High Stakes At International Piano Competition

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George Li i

George Li, 14, looks exalted at the end of his winning performance with the Cleveland Orchestra. Roger Mastroianni hide caption

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George Li

George Li, 14, looks exalted at the end of his winning performance with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Roger Mastroianni

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It's summertime on campus — why not fill up the empty dorm rooms? That was the thinking at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where 43 teenage pianists arrived in July from all over the world. The occasion: the Thomas & Evon Cooper Competition, a high-stakes contest that offered one of the biggest prizes awarded by a youth competition.

Aside from a cash prize of $10,000, the winner gets concert engagements with orchestras in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as a full four-year scholarship to the Oberlin Conservatory.

George Li of Lexington, Mass., won first prize with his outstanding performance of Chopin's E minor Piano Concerto, accompanied by Jahja Ling conducting the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra.

The road to the top wasn't easy for the 14-year-old. Just getting invited to the competition is a huge honor. Oberlin piano professor Robert Shannon, who first began putting these festivals together 15 years ago, watched 160 audition DVDs this year. Out of those, he selected 43 entrants. All those pianists came.

"This competition since it first began has had a motto," Shannon told them at the welcoming ceremony. "Our motto is, 'Never take the results of any competition seriously unless you win.' "

Judging The Playing, Not The Age

Li can take his results seriously. Listening to his playing, it's hard to tell he's only 14. But the judges of the competition all agree that they judge the playing, not the age. Angela Cheng, a judge who's also on the faculty at Oberlin, says she thinks the innocence of youth has its advantages, however.

"Young people sometimes have a quality of fearlessness that older people lose — maybe because they've got more horrible awareness of how much they've got to lose," she says.

In the first elimination round, the original 43 were cut to 22. By midweek, 11 contestants were left, then six. Those six became three. And for those three, the competition prizes began to come into focus. Apart from the grand prize, all three of the top players were awarded full scholarships to the Oberlin Conservatory — a scholarship worth roughly $100,000.

Instead of watching the others play, George Li practiced. With him was his mother, Katie Li, who sat on the practice room's windowsill. She's not a musician, but she attends every lesson and every performance.

"I plan to be here until he says, 'Mom, I need to be alone,' " she says. "And then I'll leave. I enjoy listening. It's like reading a story or watching a movie in your mind."

In Li's case, the hard work paid off. He and two other pianists — John Chen of Leesburg, Va., and Kate Liu of Chicago — got to take center stage at Severance Hall, where greats such as Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Lang Lang have performed.

When asked how he thought he'd done, Li says, "I tried to make Chopin happy."

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