Virtuosos in the making

KU institute's youth piano contest keys in on world's best players

Grace Ma spends hours bonding with musical luminaries such as Bach, Chopin and Liszt.

The 12-year-old Phoenix, Ariz., resident doesn't mind that her famous friends are long since gone; the piano, she says, keeps them very much alive.

"That's the neat thing about music," Ma says. "It's forever."

On Monday, the young but accomplished Ma brings her nimble fingers to Kansas University where the First Kansas International Piano Competition will run through Wednesday. The competition kicks off the annual, three-week International Institute for Young Musicians.

Jack Winerock, KU professor of piano and artistic director of the competition, says the event offers an exciting opportunity to witness piano virtuosos in the making.

"These participants will be the future artists that we will hear on the regular Lied Center Series 10 years from now," he says.

KU alumnus Scott McBride Smith, executive director of the summer institute, selected 15 young pianists from more than 40 audition tapes from across the globe to participate in the competition.

"Talk about a difficult task," Smith says. "All of these young people are very talented."

The contest participants hail from places such as New York, California, Toronto and Hong Kong. Sixteen-year-old Daniel Suo will venture to Kansas from his home in Lexington, Mass.

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Special to the Journal-World

Twelve-year-old Grace Ma, of Phoenix, Ariz., is one of 15 young pianists who will participate in the first Kansas International Piano Competition at Kansas University, an event that begins Monday in conjunction with the International Institute for Young Musicians. The event will bring some of the world's most promising young pianists to Lawrence.

"I've been to the summer music institute four or five times now," he says, "and I'm really excited about the new competition.

"I've been procrastinating about getting my driver's permit out here 'cause I'm busy practicing my pieces."

The competition begins Monday, with a round of semi-final performances scheduled for Tuesday. The final round, which will feature six performers, is slated for Wednesday evening at the Lied Center.

Competitors, ages 12 to 17, will perform 40 minutes of music from memory. Prizes total $7,500, including $3,500 for first place. Audience members also will vote for their favorite performer during the final round of competition.

Once the competition concludes, participants will stay at KU for the summer institute. The program, which focuses on piano only, has 55 participants this year.

"Enrollment is up 30 percent, which is just wonderful," Smith says. The institute takes place in both Santa Barbara, Calif., and Lawrence this summer.

Winerock says KU is in the second year of a five-year contract to host the institute.

"In the '90s we hosted for several years, and then there was a break," he says. "We're thrilled to be back at it and hope to continue well down the road."

Students at the institute take master and studio classes, as well as courses in sight reading, music theory, piano accompaniment and music careers. The classes are taught by KU faculty and visiting musicians. Stanislav Ioudenitch, a 2001 Van Cliburn winner and Park University professor, will be on staff this year.

The wiry Winerock, whose face lights up when talking about the institute, places great value in the privately-funded program.

"While the classes and lessons are great, we feel like the institute offers these talented kids many things beyond musical instruction," Winerock says. "It's a chance for them to bond with their true peers, and for kids that often feel isolated, that's perhaps our greatest accomplishment."

Two Lawrence pianists, Jordan Crice and Timothy Clarke, will participate in the 2004 institute. Crice is a student of Janet Johnson, and Clarke studies with Rebecca Mergen of Piano America.

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