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.
Its 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 hes finished a television camera
operator shatters the silence with a pronouncement whispered into her
headset just a bit too loudly.
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.
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. Its
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 worlds
classical music community.
Its getting to
where people consider it an honor to be selected, says León,
who left a teaching job at the college to become the competitions
Its 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 didnt get selected
are from the best music schools, such as Julliard or the Moscow Conservatory.
But they didnt make the cut.
This years 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 Yorks 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 its kind of a weird feeling. Here
everything is nice and natural, says Li Wang, who finished second
in this years senior division, behind American Robert Henry of
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 weve become
very good friends, he says. For me, its just very
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 dont 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
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 dont 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
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.
is boring to a lot of people, says León, who received early
music training in her native Hong Kong. Clearly, León doesnt
accept that view. Theyre really missing out when they dont
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.
Theres 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.
Its an unbelievable
opportunity to learn and enjoy, says León.
The next Missouri Southern
International Piano Competition is scheduled for 2004.