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Fortepiano contest attracts international talent

Two Cornellians advanced to the final round Aug. 6 of the first Westfield International Fortepiano Competition, a weeklong series of performances on campus by 25 contestants on historic instruments.

The competition ended with five finalists each playing an hourlong program at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, comprising solo repertoire and a Beethoven Trio chosen by the contestants, who were accompanied by violinist Elizabeth Field and cellist Stephanie Vial.

Competition jurors awarded the $7,500 first prize to Anthony Romaniuk of Australia. Cornell Ph.D. musicology student Mike Cheng-Yu Lee earned the $3,500 second prize and the Herbert J. Carlin Audience Prize, worth $1,000, for his expressive performances including a J.S. Bach partita. The third prize of $2,500 went to American pianist Shin Hwang.

As the winner, Romaniuk will be offered solo concert engagements across the United States and one in the Netherlands. One of the three prizewinners will also be selected to perform a concerto with the Orfeo Early Music Orchestra in Budapest.

Upstate New York native David Hyun-su Kim '03 also earned entry to the finals with his performances of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert during preliminary and semifinal rounds held in Sage Chapel. Kim, a former presidential research scholar in chemistry at Cornell, is a doctoral student at the New England Conservatory. The fifth finalist was Assen Boyadjiev of Bulgaria.

"These people are so very good technically, like the best modern pianists -- they're really up there with the best of them," said professor of music Annette Richards, executive director of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, based at Cornell. "I'm really glad I'm not a jury member because the level is so high."

The Westfield Center, founded in 1979, promotes the research, performance and discussion of keyboard repertoire and period instruments. Competition President Malcolm Bilson, emeritus professor of music, said there are 700-odd piano competitions held each year around the world, and this contest is "trying to free up a more old-fashioned" approach. "When you play on these instruments, you have to be more adventurous," he said.

In addition to choosing from a selection of repertoire, contestants could choose their instrument from among nine original, restored or reproduction fortepianos, most from the 19th century. Four came from Cornell's collection of historic instruments.

Lee, a New Zealander who has lectured in music theory at Yale and Cornell, performed music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert to advance to the final round. "Cornell has been fantastic to me because the graduate program is so unique and so flexible," Lee said. "A competition like this is an opportunity [for] someone like me to present my work and have it heard by people I admire and get feedback."

The Westfield Center brings together leading performers, scholars and instrument-makers from around the world, hosts events in collaboration with major cultural institutions, and produces a journal edited by Richards.

The annual International Keyboard Competition and a Summer Academy from Aug. 7-13 were established this year in conjunction with the Westfield Center coming to Cornell. Next year's competition, for harpsichordists, will be held in Washington, D.C.; and a 2013 competition for organists will be co-hosted by Cornell and the Eastman School of Music.

"In competitions in the modern conservatory world, there is an emphasis on conformity -- everyone plays on a Steinway," Richards said. "Playing the fortepiano, versus the modern piano, encourages individual expression. The instruments demand it."

Bringing so many musicians together also spurs "all kinds of new ideas and ways of thinking that you don't get if you're sitting in your practice room in Finland," Bilson said.

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