Seattle International Piano Festival & Competition takes an inclusive approach

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Classical-music competitions often cultivate an air of exclusivity that Ivona Kaminska and Chris Bowlby worry is contributing to the decline of classical music. The married couple, who run the Chopin Academy of Music in Issaquah, co-founded the Seattle International Piano Festival & Competition (SIPFC) in 2008 to reward talent regardless of age, gender or appearance. “The main idea is to bring inspiration to young pianists,” says Kaminska.

This year, nearly 300 competitors of all ages from 23 different countries entered the eighth Seattle International Piano Festival & Competition, which now takes place every other year. The 37 best will perform at Benaroya Hall Oct. 12-14, with ticket prices for the public ranging from free to $35. “It’s an extravaganza of classical music and piano, with the competition as the main event,” says Bowlby.

Though the competition might not have as much name recognition as more prestigious competitions, “when we’ve spoken with previous winners, they’ve told us winning here started opening doors,” Bowlby said. “The winner of our first edition is now a top professional in China, sometimes playing with eight orchestras a month.” 

Making a competition inclusive

To make the competition less expensive and stressful for competitors — and more entertaining for audiences — SIPFC operates differently from most classical piano competitions. “It’s like a concentrated version of a piano competition,” says Kaminska. By judging recorded submissions and only requiring top competitors to perform abbreviated live programs, SIPFC condenses what is usually a weeklong event into three days.

“There are no age limits. There is no set program requirement, either. Other competitions require certain composers or periods. Our [competitor]s come with what they perform best,” says Kaminska.

But the biggest difference is the judging. “We’re one of the few competitions that run entirely blind. The judges hear but don’t see the competitors,” says Bowlby. At the finals, judges are seated behind screens. Contestants even walk on carpet so judges can’t infer gender from the sound of high heels.

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“There is an unspoken gender bias in competition. If you examine our list of results, the winners are predominantly female. That is not true elsewhere,” says Bowlby.

Noting that body language, clothing choices and facial expressions can influence perceptions about a player’s skill, Kaminska says, “We are kind of coming back to the focus on sound. In this competition, it doesn’t matter what faces you make.”

Cheers without tears

“We want to encourage the youth, and adult amateurs,” says Kaminska, “For them, we want cheers only — no tears.” So for those categories, there is only a single round of remote judging, and only the winners perform at the festival.

Once they reach the finals, pianists in the fully competitive categories (youth 10-18, performing Saturday; collegiate and professional divisions on Sunday) have a 50% chance of winning a prize worth between $250 and $3,000. Each category awards gold, silver and bronze medals as well as teachers’ choice and audience favorite awards selected by cellphone poll at the performance. Finalists may also compete for the President’s Prize for playing Chopin, or other special awards for performing Franz Liszt, Isaac Albéniz or Antonio Soler.

Festival performances

Competition performances are bookended with recitals. Winners of the youth under 10 and adult amateur categories open the festival on Saturday; gold medalists from the fully competitive divisions perform in recital on Monday night. Also on Monday, master classes between judges and selected finalists will be open to the public.

Pianist Hsiu-Jung Hou (Courtesy of Hsiu-Jung Hou)

Pianist Hsiu-Jung Hou (Courtesy of Hsiu-Jung Hou)

Pianist Hsiu-Jung Hou (Courtesy of Hsiu-Jung Hou)

The festival features a solo performance by professional Taiwanese pianist Hsiu-Jung Hou. Hou won the 2017 SIPFC bronze medal and the President’s Prize. “This competition, although doesn’t require a lot of repertoire to enter, but contestants get the chance to experience what a formal competition is,” said Hou, who will perform works by Haydn and Chopin in a free concert at Benaroya Hall Sunday night. “I am very honored to go back to the competition and give a recital there. For me, this recital is not only a performance, but it gives me the opportunity of sharing my beloved music with people and telling stories through music.”

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Seattle International Piano Festival and Competition, Oct. 12-14; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; free-$35; 866-833-4747, seattlepianocompetition.org/2019-festival

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