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:


LD: How is the APA experience developing your growth as an artist, and how does it compare to other competitions in your previous experience?

CH: Well, really I prefer to think of APA as a festival rather than a competition, because when you think of a competition in the typical sense you think about intense, grueling pressure, competing to be the best, hoping that you win something. But I think in this case you really have to say that “everyone is a winner”, because there’s just no other situation that would offer us such an opportunity to play so much different music: chamber music, two concerts, residency with a high school orchestra, a song recital with a great singer… so I think that just being part of it, just being selected as one of the five finalist, has really helped me because I have to plan my programs in a very careful way, I have to play many different styles, so it’s just  broadening me as a musician in general.

LD: I think from my perspective it’s really one of the only competition experiences that manages to mirror a professional structure, a professional situation, and it puts a lot of responsibility around repertoire onto you, in the sense of creating a well-rounded picture rather than just focusing in on specific elements. And I think that there’s always been, within this organization, a really terrific sense of camaraderie among the participants and a spirit of mentorship from the administration.

CH: And also, just having this time, to stay in Indianapolis not just once but twice, we really get to know the city, get to know our host families, and we develop strong bonds. I mean there are some competitions where you just go and you play, and then the results are out and you pass or you leave, and it’s very impersonal. But here you really form some strong roots.

LD: And they last a long time! I’m still very close with the former director of APA, who was there years ago when I passed through the competition. I think in this business there are not so many opportunities for pianists especially, to feel like you’re really part of something, it’s a solitary work that we do, so that sense of family and community is really precious. Do you have any experiences you want to share from other competitions, like a best and a worst?

CH: Well, every competition is so different. I’ve done quite a number of them – I can’t say that any one has been really bad, but of course your experiences also depend on your results. So without being too biased, I could say that one of my best experiences was in Miami, at the Chopin National Competition. I actually arrived early because I had a concert before the competition, and so I really got to know my host family very well, and it was a situation where I got to be so close with them, and they were so supportive, and I almost didn’t feel like I was in a competition at all because I was spending so much time with family, doing all kinds of activities that were totally outside of the piano world, so that was probably the highlight of my competition experiences. And that one I did end up winning, so it was just an added bonus! But I think that in terms of other competitions, there was also the Queen Elizabeth, which I also did in 2010, just a few months later, and there I was a laureate, but it was a completely different atmosphere because you had to live with the other contestants in a kind of Schloss, a castle, living with 11 other contestants in complete isolation – you couldn’t go anywhere, you didn’t have your cell phone or your computer – they took them away. So those are probably the two most contrasting experiences.

LD: That sounds like a reality show, kind of a dorky version of Survivor or something. I don’t think it’s coincidental, you know, that the competitions that manage to provide a situation that is nurturing and comfortable for the contestants are probably the ones that bring out the best in everyone. I think it’s hard to make your best music when you’re feeling stressed and anxious in your surroundings, so I’ve never understood that element of tension that is sometimes put in place! In general, you’ve done very well in competitions. Do you feel like you’re a good competitor? How do look at yourself within a competition format? Do you feel like you’re different in that context than when you’re giving a concert, for example?

CH: No, usually I just really want to treat a competition just like a concert. Because it’s important for me to share what I believe in, not to play with the goal of pleasing certain people. I mean, competitions add a certain amount of pressure, so I find it much easier to work hard if I know that there’s some kind of deadline, whether it’s a competition or a concert coming up. So that’s good for me. And in this case with APA, where there’s so much to do, so much music to prepare and a great roster of chamber musicians and orchestras to work with, it really makes us work our hardest because we want to show our very best.

LD: It’s great to look at it that way, in terms of incentive and deadlines – those are things you’ll always have in your professiol life! Has this time of preparing so many competitions expanded your repertoire in a significant way? That can be another benefit of this process, I think.

CH: Well, it has expanded somewhat. Here at APA I’ve had to dig into the song repertoire because I’m playing a recital with a singer, which is fairly new to me. The bulk of my solo and chamber repertoire is going back to my years at Curtis and now in Germany, so it’s stuff I’ve done a lot. But I have to think a lot about program planning, with all these recitals at APA.  I’m really searching into my repertoire to create interesting programs, and going back to some older repertoire in the process.

LD: How do you see your immediate future?  You already have a significant number of professional engagements, and at the same time you’re still very active in competitions. How do you see that interface? Do you want to keep going with the competitions as long as you can, or are you seeing this phase as a means to a specific end?

CH: Well, I think we all go to competitions because we want our names to be put out there and we want to get concert engagements. And I’ve been pretty lucky so far. I try not to do too many competitions, only one or two a year. And in this case, APA is going to be my only competition this year because it’s such a long process. I have concerts in between my dates in Indianapolis, but this is really my main project of the year!

And a big project it is! Catch Claire Huangci with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra on September 30. Tickets

More to follow on the other four APA finalists. Up next: Sean Chen goes to Indianapolis in November!

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