THE INDY 5: Into the final stretch at American Pianists Association

There is a strange secret handshake among American pianists. Quite a few of us, at some time in our early twenties, spent a very special week or so in Indianapolis, participating in an experience that stands out in our memories from the many similar weeks spent in similar situations, during that time in our early twenties when we were doing what is known as "the competition circuit". If you read my earlier post about piano competitions, you'll understand that that time in my early twenties was not my very favorite time. Stress and anxiety were permanent traveling companions on my competition journeys. But the American Pianists Association competition in Indianapolis was different. We learned a lot. We had fun. We made friends that have lasted all these years. Many of us have maintained close relationships with the force of nature that was APA's Artistic Director for many years, Aileen James, now a neighbor of mine out in California and a beloved colleague and advisor.

APA just is different. Among the sea of competitions that take a relatively uniform approach to the identification and recognition of gifted young pianists, APA's support is unique in many ways. For one thing, there's the prize, worth $100,000: a seriously supportive $50,000 in cash  and two years of in-depth career backing, APA-arranged concert tours and recording opportunities. For another, APA is the only competition that crosses the border between classical and jazz, with the APA Fellowship awarded every two years on an alternating basis to a classical or a jazz pianist.

More than anything else, though, APA stands out in terms of the breadth of musical experiences offered to and expected of contestants. Once the five finalists are chosen every Spring (from a preliminary recorded round), they begin a year-long APA journey, each finalist in turn invited to Indianapolis in the Fall to be featured in the Classical Premiere Series, an expense-paid week that includes a concerto performance with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, public solo recitals, and a three-day high-school residency. By the end of that week, they've played for, and with, a wide swath of the Indianapolis public, from subscription audiences to high-school students. The five return to Indianapolis the following Spring for Classical Discovery Week, which showcases them again in solo, chamber music, new music, and song performances, plus a concerto performance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Joel Harrison, APA's President/CEO and Artistic Director explains it this way: “What distinguishes the APA is the innovative and unique way in which we conduct our competition by presenting finalists in a variety of genres in multiple venues throughout the concert season. In so doing, we actually mirror the professional world through our competition format.”

This year the first finalist to make her mark in Indianapolis will be Claire Huangci, whose Premiere Series week begins on Monday September 24 and culminates in her performance of Beethoven's 3rd with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra next Sunday, September 30.
Claire is a competition veteran: first prize in the 2010 National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami, laureate in the 2010 Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition... She's already busy on the festival circuit, both in the U.S. and in Europe, where she's currently studying with Arie Vardi at the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. She made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003 and has since performed with orchestras in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and with the China Philharmonic. At 22, she's the youngest of this year's finalists; born in Rochester, NY, she entered Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School at age seven and did her undergraduate work at Curtis. We connected via Skype to talk about what's coming up during her visit to Indianapolis:


Exiles' Cafe Recording Journal, Day 2 and 3

I didn't get to post yesterday - it was a long 7-hour session, with some guests in the studio at the end of the afternoon. But it was a terrific day. We finished the big pieces before lunch, and spent the afternoon on a lot of lovely miniatures. And finished the whole project, a day ahead of schedule! Which means that today (Friday) I'm sitting with Dan Merceruio doing edits - actually watching him do edits, very very quickly!

This is going to be a lovely record, if I do say so myself. Here are some highlights from the past few days:

  • A superb piano, courtesy of Steinway & Sons, really just a perfect ride.
  • The unbelievable technician services of John Veitch, who is a pianist himself and has a musician's ears and sensibilities.
  • A beautiful studio facility at Sono Luminus, and the rock-steady support of Dan Merceruio as my trusted producer/therapist/third ear. 
  • Many bad jokes, good sushi, geeky music gossip.
I'll have more news about the album coming up very soon, stay tuned...


Exiles' Cafe Recording Journal: Day 1!

Yesterday was a hellacious travel day. Why is there always so much laundry when you need to get out of town??

My flight to DC was fine - but on the long death-march walk from terminal to baggage claim at Dulles, I slipped and fell down which was A) very embarrassing and B) significantly painful. The floor at Dulles is very, very shiny and slippery. My husband Rick asked which shoes I was wearing when I slipped and I said "my hiking shoes". Actually, I was wearing new platform wedge sandals, very pretty and perhaps not the best for traveling, but I maintain that the floor at Dulles is too slippery.

To get to the Sono Luminus studios in Winchester, VA, you have to drive about an hour. It was extraordinarily dark last night at 9pm. No street lights of any kind. And the whole trip down, I was sure that I was going to arrive, get out of the car, find that I couldn't walk, that my ankle had swollen to 4 times its size, that I had to go to the nearest ER, and that the recording sessions would have to be postponed until after the surgery. But the nice bartender at the George Washington Hotel gave me a big bag of ice, and everything seemed to be fine. It's a lovely hotel. So nice to stay in a pretty, old-fashioned, just nice hotel.

Morning. Ankle still OK. The drive out to the Sono Luminus studios: BEAUTIFUL! Horse country, stone fences, so green. My GPS wound me through the countryside and into tiny little Boyce VA, where Sono Luminus is housed in a former church built in 1917.

If you want to know how I feel about studio sessions, read Jeremy Denk's New Yorker piece about the perils of the recording studio.
It's the most naked, vulnerable and self-aware place a musician can go. I've learned over the years to be less crazy, and to turn the studio into a space for expression and reflection, but still, it's hard going in, especially with a new crew, in a new environment. Dan Mercurio, my producer, put me at ease and we dove right in with a pair of Chopin Mazurkas: the first one he ever composed, in 1831, the first year of his exile from Poland; and the last, written just a few months before his death, when he was too weak even to try the piece out himself at the piano. A fairly intense way to start the day! Then came Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and some Stravinsky, all before lunch!

We took a break for lunch at the Locke Country Store. Delicious vegetable tart and cookies, much needed.
And back to work. We got so much done today - 45 minutes of music already, which is quite a lot. The next two days will go quickly! Tomorrow Eric Feidner from the Steinway & Sons label comes down to hold my hand - he was delayed today.

And now I'm back at the hotel, with a glass of wine and crab cakes, looking forward to tomorrow. More then...


Recording Journal: Live from the Exiles' Cafe

I'm on a layover at the Denver airport, on my way to the Sono Luminus studios in VA for recording sessions, working on my next album, Exiles' Cafe, for the Steinway & Sons label. Starting tomorrow, I'll be posting recording session videos and journals all week - stay tuned!