “There’s that thing that’s really hard to describe in words ... one person can really do something to communicate with the audience.”
“We look for some sort of message from the pianist,” Rodriguez adds. “Some sort of connection.”
While the competition is the main event, Hulbert says the Kapell Competition and Festival also is an attempt to achieve a greater goal.
“We have a mission of trying to promote awareness of the piano,” he says. “The competition hopes to expand awareness for music that isn’t typically performed.”
In addition to the solo competition, the two-week festival will feature lectures, master classes and recitals from famous pianists including Leon Fleisher and Gloria Cheng.
Both Hulbert and Rodriguez hope the competition continues in years to come.
“We see ourselves as fitting well into a competition trying to promote American culture,” Hulbert says.
And, as Rodriguez adds, in their efforts to preserve and promote the American repertoire, the men hope to continue to honor Kapell.
“Through the legacy of this competition it’s like having Kapell continue on in our memories,” he says.