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Gurwitz Piano Competition Wows Early On

Nathan Cone
Pianist Alexey Sychev, after his First Round performance at the Gurwitz 2020.

Twelve pianists of monstrous talent have converged on San Antonio this week for The Gurwitz 2020, the San Antonio International Piano Competition that is now under the aegis of Musical Bridges Around the World. From Russia, Italy, South Korea, Ukraine, China and Canada they come, seeking the Gold Medal, and with it a $25,000 award. The Silver Medalist wins $15,000 and the Bronze Medalist will win $10,000.

The live performance began on Monday morning with Alexander Malikov’s peppy interpretation of two Scarlatti sonatas that almost swung, they were so dance-like. They were followed by the stormy “St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves,” by Franz Liszt, and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, wherein Malikov found a great groove.

Alexey Sychev of Russia bookended his first round performance with two pieces that displayed his abilities to hold clear pedal tones or trills with one hand while handling the complex melody in another. There was “Minstrels,” by Debussy, and Franz Liszt’s bell-like “La Campanella” etude. In between, the audience of about 100 was treated to Franz Schubert’s spooky “Erlkönig,” made famous as the soundtrack to many a silent movie.

South Korean pianist Joon Yoon closed the morning session with music by Francois Couperin, Claude Debussy, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Sergei Prokofiev, the latter of which is challenging for both performer and audience. “I just go at these things thinking that these are performances, not competitions,” Yoon explained to TPR’s Randy Anderson after his performance. “In my mind, I’m thinking [the jury members are] part of the audience, not trying to look for the judges and please them, necessarily.”

Kenneth Thompson, CEO of Musical Arts Center of San Antonio, was in the audience, and provided some insight on what the jurors may be looking for, and how they keep up their ear stamina after so much listening.

“Certainly you have to make a lot of notes, because the level of playing here is just absolutely world class. And everyone who keeps coming on stage is more and more amazing in different ways. So you have to take extensive notes because they're going to be hearing people from today all the way through tomorrow evening. And that's 12 hours of First Round right there! I think you're also looking for what kind of an impact the overall program makes on the audience. You're looking for surprises, but also some continuity surprises that make sense to the artistic vision that the performer has.”

Thompson also said he is looking forward to the new elements added to this year’s competition, which include a World Music component with a performance on Friday evening with members of the Silk Road Ensemble, and the Final Round on Saturday night with the San Antonio Symphony, as three Finalists each perform a full concerto.

Another unique element in this year’s competition is the addition of a Junior Jury Award. Five local students will choose their favorite among the twelve competitors, and that pianist will win a $2,500 prize.

Aline Wang’s son Daniel is one of those Junior Jury members, and she says her son is honored to have a hand in the Gurwitz competition, and is looking forward to the challenge of choosing a favorite among competitors of such high caliber. She says she herself is looking forward to the Final Round.

“They’re all great performers,” Wang said.

The Gurwitz 2020 piano competition takes place this Monday-Wednesday with solo performances at Ruth Taylor Recital Hall on the Trinity University campus (free admission), followed by a World Music Round on Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, and then a Final Round on Saturday night at 7 p.m. with the San Antonio Symphony, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. The competition is being live-streamed online at the Musical Bridges website, and KPAC 88.3 FM will be broadcasting the Final Round live at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.