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Rural Missouri Magazine

Paris, Rome, Joplin!
Southwest Missouri benefits as young pianists
converge on Missouri Southern State College

by Bob McEowen

The timeless strains of Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Rachmaninov fill the air as a parade of young pianists take their turn behind a Steinway grand on a college stage in Joplin. It’s the opening day of the Missouri Southern International Piano Competition and, one by one, hopeful musicians try to impress a panel of five judges and a few dozen spectators gathered at the college campus.

Finally, one young competitor, 14-year-old Avan Pui-Lam Yu of Canada, blows the hall away. His playing is sensitive and touching. When he’s finished a television camera operator shatters the silence with a pronouncement whispered into her headset just a bit too loudly.

Avan Pui-Lam Yu, a 14-year-old Chinese musician from Canada, takes a bow after competing in the Missouri Southern International Piano Competition in Joplin. Yu won the junior division of the contest that attracts pianists from around the world.

“Outstanding!” she says. It was a reaction shared by every one in the room.

“I think it surprised the judges to see that level of playing in that age group. It’s unbelievable,” says Vivian León, director of the competition which brings pianists from around the world to the campus of Missouri Southern State College.

Chinese-born Yu went on to win the junior division of the contest but his breathtaking performance was just one of countless beautiful moments in April as 35 musicians from 13 countries vied for top honors and more than $30,000 in prizes. The competition, held every two years, began in 1987 and has grown from a barely international contest conducted by the college music department to a community-supported event with rising importance within the world’s classical music community.

“It’s getting to where people consider it an honor to be selected,” says León, who left a teaching job at the college to become the competition’s full-time director.

“It’s really, really hard to get into now,” she says, adding that 141 talented piansts from around the world submitted applications and video-tapes in hopes of qualifying. “A lot of the people who didn’t get selected are from the best music schools, such as Julliard or the Moscow Conservatory. But they didn’t make the cut.”

This year’s competition drew performers from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia, Bulgaria, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Georgia, Cuba, Israel, the United States and Canada. The top performer in the age 18-30 senior class won $10,000 and a recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Reading through the biographies of these young musicians, Joplin seems out of place among other competitions held in New York, Rome, Paris and Prague. Certainly the allure of cash and a Carnegie debut draws them, but performers say they are also attracted to the Missouri competition because of its friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

“At most competitions the competitors are rivals and it’s kind of a weird feeling. Here everything is nice and natural,” says Li Wang, who finished second in this year’s senior division, behind American Robert Henry of Maryland.

Classical recording artist Enrique Graf coaches Lori Scritchfield, a high school junior from Carthage during a Master's Class held in conjunction with the Missouri Southern International Piano Competition. The class was one of several opportunities for community members to participate in the competition.

Wang, a Chinese pianist who lives in Canada, was a finalist in the 2000 contest and came back in part to see the family he stayed with during his last visit. “I had a very nice relationship with my host family and we’ve become very good friends,” he says. “For me, it’s just very comfortable.”

The practice of housing competitors in private homes sets the Missouri Southern Competition apart from other international piano contests.

“From the moment their feet hit the ground they don’t have one cent to spend. The host families take over. They get transported. They get fed. They get lodged. They have a support system,” says León. “We want to make it something they will remember for the rest of their life.”

For host families, the competition presents an opportunity to enjoy countless hours of fine music as their guests prepare for competition. It also lets them show a little old-fashioned hospitality.

“My major in college was music and I have a fantastic piano. I just like to share my home and meet these kids and let them know a little bit about the real America,” says Anne Cope, a New-Mac Electric Co-op member who has hosted a musician during each of the past four competitions and this year served on the contest organizing committee.

Hosts who don’t own a concert quality piano are loaned one for the week by a Kansas City dealer who trucks in 14 Steinways to distribute around Joplin. Pianos are also placed at the campus student center and at a local music store where competitors perform impromptu concerts while shopping for American CDs.

In addition, competitors perform for school groups, churches and community gatherings. The community is invited to enjoy this biennial outpouring of classical music at an opening night concert and a final gala performance by the winners of the contest. The competition itself is also open to the public, though attendence is sometimes sparse.

“Anything classical is boring to a lot of people,” says León, who received early music training in her native Hong Kong. Clearly, León doesn’t accept that view. “They’re really missing out when they don’t give classical music a chance.”

This year, other public events included a lecture for 400 area elementary school children by British recording artist Martin Jones, who performed the opening concert, and a Master Class in which five young pianists performed for the judges and received personal instruction afterwards.

Between the pre-competition events, the contest itself and the gala final concert, residents of the Joplin area are treated to a rare opportunity to enjoy classical music thanks to the Missouri Southern International Piano Competition.

“There’s a piano underground here,” says Cynthia Hukill who oversees the the college piano program. “These people are passionate about this music and we just wait for this two years to come by.”

But the competition and all the music it brings to the area benefits more than the faithful. It is a chance for everyone to experience classical music.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to learn and enjoy,” says León.

The next Missouri Southern International Piano Competition is scheduled for 2004.

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