This past weekend was a tough one for Paul C. Pollei, especially Sunday.

"That's when we make the cut," the founder-director of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition says. "We had our last audition in Paris on Dec. 17, then Saturday we heard the tapes. Well, this year we had around 240 candidates, the largest number we've ever had apply. On the first cut we got it down to 91, then we read the ballots and applications again and worked and worked and got it down to 65. Which really shows how high the level is. But, then, it seems to get harder each time."The upshot is that 65 pianists representing 20 countries will compete in this year's contest, to be held June 13-25 at Abravanel Hall. Included are Salt Lake's Eugene Watanabe, already a veteran Utah Symphony soloist, as well as such Bachauer repeaters as Akira Eguchi, Alan Gampel, Pasquale Iannone, Peter Mack, Robert Nakea and Anthony Padilla, who many felt last time around should have been awarded the chamber-music prize.

This year, of course, there is no chamber-music round. In its place Pollei has instituted another concerto round, in which each of the 20 semifinalists will perform a shorter, frequently nonstandard concerto with piano accompaniment. (At last report the list included concertos of Barber, Ravel, Scriabin, Villa-Lobos, Dohnanyi, Saint-Saens, Gershwin, Shostakovich, Frank Martin and John Corigliano.)

Also new this year will be a symposium on the late Gina Bachauer herself, the competition's namesake, to take place June 5-10 using material willed to it by her husband, Alec Sherman. Included will be an examination of the famed Greek pianist's life and artistry, incorporating taped performances and personal diaries. Already invitations have gone out to former pupils and colleagues.

Judges this year include pianists John O'Conor, Einar Steen-Nokleberg, Jozef Stompel, Craig Sheppard, Hiroko Nakamura as well as the first-ever Gina Bachauer winner, Douglas Humpherys, who took the top prize in 1976. Many will also be performing in recital.

Still, as before, the primary attraction of this year's Bachauer - the 11th - will be the competitors themselves. In addition to the more familiar names and faces, they will include 19-year-old Bo Pang from the People's Republic of China, who won last year's Junior Bachauer Competition, along with young artists from Australia, Hungary, Brazil, Peru, South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, Korea, Japan, Spain and the former Soviet Union.

"I think for the first time in the history of the Bachauer we have more candidates born outside the U.S. than were born within," Pollei says. About a fourth of those, he adds, were selected by tape, the others having been picked following auditions in many of those countries themselves.

"The interesting thing about the Russians is that even though we did hold auditions there, and selected three, we have 12 Russians or Georgians in all, because now they're all living somewhere else. In fact when I was in Moscow the Moscow Conservatory judges said, `Where are you going next?' and I said, `Jerusalem.' And they said, `That's where you will hear the rest of our students.' "

As it turned out, seven of the eight candidates in Jerusalem were Russian. Of that number two were picked, along with one Israeli. What Pollei remembers as vividly as anything, though, were some of the candidates who weren't picked, like the Armenian pianist who attached a note to his tape explaining that he had had to make it while wearing gloves because of the subzero weather.

"Even a city like Lima, Peru, which has its own symphony orchestra, has no music stores where you can buy music, and no piano stores where you can buy a piano," he reports. "Yet we have one candidate coming out of Peru, one from Buenos Aires and two more from Brazil."

But Pollei doesn't believe the competition's expanded international auditions are the only reason for a diminished American presence this year.

"We have only 14 U.S.-born candidates," he says, "which tells you a lot about what is happening in our country. In these other countries these performers were trained as young people according to a strict music curriculum that in many cases was administered by the government, whether democratic or communist. Right now we're the only country in the world that doesn't have a nationalized system of music education and finally we're reaping that whirlwind.

"I think it was at the last Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Israel that the jury unanimously made the comment that the U.S. is no longer producing first-class pianists. We see it at the Bachauer because we have tabulated the results of other international competitions, and the winners are primarily from Eastern Europe or the Orient. Once in a while one of the laureates is American-born, but rarely."

Pollei also attributes a lot of contemporary pianistic illiteracy to the gradual demise of the solo recital.

"If you think about it, our society doesn't really have any household names who are pianists. Maybe we grew up saying the names of Rubinstein, Horowitz or Van Cliburn. But since Cliburn stopped performing in 1978, our present generation doesn't even know his name. And television doesn't help, because except for chamber players, it shows us very few soloists.

"And maybe that's the best thing that can be said about the Bachauer," he continues. "If for no other time than the month of June, we bring beauty to Salt Lake City, with wall-to-wall music from these young artists. Then we get to export it, by promoting the laureates."

Conductor for this year's final concerto round will be Jorge Mester, for 20 years music director of the Aspen Music Festival and the Pasadena Symphony. Tickets are priced from $100 for everything to $8 for one day's worth of preliminary through semifinal rounds. They are available at Abravanel Hall, 533-NOTE.