Duo brings pianist virtuosos to the Emerald City

September 19, 2008

By David Hayes

Chopin Academy founders hope to create buzz with new international competition

Watch enough “American Idol” and one is left wondering if the musical landscape across the gilded plains is mostly filled with tone-deaf hacks whose idea of the classics is Britney Spears’ first album.

Chris Bowlby and his wife Ivana Kaminska have a plan to change that image.

“Classical music is not dead,” said Bowlby, co-founder, with his wife, of Chopin Academy of Music in Issaquah. “We’re trying to make sure it keeps growing in excitement.”

Now in its fourth year in Issaquah, the Chopin Academy of Music offers lessons in both theory and music by teachers of piano, violin, cello, guitar and voice.

The duo hopes to create some buzz in the Emerald City with the first Seattle International Piano Competition. Forty-one finalists, ranging in age from 10-63, originating from 10 countries and the United States, will compete in five categories for the top prize of $1,000.

“It’s not much. We’re financing the prize ourselves,” Bowlby said. “But the amazing thing is that musicians and pianists really go for these things. It helps build their resumés and careers.”

Inspired by traveling to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Bowlby said he looks forward to seeing these kind of spectacular shows, both in person and on PBS specials.

“You can see the electricity they generate,” he said. “I wondered why there was nothing like that here in Seattle.”

So, last year, Bowlby and Kaminska began a two-phased approach to starting a musical festival from the ground up. Phase one was marketing. They sent brochures and fliers to prominent music schools throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. They said they were surprised by the response.

“We had 230 applications from 23 countries,” Bowlby said. “For the first year, that’s pretty good.”

Phase two, from January to June this year, was whittling down applications into a manageable list of finalists. Each competitor’s recording was evaluated anonymously by panels of renowned local and visiting musicians.

Bowlby and Kaminska expanded the professional division due to the immense response. Twenty professional finalists are coming from Australia, Canada, Finland, Georgia, Japan, Korea, the Peoples’ Republic of China, Russia, the Ukraine and the United States.

Bowlby said many of the competitors, even some of the youngest, are old hands at such competitions. Some amateurs actually compete regularly against the professionals. The only difference between the two is that the amateurs have a day job. The professionals do this for a living, Bowlby said.

“You look at the bio of some of the artists and it’s surprising how accomplished they are already,” he said. “Many have been on international tours and already have professional management and recordings.”

Of course, some of the recordings may be hard to come by, he added, as they were released only in their home country.

Bowlby said to make the international nature of the competition complete, the judges are renowned performers and pedagogues with international backgrounds and reputations. Among them are Helena Azevedo (Brazil), Natalya Ageyeva (Russia), Peter Mack (U.S. and Ireland; collegiate division only), William Chapman Nyaho (U.S. and Ghana), Henri-Paul Sicsic (Canada/France) and Alexander Tutunov (Belarus).

Some homegrown talent from Washington state made the cut, including students from Poulsbo, Redmond and the University of Washington.

During the four-day event, in addition to the competitors performing, Bowlby and Kaminska will give lectures about classical musicians not quite in the mainstream, including the French Olivier Messiaen and the Polish Kard Szymanowski.

Guest artist Mark Clinton, the eminent pianist and Steinway artist from the University of Nebraska, will give a recital at the culmination of the Sept. 20 awards ceremony.

For those who can’t attend, Bowlby plans to videotape the finalists and edit the program into a 90-minute DVD.

“You travel up and down the East Coast and there’s quite an artists’ movement in some of the bigger cities,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to recreate here.”

Reach Reporter David Hayes at 392-6434, ext. 237, or dhayes@isspress.com.

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