Someone alert Fox TV - the real American idols were on stage in Lawrence on Sunday night, breathing thrilling life into Bach, Liszt and Chopin - and each one a teenager no older than 18.
The young pianists performing at the Lawrence Arts Center represented the top players at the International Institute for Young Musicians, a music academy formed in collaboration with the Kansas University School of Fine Arts. One of the nation's top pre-college summer music programs, the IIYM was founded three years ago by KU alumnus Scott McBride Smith and includes the IIYM International Piano Competition. The Winners Gala Concert featured performances by the three winners and three additional finalists of the competition.
Smith had a casual Q&A with each player before their performances, which gave the audience a brief glimpse into each performer's personality. Second-place winner Ronald Ho, a 14-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, admitted that his favorite Kansas food is the corn dog before launching into the second movement of Piano Sonata No. 1 by Australian composer Carl Vine. His mature musical instincts in the languid, jazz-inspired introduction and virtuosity in the rapid-fire passages left us wanting to hear more of this intriguing modern piece as well as Ho's interpretation of it.
Finalist Monica Liu, a 15-year-old Californian with a string of awards under her belt, followed with Chopin's Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. Although her hymn-tune phrases were too heavily legato at times, Liu's nimble technique shone in this show-stopping piece. In the interview, we learned that music is not the least of her talents: This summer, she will conduct cancer research at UCLA.
Another multiple prize-winning finalist, 17-year-old Alec Tauscher, performed what he described as a piece depicting "watery stuff," Ravel's "Jeux d'eau." A student of KU piano professor Jack Winerock, Tauscher is a physically expressive player whose skillful dynamics and phrasing beautifully evoked the pulsating waves and delicate shimmers of the piece.
Finalist George Fu, a high school freshman from Maryland with a flair for languages and jazz, offered Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60. Although the romantic interpretation of this young artist leaves room for more rubato and dynamic variation, his confident approach indicates maturity beyond his years and promises exciting developments in the years to come.
The romantic repertoire continued with third-place-winner Yi-Ju Lai's powerful rendition of Liszt's Ballade No. 2 in B Minor, a pianistic tour de force that Lai delivered with brilliant virtuosity and musicality. A native of Taiwan with several top international piano prizes to her credit, Miss Lai wowed the crowd with fiery technique and a musical maturity that marks her as a major talent.
The concert concluded with a polished and mesmerizing Bach performance by first place winner Mi-Eun Kim, who recently graduated from Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park. Kim, who has already won a substantial list of piano awards, remarked that she is privileged that her study of Bach follows the lineage of legendary Bach scholar-pianist Rosalyn Tureck. Kim's current teacher, Stanislav Ioudenitch of the Youth Conservatory at Park University, was a student of Tureck, and Kim's strong, elegant performance of the six-part English Suite No. 3, imbued with exceptional stylistic nuance and intelligence, makes her a most worthy inheritor of that tradition.