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Piano competition draws best from around the world

December 05, 2008

When Baruch Meir announced, in 2004, that he was going to start an international piano competition at ASU, colleagues and friends told him he was crazy.

He should just put on a regional event, they said, and forget about the rest of the world. “But it was my idea for many years to start an international competition and support young, talented musicians aspiring to make a career in music,” Meir said, “and ASU’s New American University model was just the right place to do it.

“The ASU Herberger College School of Music’s commitment to the competition, led by its director, Kimberly Marshall, is astounding," Meir said. "Having an event of such magnitude at ASU’s music school goes hand in hand with the outstanding reputation of our faculty.”

Meir, an associate professor of piano who became president of the Arizona Young Artist Committee in 2004 and a Bösendorfer International Concert Artist the year before, first wanted to expand the existing local Young Artist competition – an organization that provides competitions, scholarships, recitals and master classes for young pianists -- but when no one else thought it was a good idea, he went to the Bösendorfer piano company in Vienna.

“I said, ‘Let’s make an alliance with the Young Artist Committee and ASU to put on an international piano contest in Arizona.’ It took some convincing, but they finally accepted, and delivered grand pianos for the stage and practice pianos,” Meir said.

That year, the Schimmel company from Germany, which was previously involved with the local Young Artist Competition, joined the alliance to put on an international competition for younger musicians.

In just a few short years, Meir’s dream of putting Arizona – and ASU – on the worldwide musical stage has been realized. “Everyone knows ASU,” he said. “The word has spread and we get inquiries months ahead.”

This year’s event will be held Jan. 4-10, and a record 155 young pianists from nearly 30 countries, including Turkmenistan, China, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Israel and Armenia, sent in their applications and audition DVDs for the Bösendorfer and Schimmel competitions.

For the Bösendorfer Competition, which is for pianists ages 19-32, 28 semifinalists were chosen out of 110 applicants to compete for the $15,000 first prize.

In the Schimmel contest, which is for 13- to 15-year-olds (junior division) and 16- to 18-year-olds (senior division), 14 out of 45 pianists made the final cut. They will compete for first prizes of $3,000 and $4,000, as well as recitals at the Brauschweig festival in Germany.

“It’s a tough competition,” Meir said. “They are all outstanding musicians. Some have already won major prizes.”

The Bösendorfer/Schimmel competition is one of the best in the world, Meir said, which was his goal from the start. “The prizes are substantial. I wanted to put Arizona on the cultural map.”

In addition to the $15,000 cash prize, donated by David Katzin, the winner of the Bösendorfer competition wins a gold medal created by OT Jewelers in Mesa, a solo recital at the Bösendorfer Saal in Vienna, concerto performances with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, and recitals in the National Concert Series in Serbia.

To keep the playing field even, contestants are given a limited choice of music to perform at the competition. This year, for example, in addition to one work of their choice, Bösendorfer contestants must play a sonata by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert in the prelimary round; an etude by Chopin or Liszt in the semi-final round, and one complete work of the classical period by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert for the final round.

That strategy has paid off: For the third year in a row, the Alink-Argerich Foundation, an organization headquartered in The Hague, the Netherlands, that compiles details on music competitions throughout the world, has invited the Bösendorfer/Schimmel competition to be listed.

“Alink only invites the top piano competitions in the world to join,” Meir said.

Putting on an international piano competition is not an easy task, and Meir depends on members of the local community to serve as sponsors and host families.

“The host families bring the contestants to the performances,” Meir said. “Some of the pianists barely speak English. The host families will show them around and make them feel comfortable here, releasing some of the competition anxiety.

“Every year we look for more host families,” Meir added. “We’ve had a lot of faculty and retired faculty, as well as music lovers from around the Valley, serving as hosts.”

Michelle and Jim Sarina of Gilbert, who hosted competition winner Sangyoung Kim last year, said it was “a wonderful experience” to open their home to Kim.

“It was exciting to see someone so dedicated to her art and passion, and it was a great thing for our three children, who have all taken piano lessons, to see this happening,” said Michelle Sarina.

Kim, who is from Korea but who has been studying in Boston for many years, practiced from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., had lunch, then practiced until dinner time, and went to bed at 9 p.m. each day she was with the Sarinas.

“Helping the contestants stay focused and meeting their needs is important, Michelle Sarina said. “Such commitment they have.”

Kim’s prize included two solo performances with the Phoenix Symphony, both of which all five Sarinas attended. “We’ve stayed in touch with Sangyoung,” Michelle Sarina said, “and we invited her to visit us after the concerts.”

As he is teaching and working on the piano competition, Meir sometimes thinks of what his friends said when he decided to study for his doctoral degree at ASU, after being accepted by both The Juilliard School and The Peabody Institute.

“They said, ‘You must be crazy. There is nothing there,’” Meir recalled.

But Meir has had the last word, and proven his critics wrong – not once, but twice.

To learn more about the 2009 Bösendorfer and Schimmel competition, or to become a member of the competitions’ group of friends, go to For information about being a host family, call (480) 965-8740.