The Southeastern Piano Festival is entering its second decade, and instead of losing steam, the festival is skyrocketing.
The festival hosts the Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition, inviting 20 young pianists to Columbia to compete for a prize that is gaining in prestige.
“The depth of participants get better every year,” said Marina Lomazov, a USC piano professor and the festival’s artistic director. “The hottest talent in piano in the country will be in Columbia.”
Winners will receive a cash award and the opportunity to perform with the South Carolina Philharmonic.
Sergei Babayan headlines this year’s guests, which also include Claire Huangci, Petronel Malan and Yoshikazu Nagai. And this year there’s sort of a competition within the competition, as Babayan will select participants to take a master class with him.
The State spoke with Lomazov about the talent the festival draws, what the festival is looking for in participants and partnerships that will increase its audience. The interview has been edited for space and context.
You received 60 applications for the festival. How do you select the 20 participants?
We have a jury, which is USC piano faculty and outside jurors from the community who are well-respected piano teachers. And it’s a blind audition. They don’t know what the applicant won or who they studied with or what their achievements are. No gender. Nothing. They listen to the music and they give a score. It’s as impartial as it gets because you have no interaction with personalities that could sway you one way or the other. You just react to the music.
I think I’d be upset if I got in one year and didn’t get accepted the next.
And that happens more often than you think. And that’s devastating, but the kids are resilient. They take it quite well.
As you enter the second decade of the piano festival, is it easier or harder to draw big-name guest performers?
I think it’s both. People in the piano world know us and they want to be a part of it, so that part is easier. We try not to do repeat guest artists. And that part is harder. Some names are touring elsewhere. So it’s all really a puzzle. Not only does the person have to be an inspiring musician and play really, really well, but they also have to be a great teacher. And a lot of pianists do just that; they just tour 100 percent of the time and they don’t have teaching experience. And yes it’s inspiring to be around them, but when they give a master class, the kids sometimes just get lost because that person doesn’t know how to get their ideas across in a pedagogical way.
This year Sergei Babayan will headline a concert at the Columbia Museum of Art, and he will teach.
He doesn’t tour. He’s not a touring pianist, because he doesn’t have time. He’s teaching. And he does both on an incredibly high level. I think, in my opinion, he is the best piano teacher, right now, in the country. The best. Look at his record, the number of his students that have achieved incredible things over the 20-year span. I don’t think anybody matches that. And just last year, his most recent student, Daniil Trifonov, won two most prestigious competitions — Tchaikovsky (Competition) gold medal, Arthur Rubenstein (Competition) gold medal. He develops these talents.
Do all the competition students get time with Babayan?
They will all see him teach, but not all of them will actually experience him teaching.
How do you pick?
Actually, he will pick. So he’ll come here, he’ll hear them in the competition, and he’ll tell me which ones he wants to work with for the master class. It’s an incredible opportunity. I wish I was their age so I could try out. He’s an amazing artist. It’s simple as that. We’re very, very fortunate that he plays for us and he teaches.
What makes him such a rare talent?
The combination of craft and this uncanny timing, the interpretation of phrasing that he puts into everything he plays, it’s just rare. It’s like Horowitz (Vladimir Horowitz, a classical pianist and composer). You get this talent once in a lifetime.
What do you respond to when you’re listening to a young pianist?
They have to have a certain level of craft, of technique. Being able to execute things properly. Good pedaling, good balance, simply playing the right notes. Playing it in the right style. Not playing Bach with excessive pedaling, that kind of thing. But beyond that, what you’re really doing is listening to how somebody responds to music while they’re playing. There’s a mechanical aspect to playing that’s trainable. What’s art is listening ahead of time, anticipating what you’re about to do and shaping it in your mind in a way and letting your trained fingers do it in an unselfconscious way. Every person that is a talent is doing it in their own way. You can’t replicate that.
Do you hear it immediately?
You basically hear what they’re able to do within the first 20 seconds.
Next year, the festival is going to close the South Carolina Philharmonic’s 50th season. Talk about the partnerships with the Columbia Museum of Art and others.
Part of our growth is building audiences and exposing the festival to new audiences. And, frankly, we’re bursting out of our recital hall, which only holds 200 people. Columbia Museum of Art is known for great music, and their atrium holds 350 people. That’s kind of a natural step for us, not only to bring the festival outside the school of music to bigger community, but also to grow the audience in anticipation of moving some of the concerts to the new business school.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.