Chopin competition: The ‘Super Bowl of Piano’ comes to Miami this Saturday

Written By Mike Hamersly
February 18, 2020 at 5:57 PM

The National Chopin Piano Competition, which began in 1975 and happens every five years, is mirrored after the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. (Photo courtesy of Chopin Foundation of the United States)

The repertoire of Frédéric Chopin is widely considered among the most challenging for pianists to tackle. And for nine days, beginning Feb. 22, young hopefuls from across the country will do just that, taking on the works of the great Polish composer for the 10th National Chopin Piano Competition.

The 26 contestants will perform at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium – half on Saturday and the other half on Sunday – for the preliminary sessions. They must be U.S. citizens between 16 and 30 years old.

“The first weekend is where you get to see everybody, and their recitals are 20 minutes each,” says Barbara Muze, executive director of the Chopin Foundation of the United States. “After each round, the number of pianists gets smaller. In the quarterfinals, there will be 18 pianists, and the recitals start getting longer. Then in the semifinals, there will be 12 pianists performing, six on Wednesday and six on Thursday.”

Six contestants will make the finals, to take place Feb. 29 and March 1, and the winner will receive $100,000 ($30,000 and $20,000 go to the second- and third-place winners, respectively).

South Florida fans of Chopin are winners, too, as most of the shows are free.

“It’s just the most intensive experience and immersion into the music of Chopin that you can imagine,” Muze says. “And people can just show up and walk into the Miami-Dade County Auditorium and see Chopin’s music being performed at the very highest level.”

The U.S. competition, which began in 1975 and happens every five years, is mirrored after the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, which began in 1927. The stakes are high even beyond the prize money: The top two American winners are automatically accepted to compete in Warsaw in October.

“We’re only one of two international Chopin competitions that has that privilege – the other one is the Poland National Competition – so the U.S. competition is really, really, highly respected,” Muze says.

The perks don’t stop there: The Chopin Foundation also sends the U.S. winner on an extensive concert tour.

“That really is what pushes these pianists out to the world and makes them visible on the world’s stages,” Muze says. “What we hear back from the winners is that [the tour] is the most valuable piece of their participation in the competition.

“For example, our winner in 2015 was Eric Lu. We paid for him to go compete in Warsaw, and he took home the fourth prize, which is significant. And then two years later, in the summer of 2018, he went on to win first prize at the Leeds competition in England. As a result of that, he got a tremendous amount of visibility, professional management and a recording contract,” she adds. “He was 17 years old when he won our competition, and just to hear this amazing fairytale story that his life has become since winning our competition is just phenomenal. And now at the ripe age of 21 [laughs], he’s a seasoned professional, a highly sought-after performer on the world’s stages. So he’s our poster child.”

The nine-person jury is made up of Chopin experts and virtuoso pianists, some of them grand-prize winners in Warsaw, and is responsible for judging the American contestants on many different aspects of their performances, style and technique.

“It runs the gamut,” Muze says. “Precision is definitely one thing, but just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you won’t be the best, in the judges’ eyes. There are so many different criteria, from staying true to the composer’s score, to being able to communicate convincingly to an audience, your tempo, your timing, your dynamics. I wouldn’t want to be one of the judges – let’s just say that [laughs].”

The top prize of $100,000 – which is underwritten by the Chopin Foundation’s founder and president, Lady Blanka Rosenstiel and The Rosenstiel Foundation – is a staggering figure, and it’s meant to be.

“She puts that money toward the first prize because she believes that [the contestants] are professional pianists who have studied basically their entire lives, and put in six to eight hours a day to hone their craft,” says Muze, who herself is a classically trained pianist. “Why shouldn’t they be compensated like any other professional working person in the world, like an attorney, a physician or even sports players? We’ve been referring to [the competition], kind of tongue-in-cheek, as the Super Bowl of Piano, because the Super Bowl was here just a few weeks ago, and I can assure you that these musicians put in as much time and effort as any of the professional sports players, and yet the compensation isn’t nearly reflected. So that’s her mission.”

The National Chopin Piano Competition celebrates the life and legacy of the Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era in the early 1800s, who died too young in 1849 at age 39. But why choose him over other masters such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or Rachmaninoff, to name a few?

“His music is just the most beloved, and the music that gets people really passionate about piano music,” Muze says. “It’s just profoundly emotional, and it touches people in ways that a lot of other music doesn’t. And it’s super-virtuosic – a lot of it is accessible only to the finest technically accomplished and musically astute performers.”

And there’s another, far more personal, reason.

“Chopin is Polish, and our founder and president [Rosenstiel] is Polish,” Muze says. “She felt like there was a lack of education in the United States about Chopin’s music. And because she came out of Poland in the World War II era, she knew firsthand of a time in Poland when the Nazis actually banned his music, because it evoked such nationalistic pride in the people of Poland. They knocked down Chopin’s statues. When you fly to Warsaw now, you actually fly into Chopin Airport. When they hold the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the whole country basically shuts down to watch who’s going to be crowned the next Chopin first-prize winner.”

Muze, who has promoted classical music in South Florida for more than 20 years but is relatively new to her current position, envies the intense passion surrounding the event in Poland.

“For the Warsaw competition in October 2020, tickets went on sale on Oct. 1, 2019, and within the first day, they were completely sold out,” she says. “The ticket system crashed, and people who had been waiting for hours online, and went from, like, No. 600 to No. 30, were booted off the system and couldn’t get tickets. I get a block of 20 tickets and I have a long waiting list of people who are trying to go with the group we’ll bring to Poland. So that’s the kind of excitement that I want to bring to this national Chopin competition.”

What: 10th National Chopin Piano Competition

When: Feb. 22-March 1

Where: Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami

Cost: Competition sessions are free, but gala concert and finals (Feb. 28-March 1) cost $15-$150

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