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Chicago-born Gail Niwa became the first woman to win the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition Saturday at Symphony Hall.

The prize, including a gold medal, $3,000 in cash, a Steinway grand piano and a New York recital debut, was awarded to the 31-year-old Juilliard School of Music graduate following her performance earlier that evening of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.The only American among the six finalists, Niwa was also voted the $1,000 audience award and $1,000 chamber-music prize, the latter for her semifinal-round performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet.

Niwa had made a strong impression from the beginning of the competition for her solidly crafted performances of everything from Haydn to Prokofiev. Her Rachmaninoff Saturday was no exception, a reading of brilliance and vitality. At the same time the familiar 18th Variation was nicely eased into, without undue sentiment.

Nonetheless her victory came as something of a surprise in a contest in which the three Soviet finalists were seen by many as having an inside track. One of those, Armenia's Armen Babakhanian, 23, was awarded the $5,000 second prize, following a wonderfully lyrical performance Friday of Gershwin's Concerto in F.

How does an Armenian-trained pianist learn to play Gershwin? "Just by studying the score," Babakhanian claimed afterward. Whatever the source, his unforced musicality charmed, from his spacious conception of the first movement to the bounding exuberance of the finale. Nor in the slow movement was he afraid to savor the jazzier aspects of the writing, although he disavows any acquaintance with American jazz.

Third prize of $3,000 likewise went to 24-year-old Soviet pianist Ilia Itin. Itin in fact had been one of the front-runners going into the finals, given his performances in the earlier rounds. However his Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto Friday was arguably his weakest showing, an uneven reading (with a surprising number of mistakes) that found him and the orchestra ill at ease with one another.

Nonetheless it contained fewer wrong notes than Turkish pianist Mehmet Okonsar's performance Saturday of the same concerto. Less flamboyant than some of his earlier performances, it was also far less compelling, especially his fitfully exciting but otherwise sloppy rendition of the finale. He won the $1,500 sixth prize.

Fourth and fifth prize, of $2,500 and $2,000 respectively, went to the two pianists who elected to perform Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Fifth-prize winner Ruei-Bin Chen may have been more exciting, especially in the outer movements, but his incendiary cascade of notes was often applied without letup. By contrast Egorova, whom many had seen as a front-runner, let down a bit technically but at least allowed the music to breathe, even in her mercurial second-movement Prestissimo.

Other awards included $200 prizes for the four remaining semifinalists, Jennifer Hayghe, Andrey Kasparov, Peter Longworth and Anthony Padilla. In addition Itin was awarded both the Prokofiev and Mozart prizes, for an additional $2,000.

Between the two concerto nights, Saturday's was the better-attended, a fair number of empty seats being evident Friday, as they had been through the competition's earlier rounds.

As this year's winner, Niwa is scheduled to perform at noon today at the Utah Arts Festival. Further concert engagements include performances Friday, July 5, at Orem's SCERA Shell and November dates with the Westminster Chamber Orchestra and the American West Symphony.