listen magazine feature
Barn-raising with the American Pianists Association in Indianapolis.
By Lara Downes
It’s April, and I’m taking a few days off from an album launch tour. But instead of relaxing on a beach, I’m on a busman’s holiday to Indianapolis to hear a lot of piano playing at the Discovery Week of the American Pianists Association competition. Every four years, the APA produces the Classical Fellowship Awards: a year-long endeavor that begins with a national call for nominations to identify the top American pianists under thirty, who visit Indianapolis over the course of the year giving solo, chamber music and concerto performances. Now, as the culmination of this year’s cycle, the five finalists for 2013 are all in town to perform every day this week, at the end of which one of them will be named the 2013 APA Classical Fellow.
Fifteen years ago, I made the same trip as an APA finalist, and, oddly, my concertizing crisscrossing of the country has never brought me back to Indianapolis until now. On the plane, I replay memories of that long-ago visit, recalling wide, brick-lined streets and gray skies. What I realize now is that my first time at APA was actually an important first step on my own path as an American pianist, in an American life.
I had just moved back to the States after spending my teens studying and living in Europe with my family. Coming back to California on my own was a personal and musical bid for independence. What I found here after all those years abroad was a new and unfamiliar landscape. Culture shock ensued — a struggle to reacclimate myself to American life and music. A few months later, thrown together in Indianapolis with a group of other young American pianists, I felt like a foreigner. Their creative language — free, idiosyncratic, sometimes even a little outrageous — was far outside the lexicon of my rigorously traditional Viennese training. It was an immersion course in a very different way of making music and it inspired me. Now I’d say I’m an American pianist through and through, with a maverick streak and a taste for the unexpected. My approach to making music and making a career has been defined by a very American spirit of innovation, flexibility and entrepreneurship. Looking back, that week in Indianapolis was what got me going.
Fifteen years later, Indianapolis has a fancy new airport — just one of many new things in a city that has grown tremendously. Indy is a leading convention center, with twenty-two million visitors flying through this airport every year. The downtown core has been revived and rejuvenated as a remarkably clean and usable commercial district, its street corners decorated this week with big American Pianists Association banners and grand pianos that have been recycled and painted as public art installations. It has also become a real piano town. The APA has grown into a very different competition from the one I remember. Under the stewardship of president/CEO and artistic director Joel Harrison and a profoundly invested corps of community leaders, the biannual APA Fellowship — offered alternately in jazz and classical — has developed into a major award worth a hundred thousand dollars in cash prizes, management and public relations services, a recording contract, and concert engagements. It’s an award that can make a serious career-building difference for a young pianist. The current APA classical fellow Adam Golka tells me that his award, thanks to concerto engagements with orchestras around the country, has given him a tremendous push. But, he adds, the support of the community he’s built in Indianapolis has been equally important.
‘The excitement of this week doesn’t really have much to do with competition. It’s about relationships, team spirit, hard work, barn-raising, old friends, new friends and human experience — this American life.’
That community is very much in evidence this week. Golka is in town, as are former winners Spencer Myer, who’s hosting live webcasts of the final rounds, and Christopher Taylor, who’s judging the finals. And here’s the weird thing: this doesn’t feel like a piano competition. There’s a notable lack of the underlying tension and partisanship that often permeate the competition environment. This feels more like a celebration, a barn-raising of sorts. APA Board members and volunteers are hosting meals and receptions, doing airport pick-ups, and driving performers and guests to and from concert halls all around town (often in a freezing late-April rain). And those concert halls are packed with an animated cross-section of the Indianapolis public. The town is out in force to hear the five finalists put through their paces in a broad range of performances that reveal every facet of their musical selves. Each of the five finalists has developed a fervent local following — by now, they’re all well known in Indianapolis, having spent a good part of the year here performing and mentoring in a long series of musical experiences designed to both test and teach them. Finalist Claire Huangci tells me that “just having this time, staying in Indianapolis not just once but twice, we really get to know the city, get to know our host families. We develop strong bonds.”
