The repertoire of Frédéric Chopin is widely considered among the most challenging for pianists. And for nine days, beginning this Saturday, February 22, young hopefuls from across the nation take on the works of the great Polish composer for the tenth National Chopin Piano Competition.
The 26 contestants will perform at Miami-Dade County Auditorium — half on Saturday and the other half on Sunday — for the preliminary sessions. They must be U.S. citizens between the ages of 16 and 30.
“The first weekend is where you get to see everybody, and their recitals are 20 minutes each,” says Barbara Muze, executive director of the Chopin Foundation of the United States. “After each round, the number of pianists gets smaller. In the quarterfinals, there will be 18 pianists, and the recitals start getting longer. Then, in the semifinals, there will be 12 pianists performing, six on Wednesday and six on Thursday.”
Six contestants will make the finals, happening February 29 and March 1, and the winner will receive $100,000. (Second- and third-place winners take home $30,000 and $20,000, respectively.)
South Florida fans of Chopin are winners too because most of the shows are free.
“It’s just the most intensive experience and immersion into the music of Chopin that you can imagine,” Muze says. “And people can just show up and walk into the Miami-Dade County Auditorium and see Chopin’s music being performed at the very highest level.”
The U.S. competition, which began in 1975 and happens every five years, is mirrored after the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, which began in 1927. The stakes are high even beyond the prize money: The top two American winners are automatically accepted to compete in Warsaw in October.
“We’re only one of two international Chopin competitions that have that privilege — the other one is the Poland National Competition — so the U.S. competition is really, really, highly respected,” Muze says.
The perks don’t stop there: The Chopin Foundation also sends the U.S. winner on an extensive concert tour.
“That really is what pushes these pianists out to the world and makes them visible on the world’s stages,” Muze says. “What we hear back from the winners is that [the tour] is the most valuable piece of their participation in the competition.
“For example, our winner in 2015 was Eric Lu. We paid for him to go compete in Warsaw, and he took home the fourth prize, which is significant. And then two years later, in the summer of 2018, he went on to win first prize at the Leeds competition in England. As a result of that, he got a tremendous amount of visibility, professional management, and a recording contract,” she adds. “He was 17 years old when he won our competition, and just to hear this amazing fairy-tale story that his life has become since winning our competition is just phenomenal. And now at the ripe age of 21, he’s a seasoned professional, a highly sought-after performer on the world’s stages. So he’s our poster child.”
The nine-person jury comprises Chopin experts and virtuoso pianists, some of them grand-prize winners in Warsaw, and is responsible for judging the American contestants on many aspects of their performances, style, and technique.
“It runs the gamut,” Muze says. “Precision is definitely one thing, but just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you won’t be the best in the judges’ eyes. There are so many different criteria, from staying true to the composer’s score to being able to communicate convincingly to an audience, your tempo, your timing, your dynamics. I wouldn’t want to be one of the judges — let’s just say that.”
The top prize of $100,000 — which is underwritten by the Chopin Foundation’s founder and president, Lady Blanka Rosenstiel; and the Rosenstiel Foundation — is a staggering figure, and it’s meant to be.
“She puts that money toward the first prize because she believes that [the contestants] are professional pianists who have studied basically their entire lives and put in six to eight hours a day to hone their craft,” says Muze, who herself is a classically trained pianist. “Why shouldn’t they be compensated like any other professional working person in the world, like an attorney, a physician, or even sports players? We’ve been referring to [the competition], kind of tongue-in-cheek, as the Super Bowl of Piano, because the Super Bowl was here just a few weeks ago, and I can assure you that these musicians put in as much time and effort as any of the professional sports players, yet the compensation isn’t nearly reflected. So that’s her mission.”
The National Chopin Piano Competition celebrates the life and legacy of the Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the romantic era in the early 1800s, who died young in 1849 at the age of 39. But why choose him over other masters, such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Rachmaninoff?
“His music is just the most beloved and the music that gets people really passionate about piano music,” Muze says. “It’s just profoundly emotional, and it touches people in ways that a lot of other music doesn’t. And it’s supervirtuosic — a lot of it is accessible only to the finest technically accomplished and musically astute performers.”
And there’s another, far more personal, reason.
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“Chopin is Polish, and our founder and president [Rosenstiel] is Polish,” Muze says. “She felt like there was a lack of education in the United States about Chopin’s music. And because she came out of Poland in the World War II era, she knew firsthand of a time in Poland when the Nazis actually banned his music because it evoked such nationalistic pride in the people of Poland. They knocked down Chopin’s statues. When you fly to Warsaw now, you actually fly into Chopin Airport. When they hold the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the whole country basically shuts down to watch who’s going to be crowned the next Chopin first-prize winner.”
Muze, who has promoted classical music in South Florida for more than 20 years but is relatively new to her current position, envies the intense passion surrounding the event in Poland.
“For the Warsaw competition in October 2020, tickets went on sale on October 1, 2019, and within the first day, they were completely sold out,” she says. “The ticket system crashed, and people who had been waiting for hours online, and went from like number 600 to number 30, were booted off the system and couldn’t get tickets. I get a block of 20 tickets, and I have a long waiting list of people who are trying to go with the group we’ll bring to Poland. So that’s the kind of excitement that I want to bring to this national Chopin competition.”
— Mike Hamersly, ArtburstMiami.com
Tenth National Chopin Piano Competition. Saturday, February 22, through Sunday, March 1, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-547-5414; miamidadecountyauditorium.org. Admission is free for competition sessions; gala concert and finals tickets cost $15 to $150 via chopin.org.