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When 31-year-old Gail Niwa emerged as the top winner in last year's Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, she took not one but three awards: the $3,000 grand prize, with its attendant Steinway piano and concert and recital engagements, the $1,000 audience prize and the $1,000 chamber-music prize.

Now the audience that awarded her the second will have a chance to enjoy her playing again, as she returns this week for a pair of Utah Symphony concerts, Friday and Saturday, March 6 and 7, in Symphony Hall, that will feature her in the Piano Concerto No. 2 of a composer whose music did not figure on her Bachauer programs, Camille Saint-Saens."I love it," she says of the Saint-Saens concerto, recalling that she once performed the first movement on television in her native Chicago.

Opportunities like that came early to Niwa, as did her love of music.

The offspring of a violinist father - a 40-year member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra - and a pianist mother, she can remember dancing around the room as a child to Vladimir Horowitz's recording of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" and Bryon Janis' recording of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. "And my parents had a trio and my dad a quartet, so there was lots of chamber music in the house, too."

The result was that she became a professional pianist and her brother a professional violinist.

She won her first Chicago Symphony youth audition when she was only 7, making her debut with them the following year - "on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated," she recalls. That was in a Haydn concerto. Four years later she was back to solo in the Bartok Third and at age 15 joined another local pianist in the Poulenc Two-Piano Concerto.

That was followed by a scholarship to New York's Juilliard School of Music, where she studied with Adele Marcus.

"She didn't really spend any time on technique by itself," Niwa says of the latter. "I know she has in the past, and she did with some of my friends. But with me it was always in the context of the music - for instance, how to practice a passage technically to make it make sense musically. Actually that makes it easier technically, because then it's no longer technique for the sake of technique.

"She also concentrated on proportion in sound and the orchestral nature of the piano. Sometimes she would take the eraser tip of a pencil and say, `I can make a better sound with the tip of this pencil than you can with your hands, and she would, too."

Niwa attributes that to a more flexible wrist action, "almost making her forearm and her hands like clay," and the fact that Marcus struck the key more slowly. "I couldn't help but instinctively try to imitate that sound," she recalls, adding that "although I'm not a big believer in imitation, I would kill for a sound like that."

Upon receiving her master's from Juilliard in 1982, Niwa began earning her living primarily as an accompanist. Indeed one of her first major competition awards was as best accompanist at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow. Prior to that, she had also pulled down first prizes in the 1981 International Young Keyboard Artists Association Competition, the 1983 William Boyd Competition and the 1984 Vincent de Frank Young Artist Competition. In 1987 she took first in the Washington International Competition and second in the Mae Whitaker Competition in St. Louis and in 1989 was the only American among the 12 semifinalists in the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Israel.

"I picked and chose my competitions pretty carefully," Niwa says from her New York apartment. "Basically the problem has been balancing things and finding the time to practice, which is very difficult when I'm running around town here. So I usually found maybe one a year that I would enter."

As with most competitors, her goal was more opportunities to perform, especially solo and orchestral dates, which, she says, "is the kind of experience you don't get in the practice room."

In that context her Gina Bachauer victory has led to performances in Savannah, Ga., Kansas City and Reno, in addition to her Alice Tully Hall recital last October and return engagement with the Utah Symphony. She also serves as pianist for both the Partita and Chelsea Chamber Ensembles in New York, and in fact is playing a concert with the first at Manhattan College Sunday.

The irony is that this, she says, is one competition she wasn't particularly concerned about winning.

"I had decided that I just really wanted to play, and, with the freedom of the program requirements, I really loved everything I played, which really helped. Because sometimes in competitions there's a round where you're playing something that's required that you're not absolutely committed to. But that was not the case in Utah."

At the same time, she says, audiences have always interested her more than juries per se. "It's always been important to me to reach people through my music. I'd also like to be involved with broadening the audience for classical music, first of all by going into the schools and talking to the kids, as I just did in Savannah. I also like to talk to audiences during my concerts, if it's appropriate. And I'm thinking of trying to broaden my repertoire to expand into some things that are even more accessible and, I hate to use the word, relevant.

"Not that the music I play now is not relevant, but maybe something a little closer to people's frame of reference. For instance I'm in the process of looking for someone to write me a piece based on the blues - as a Chicagoan, I love the blues. Certainly with the advent of MTV and the big pop-music scene, the world of music is changing, and I think in a way this has made classical music seem even less accessible, maybe even more impersonal, and I don't like that."

On this week's concerts, which begin at 8 p.m., Niwa's performance of the Saint-Saens Second will be coupled with Massenet's "Phedre" Overture, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber and Strauss' "Death and Transfiguration." Associate conductor Kirk Muspratt will conduct, as well as deliver the complimentary pre-concert lecture each evening at 7:15.

Tickets are priced from $10 to $30, with $5 student tickets also available.

The same program will also be presented, in dress-rehearsal form, as part of the orchestra's Finishing Touches Series Friday, March 6, at 11 a.m. Tickets are $6 and are likewise available at the Symphony Hall box office, 533-NOTE.