Northeastern Classical Regional Competition for Outstanding Amateurs

Gold in New Jersey, Silver in Texas
by Nan Childress and Paul Somers
Reprinted from Classical New Jersey, June 28, 2000

Perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of the Northeastern Classical Regional Competition for Outstanding Amateurs was the dedication to piano music the players exhibited through their fine preparation for this event. The abilities of the competitors varied widely, but each person performed with a professional attitude.

The whole event was the brainchild of Phred Meller of Phred Piano Expression, the largest piano instruction group in Bergen County. It was Phred who came back with the judges to keep them from spending hours in debate. The decisions at each successive level were not easy, and he was of major help as he tried to restate the various ideas about the players so the judges could hear what they had actually siad. But he had no vote, just a vested interest in having a successful event.

Co-sponsor of the event was Faust Harrison Pianos, which donated the excellent Mason and Hamlin used during the competition.

During the preliminaries, the competitors did double duty as audience members and competitors. The preliminary rounds introduced a field of over twenty players with intermediate to advanced skills. We heard such classics as the first of Debussy’s Deux Arabesques and Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor and the less well-known Sonata No. 1, Op. 22, and Argentinian Dances of Alberto Ginastera. In addition, their support for one another was reflected in the genuinely warm applause given each person, regardless of the expertise of their playing or the level of repertoire performed.

By the time we reached the semi-finals, the playing field was down to eight players, and frayed nerves were starting to show in memory slips and increased fumbling in virtuosic passages. Nevertheless, the players continued to be impressive with their focus, concentration, and sheer determination. Those who played in the second half of the program were particularly brave. Once again, the majority of the semi-finalists sat as audience members, taking only a few moments at the keyboard to collect their thoughts when their turn arrived. Truly heroic were the Virginia opthamologist who took the bench at 10:00 p.m. and performed Debussy’s “Soiree dans Grenade” from Estampes and Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody; and the housewife from New York who performed last and gave a splendid reading of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice from the second book of Preludes (she ultimately placed third).

One of the most appealing performers of the weekend, although he didn’t make it to the finals, was a legal assistant from Port Jefferson, New York. He played with intensity and had a genuine feel for the style of the music. His repertoire included two liszt works, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 and La Lugubre Gondola.

The finalists were Lorraine Fuchs, Yuki Fukuoka, and Steve Ryan, all of New York City. Winning because of his exceptional tone and ongoing sense of line was Steve Ryan. He as also the audience choice winner and subsequently went on to win the silver medal at the Van Cliburn Amateur competition in Fort Worth on June 11. We were pleased when he told us that he had learned about the Northeast Competition in Classical New Jersey.

Second place went to Ms. Fuchs who took on the enormous difficulties of the Beethoven Op. 111 sonata with a telling mix of intensity and tenderness. Third went to Ms. Fukuoka who, while she played her Liszt well enough, shone in her Feux d’artifice (mentioned above).

The pressure on all three was evidenced in memory slips by each and missed notes. It was in these two areas that even at this high perofmrance level the line dividing the “ams” from the “pros” was made crystal clear.

The judges for the finals were pianist Sahar Arzruni, Christian Wilhjelm, conductor of the award winning Ridgewood Concert Band, and CNJ’s Paul Somers. Mr. Arzruni’s acumen was on call throughout the competition, and Nan Childress of CNJ was a judge in the first and second rounds.

Mr. Ryan won a prize of $1000 and a recital at the showroom of Faust Harrison in New York City during their fall series. Cannot someone be found to present Mr. Ryan – now twice a winner- in a New Jersey venue?

Meller intends to make the Northeastern Classical Piano competition for Outstanding Amateurs an annual event.

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