These bonds run deep throughout the community. During the year, each finalist has completed an in-depth residency at a local high school, playing with the school orchestra, performing for the students and being profiled by the journalism club. That close contact now brings groups from the high schools out to Discovery Week concerts, where they cheer and holler for “their” finalist with the kind of teen abandon normally reserved for the football field. Sitting next to me in the sold-out Circle Theater at Claire’s concerto performance, a coltish twelve-year-old bubbles: “She played at the school where I’m going next year!”
They are very different personalities, these five. Claire, the youngest at twenty-two, is tiny, and buzzes with a spiky energy that seems to physically propel her across the stage to her athletic turns at the piano. Sara Daneshpour is a piano whisperer, intimately engaged with the instrument in a way that channels some earlier priestess — Clara Haskil keeps coming to mind. Eric Zuber is brawny, confident, consistently powerful and controlled: he’s a reigning heavyweight of the competition circuit, having racked up nine major international wins in the last five years. Andrew Staupe, a self-styled outlier, is candid in his opinions about the competition circuit even as he tests himself within it. Sean Chen is a joyrider, a free spirit unafraid to take some big chances, like improvising a cadenza to Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto.
Takin’ it to the streets. Magdalena Hoyos-Segovia creates piano art.
Winning time. Sean Chen was awarded the 2013 American Pianists Association DeHaan Fellowship.
These personalities — expressed musically and otherwise — are, of course, a critical part of the excitement that has taken over the city. Yes, the music itself is thrilling and the talent and devotion behind it is awesome. But there’s something deeper happening here: you may be at the concert hall because a twenty-two-year-old pianist in a Hollister hoodie came and played at your school, and showed you and your classmates something real and tangible about dreams and dedication. There’s a person behind the music, and now you know her. And you care about her dreams.
That’s where a fundamental truth comes into play. One thing I know as a concert artist is that in any room where music is made, knowing about the people behind the music makes a big difference. Every day, I take part in building a community around music, at the center of which is the three-way conversation between composer, interpreter and listener. It’s a multi-layered, complex dialogue, one connected to the personalities of its participants. I’m intensely aware, always, of how much the success of any concert depends not only on my own performance but also on the response of the listeners. We, artists and audience, build a community every time we share music together.
Here in Indianapolis, you can feel that community, and the strength it wields. The success of having built something together is at the heart of many things: inspiration, innovation, connection and civic pride — all things Americans value. The excitement of this week doesn’t really have much to do with competition. It’s about relationships, team spirit, hard work, barn-raising, old friends, new friends and human experience — this American life.
After the week in Indianapolis is over — after Sean Chen has thrilled us with his spectacular rendition of the Bartók Second Concerto and has been awarded the 2013 American Pianists Association DeHaan Fellowship, followed by hugs and photos and champagne — as I catch my six-a.m. flight and go on with my album tour, I’m thinking about community and where I find it. I’m traveling next to Chicago and Des Moines; then Rochester, Buffalo and Toronto. Some are new destinations; some are cities in which I’ve played several times and built little communities, little families of my own. With the awareness of the power of community on my mind, I find more evidence of it everywhere I go. As I continue my album tour, I find that in cities big and small, all around this country, the most successful artistic ventures are the ones that are built and represented by an invested, inclusive community.
Then I go home to San Francisco to create another one: I decided last year to launch a concert series, to create a home in the city for my own crowd of touring artists who are doing innovative things in and around classical music. I envisioned the series as a platform to build something new: “The Artist Sessions,” evenings of music and conversation that introduce audiences to the people behind the music. So when I get back from Indianapolis, I get to work. I call on everyone I know for advice and ideas, starting with my family and close friends, then my music colleagues around the Bay Area, local friends in the media, radio producers and bloggers and writers who have their fingers on the local musical pulse. Just talking to people, over coffee, over drinks, over the phone — and sure enough, a community comes together. It’s a mix of different types: musicians and non-musicians, people who go to concerts regularly and people who don’t, people who support music and art in the city, people who are curious and adventurous but not yet initiated, and people who focus on things like food, art, film, and fashion but want to try something new.
When I walk onstage on opening night and I see the people sitting out front, it’s a moment of exhilaration and blessed relief. The audience is a range of ages and faces, exactly the mix I had hoped for. There’s energy flowing back my way. The room feels great, and I’m so happy that we’re all there together. Inspired by a week of barn-raising in Indianapolis, we’ve raised a barn here, in San Francisco.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.