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Bachauer festival

An elite international competition that occurs every four years will bring world-class contenders to Salt Lake City in a quest for gold, silver and bronze medals, signifying an Olympian level of excellence. But it's not an athletic endeavor - it's the art of making music at the piano.

The Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, to be held June 14-27, officially gets under way for the 12th year at a gala dinner to be held Thursday.A field of 56 contestants was recently selected from among 250 pianists who applied to compete in the Bachauer, named in memory of the celebrated Greek pianist Gina Bachauer for her contribution to musical life in Utah. The competition headquarters in Salt Lake City received 170 cassettes from pianists for review.

According to Paul C. Pollei, founder and director of the competition, one of the highlights of this year's selection process was the audition held in Athens, Greece. "It was a fabulous experience to have an audition in Gina Bachauer's home country," said Pollei. "We have never had any candidates selected from Greece, and this year there are two. The level of playing at the audition was very high, and our reception was very warm. Also, one of our judges is from Greece this year - Vinia Tsopelas."

In discussing the international makeup of the contenders list, Pollei states that the Russian candidates are always "interesting enigmas."

"They foster and breed a huge pianistic culture there, and since the wall came down we find them all over the world - especially in Israel and New York. They are indeed very strong.

"We also have many candidates from the Orient, and especially Japan. You might say that the pathway from Nagano to Salt Lake City is very clear."

As the worldwide fame of the Bachauer increases, there is continued expansion into new dimensions. Pollei was especially pleased this year with festivals held in Brazil, Venice and Hamburg under the auspices of the Gina Bachauer Foundation. These included master classes and lectures along with the piano recitals and were an immediate success.

This year's elected candidates, who must be between the ages of 19 and 32, hail from 23 countries and include five pianists who have been contestants in the past. Among the latter is Anthony Padilla of the United States, a strong contender in prior festivals, returning for his fourth and final try for a top prize.

Other players audiences may remember are Zita Bodrogi of Hungary, Sean Botkin of the United States, Derison Duarte of Brazil and the Unaited States, Letizia Michielon of Italy and Irina Morozova of Russia and the United States. None of the pianists come from Utah, although one candidate from Japan - Harunosuke Morinaga - attends Brigham Young University.

The pianists will be evaluated by an international panel of judges, which includes Michael Houstoun, Joseph Banowitz, Radislav Kvapil, Benedetto Lupo and Robert Levin. Conducting the Utah Symphony during the concerto round will be Fabio Mechetti.

The pianist who wins this year's competition will have survived four rounds of competition. Each of the pianists will play in two preliminary rounds of self-chosen solo repertoire. The quarter-final round, which has been changed again this year, is no longer a concerto round (as in 1994) or a chamber round (as in years prior to that). This year's quarter-final will require one work by Johannes Brahms and one by Franz Schubert.

Those who are selected for the final round will perform a complete piano concerto with the Utah Symphony, with the first-place winner being awarded a gold medal and quite a bit more: a Steinway and Sons grand piano, a cash award of $10,000, a CD recording and a concert engagement with the Utah Symphony. And that's just for starters, with a host of worldwide opportunities for concert and recital engagements as well as residency programs.

The list of prizes helps explain the growing international prominence of the Gina Bachauer Piano Foundation, but there are other factors that figure into the equation. Pollei indicates that the contestants are always greatly impressed by the treatment they receive in Utah. While attending the competition, the candidates stay in the homes of local families, who provide meals, transportation and a home-like atmosphere to the competitors. And, of course, the all-important opportunity to practice on a grand piano. "They say how good this state is for hospitality," says Pollei.

He maintains that the host of volunteers who help make the festival a success are "fabulous." "We have people begging to host the candidates, and there are many people who wouldn't miss a note of the competition. They take their vacations around the Bachauer so they can be there for every moment."

This year's competition will be surrounded by a festival of evening recitals held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square and in Abravanel Hall, but will not include symposia as 1994's festival did. The growth of the Gina Bachauer Foundation events has been further evidenced by the burgeoning popularity of the Junior Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition for young pianists, which has prompted the expansion of that event in off-years of the major competition.

The junior festival has previously taken place at four-year intervals, alternating every two years with the major competition. It will now be held during each of the three years between the adult event. Thus, there will be junior festivals in 1999, 2000 and 2001, between the Bachauer festivals of 1998 and 2002.

The fact that the next major competition will occur in the same year as the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City has not been lost upon the competition's organizing committee. "For two weeks in 2002, Salt Lake City will be the most famous city in the world," says Pollei. "We feel that the leftover residue of publicity will benefit the Bachauer and help to give it the recognition it deserves."

New to the event is a gala dinner kicking off the festival this year. At the dinner, the list of candidates for the 1998 competition will be announced. Also, recipients of the 1998 Bachauer Medal of Artistic Merit will be awarded. These medals of distinction are given to members of the community whose support of the Bachauer festival has been especially significant. This year's award goes to Kent and Jeanine Acomb, Alice "Aliki" Athas, Arlene Darger and Barbara Patterson. The gala dinner will feature piano performances by competitors Zita Bodrogi and Harunosuke Moringa.

The public is invited to the gala dinner sponsored by the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, to be held Thursday, Feb. 19, at the Doubletree Hotel. Social Hour is 6:30 p.m. with dinner at 7 p.m. Tickets are $100 per person. For reservations, phone 521-9200.