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All Ears are on Cleveland Now as its International Piano Competition Gets Underway

Roger Mastroianni
The Cleveland Orchestra
Stanislav Khristenko, winner of the 2013 Cleveland International Piano Competition on stage at Severance Hall with CIPC Executive director Pierre van der Westhuizen

The thrill of winning the NBA Championship... 

Four days in the national spotlight as host of the RNC...

But wait, that’s not all.

Another source of pride comes to Cleveland starting this weekend.

StanislavKhristenko, the 2013 winner of the  Cleveland International Piano Competition will perform at Sunday’s opening ceremony for this year’s event.

President and CEO of the competition Pierre van der Westhuizen says with performances at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Maltz Performing Arts Center, and Severance Hall, music lovers are in for a treat.

“The world’s most exquisite piano music played by young exciting pianists.” 

International prominence
The World Federation of International Music Competitions governs only 5 contests in North America, and Cleveland’s is one.

photo of Pierre van der Westhuizen
Pianist Pierre van der Westhuizen has directed the competition since 2012 as president and CEO.

Van derWesthuizen says CIPC gained global prominence soon after it began in 1975 at the Cleveland Institute of Music, with a different name.

“It was called the Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition, and it was to honor French pianist Robert Casadesus. He and his wife Gaby were both teachers at CIM, and Robert had a long history with the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell. So when he passed away his wife wanted to have this competition to honor his memory.” 

The first prize winner receives $75,000. “To help support musicians to focus on their art, their skills. And it’s also just recognizing this enormous talent if you think of the sacrifice that these musicians have to make.” 

Former winner became a Clevelander
AntonioPompaBaldi came from Italy to win the competition 17 years ago. Ever since, he has called Cleveland Heights home. He has been on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music since 2003.

Pompa-Baldi says he discovered Cleveland’s contest in 1998. After he won the gold medal at the Marguerite Long piano competition in Paris, the executive director pulled him aside.

“Madame Claude Perrin. She told me, ‘Why don’t you do the Cleveland competition? I can tell you this is a competition you should do.’ And it was happening the summer of the following year, 1999. So that’s how I decided to enter it.”

When he arrived for the first round, he was barely 24.  “Not only did I not know anything about the city of Cleveland, I didn’t speak a word of English.” 

photo young antonio
Antonio Pompa-Baldi was 24 and did not speak English when he won the 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition.

Neither did his bride of two weeks, pianist Emanuela Friscioni. ”We chose the date just because we wanted to do it before the competition happens, so then we could sort of travel together and do a sort of honeymoon to the states.”

The honeymoon had to be delayed. “After getting married I spent those two weeks practicing. And then we finally travelled together here. We were both completely lost.”

Launches careers
Then he won, and he says it changed his life.

“Doors opened and people were extremely inviting and helpful when I won the competition and encouraged us almost to move over here and take advantage of all the opportunities. And there are many opportunities in the United States, many more than in Europe.”

He says he hadn’t been overly nervous when he competed because he’d decided win or lose, it would be a good challenge. “People know it’s very difficult to win it.” 

And if he lost, he’d decided not to take it personally.  “It’s not an exact science. It’s all about perception, the moment, the judge’s background and sensitivities, and we are all different. So I came here without expectations, and just determined to play at my best.”  

Rigorous vetting
But he says for most competitors this is a game of nerves. “People are always tense. The only thing is some people have more experience on stage so they are able to still exercise more self-control.” 

Prior stage experience, especially concerto experience with an orchestra, is a key factor in a rigorous selection process.

Executive director Pierre van der Westhuizen says hundreds apply for the competition held every 3 years for ages 18 to 30. “We are attracting the world’s top young pianists.”  

But only 30 are invited to compete.  Eligibility requires a broad repertoire and readiness for the rigors of a classical music career.

“When this person wins they immediately go on the concert tour. We organize upwards of 50, 60 concerts for them all over the U. S.  And now we’ve expanded that to Asia, South Africa, Europe.” 

Martina Filjak
Mixon First Prize winner Martina Filjak performing with The Cleveland Orchestra, Jahja Ling conducting, at the 2009 Cleveland International Piano Competition.

Performances with the Cleveland Orchestra
Winners also get to debut at Carnegie Hall, and record a CD on the Steinway label, but van derWesthuizen says what’s valued most is the chance to perform at Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra in the competition’s final round.

“Most pianists work their entire lives to try and play with that orchestra, and what this competition affords our four finalists to start their careers that way is sort of amazing that way.”

Last year saw the launch of a Young Artists competition for ages 12 to 18.

“Jaw dropping,” says van der Westhuizen, “these child prodigies from around the world.”  Two of last year’s finalists will return for a Young Artists Showcase concert on August 4th.

From competitor to judge
Meanwhile 1999 Cleveland International Piano Competition winner Antonio Pompa-Baldi prepares to be a judge this year. He knows it won’t be easy.

“I mean especially in the final round of the competition, really, it’s just a matter of taste. Unless a major disaster strikes, and people forget their music or faint on stage, which you won’t see, I hope not. But the level is very close.” 

He says mastery is presumed. “But ultimately we are in the business of creating beauty and communicate it. That’s what we are all about. Not playing all the right notes at the fastest possible speed.” 

He says he’ll close his eyes and listen for a performance that speaks to his soul. “And also who would you go pay to listen to. That’s how I pick who my winner is.” 

Music tourism
Cleveland’s a big winner, too, according to Pierre van derWesthuizen, because it’s a destination event for music tourists.

“We have 10 to 15,000 visitors over the course of the event. They not only come to the competition. They go to area attractions. They eat at restaurants. They stay at hotels. There’s no doubt that it’s of economic value.” 

Antonio Pompa-Baldi has been on the Cleveland Institute of Music faculty since 2003.

CIM’s Antonio Pompa-Baldi thinks that like the Cavaliers victory and the RNC, the piano competition is part of Cleveland’s renaissance.

”People who are even slightly interested in culture and in music might know Cleveland more for its cultural side rather than the sports side. And vice versa. But the Cleveland competition, the Cleveland Orchestra, CIM, and everything else we have contributes.”