Five fabulous finalists finish at APA 

All music competitions must have a winner - at least one winner. The American Pianists Association has two, in a unique, multiple-series event lasting many months and repeating every three years. Last Saturday at about 10:30 p.m., five jurors chose two pianists out of five finalists as the 2009 APA Classical Fellows, performers you may have already read about or witnessed being chosen: Grace Fong of California (who already has a musical doctorate) and Adam Golka of Texas. These Classical Fellowship Awards capped two evenings of each of the finalists playing a piano concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under its recently appointed associate conductor Sean Newhouse. That also completed the APA's Discovery Week, one in which chamber and orchestral music predominated.

The other three finalists were Igor Lovchinsky, Elizabeth Joy Roe and Michael Kirkendoll. All five young pianists (required to be American citizens between 18 and 30 years of age) showed astonishing pianism in all respects - equal or superior to well established, marquee-level, touring keyboard artists. Since the early 1990s, the APA has upped the ante considerably for their participants' playing caliber: The above-named five already have won many standard competitions as well as touring, teaching and performing in all the piano genres.

For example, Golka's reading of Rach 3 - Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 - was nothing less than spectacular: fast but in complete control, the whirring notes being given shape, control, meaning. At one place near the third movement's coda, his passagework became almost racing, suggesting an out-of-control moment. But Golka quickly recovered, control reigning supreme to the work's flashy end, with those double-octave triplets.

Fong began the Finals on Friday with Béla Bartók's Concerto No. 2 (1931). Despite seeming to play effortlessly over the keys, her account of this craggy, three-movement work did not show her at her best. That occurred during the fall-winter Premiere Series on Nov. 9, part of displaying the finalists over a five-month interval in solo recital and Classical concerto material with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Fong was the only finalist in that series who deserved five stars (see NUVO, Nov. 12-19, 2008).

Kirkendoll, whose repertoire inclines toward the contemporary sphere, played John Corigliano's (b. 1938) only Piano Concerto, written in 1968, a period with the avant-garde at its zenith and Corigliano yet to acquire his characteristic voice. Kirkendall pounded his way through its four thorny-textured movements with great conviction, providing a virtuoso display par excellence. But what else can he do?

A safer choice was made by Roe, who offered Samuel Barber's (1910-1981) only Concerto (1962), a more mature work, providing a vehicle for Roe to show off more aspects of her pianism. This included lyric phrasing and dynamic shaping, as well as effortless virtuosity.

Lovchinsky offered another dazzling account, this one of Chopin's Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11. Except for some occasional over-pedaling, Lovchinsky gave us a vivacious performance of a Romantic repertoire standard.

Newhouse provided excellent preparation for all five concertos, the ISO shining through with good balance and articulation, offering a real partnership with each finalist.

Question: Why two Fellows instead of one - or all five, for that matter? APA artistic director Joel Harrison discusses that issue in the program brochure. Not enough money for all five, he says, with a little tongue-in-cheek. Formerly, the APA chose three Fellows, which better implied that there's usually not one player superior for all musical periods. Two Fellows can mean either two equals or the two best, the latter more likely. Yet they get equal prizes. Something to ponder while one is immersed in great piano playing.

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