A Musical Night To Remember
With the poise and skill of professional pianists, three contestants displayed their love and devotion for their instrument to a captivated audience in a regional amateur competition for classical pianists recently held in Ridgewood.
Perched on the edges of their seats, many in the audience were evidently piano players with their perfect posture, backs straight and knees and feet together, softly tapping to the music flowing gracefully from the fingers of the pianist. Some sat with their eyes closed swaying slowly with the motion of the music. Others stared in awe at the style and skill of each pianist as their fingers mimicked the movements of composers centuries gone but remembered and honored with each note.
The contestants were the three finalists in the inaugural Northeastern Classical Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. The three-day competition was held at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood and was sponsored and organized by Phred Meller, owner of Phred Piano Expression, the largest piano instruction group in Bergen County.
According to Meller, the competition was "open to anyone to whom playing the piano is more than just a hobby but less than a profession."
Modeled after the Concours des Grands Amateurs de Piano in Paris and the Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition in fort Worth, Texas, this inaugural event offers a chance for dedicated amateurs to compete under professional style condition, said Meller.
The competition began with 25 amateurs from as far as Illinois and Virginia, including six from New Jersey. In the first round, each contestant played a 10-minute piece over two sessions. The competition was then narrowed to eight amateurs for the next night and finally down to three for the final.
Judges for the final round included Sahar Arzruni, internationally renowned concert pianist, composer and lecturer, who toured for many years with Victor Borge, Paul Somers, publisher and editor of Classical New Jersey, a weekly magazine devoted to classical music in the tri-state area and finally Christian Wilhjelm, conductor of the nationally acclaimed Ridgewood Concert Band.
"We had a real difficult time judging this event," said Wilhjelm, "The musicians were all of the highest order and we really had to discuss the winner. That really speaks for the high level of playing."
Co-sponsor for the event was Faust Harrison Pianos, America's largest independent retailer of fully restored Steinways and the tri-state area's only factory authorized Mason & Hamlin pianos. The piano used for the competition was a Mason & Hamlin donated by Faust Harrison.
Still standing after the three days of stiff competition were Lorraine Fuchs, an administrator from New York City, Yuki Fukuoka, a homemaker from New York City and Steve Ryan, a computer consultant also from New York City.
Fuchs, the first to step up to the piano, enchanted the crowd with an inspiring rendition of Beethoven's Opus 111, his final opus written when he was completely deaf.
"A quite abstract piece, it breaks free from his previous sonata form," said Michael Harrison, co-owner of Faust Harrison, "and she played it beautifully."
Second to the piano, Ryan awed the crowd with his sensitive touch and technical skill in a wonderful rendition of Brahms' Opus 116.
"He really made the piano talk to the audience in a very elegant way," said Wilhjelm.
The final contestant, Fukuoka performed Liszt's Tarantella Aus Venerzia E Napol, Debussy's Feux D'Artifice XII, preludes, Bk II and Liszt's Etude D'Execution Transcendante, Fm, No. 10, her long, strong fingers floating over the keys with learned ease.
"She played beautifully," said Ridgewood High School student and aspiring pianist Ella Hutson. "It will take a few more years before I will be able to play like that."
In the end it was the skills of Steve Ryan that took home both the Gold Medal and the audience choice award.
For the 41-year-old computer consultant this was only his second appearance in front of an audience as a soloist since 1982. He said he was very nervous before the event and he went through a lot of psychological preparing in order to play.
"Preparing psychologically was the hard part, the notes are easy," said Ryan. He said he chose the Brahms piece because he identified with it and afterward was pleased with "It was scary but nice," said Ryan. "I wanted to present the piece and connect with the audience and I feel I accomplished that."
When asked whom it was he called right after he was presented with the gold medal, Ryan said he called his teacher, Seymour Bernstein. "I would not have been able to play in public or successfully without him."
The "amateur" competition was not without its rewards. For winning the event, Ryan took home a check for $1,000 and will perform in a future recital at the showroom of Faust Harrison Pianos in New York City during their fall series entitled Pianist for the New Millennium.
"I am really excited to have Steve(Ryan) play in our showroom," said Harrison. "I was very impressed with him and I know he will make a fine addition to our series."
After the event, Meller, whose hard work and dedication made this event a reality, was thrilled with the competition and the outcome. "Steve put on an amazing performance and deserved the gold medal."
Meller hopes to make the Northeastern Classical Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs an annual event and hopes that now that this year's event is over he can go back to what he loves; teaching piano.
"I have not played my piano in six months," said Meller. "If I had known all the work involved with this event I might not have started it. However now that it is over I am happy and proud I did."
(Reprinted from the Ridgewood New, June 11, 2000)