High Stakes At International Piano Competition A few dozen teenage pianists from around the world converged on Oberlin, Ohio, for a grueling high-stakes competition. 14-year-old George Li took first prize. Hear his winning performance.
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High Stakes At International Piano Competition

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High Stakes At International Piano Competition

High Stakes At International Piano Competition

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Noah Adams spent a few days at Oberlin in Ohio to watch the unfolding drama of teenagers competing in the Thomas and Evon Cooper International Piano Competition.

NOAH ADAMS: We'll start this story at the end, with a moment from the last night, the final round of competition. It took place on stage at Severance Hall in Cleveland. Three young pianists each played a concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra. The judges got together and then the winner was announced.

THOMAS COOPER: And in first place, George Li.


ADAMS: Cooper is an Oberlin College graduate. He works for an investment firm in Boston. His wife teaches piano.

ADAMS: And now we go back nine days to where it all started, at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The eventual winner George Li, 14 years old - his last name is spelled L-I - is sitting with his brother, his mom and dad, as the pianists, ages 13 through 18, tired, excited, are welcomed as a group.

ROBERT SHANNON: This competition, since it first began, has had a motto, you know, a guiding principle. And our motto is: never take the results of any competition seriously unless you win.

ADAMS: Robert Shannon is a piano professor at Oberlin. He put this festival together 15 years ago. This is the first time it's called the Cooper International Piano Competition. He watched 160 audition DVDs this year. He selected 43. All those pianists showed up - many came from Asia.

SHANNON: So, you may have noticed that the last session on Sunday afternoon is almost completely full of Chinese names. And that's because all those people got on a plane and came from 13 time zones away. And it's only fair that they should get a chance at acclimatize themselves. And I know that I, coming back from Asia, always start to lose it about 7:00 at night. So, I try to put those people during the afternoon.


ADAMS: A few days after the welcome, I went back to watch some of the competition. The second round was getting started. In the first elimination round, the original 43 had been cut to 22. That morning I'd had an email: You've got to get here in time to see George Li, he's wonderful. So, I drove to Oberlin through the northern Ohio countryside, into the small town that's been home to the college and music conservatory since the 1800s.


ADAMS: George Li comes to center stage to a nine-foot Steinway grand, adjusts the bench, reaches to the keyboard, begins his first piece.


ADAMS: The music is Czerny's "Variations on La Rickordanza Opus 33." And if you close your eyes, you think - how can this pianist be fourteen?


ANGELA CHANG: My name's Angela Chang and I'm on the faculty here at Oberlin Conservatory.

CHRISTOPHER ELTON: My name's Christopher Elton. I'm head of keyboard at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

ADAMS: Two of the judges this year. They agree they judge the playing not the age, but they also don't expect a really big sound from the teenagers.

ELTON: There are different qualities. Young people sometimes have a quality of fearlessness that older people lose because maybe they've got more horrible awareness of how much they have to lose. Maybe they've had too many teachers telling them what to do. And there's a kind of innocence of youth that can be just absolutely engaging.

CHANG: There are also some times, you know, you feel you wish they've lived a little longer, then they would understand certain kinds of music, certain kinds of feelings, you know, these pieces were conceived in.


ADAMS: This is Anna Han playing in round two of the Oberlin competition. She's from Chandler, Arizona. She'll be in the 10th grade this fall, goes to high school online so she can practice four to five hours a day.

ANNA HAN: The piano will tell you a lot when you're onstage. If you follow your intuition onstage, it's always slightly different in a performance than in practice and so there's always going to be something special about that one performance that maybe you'll catch on later and then develop from it. It makes performing inspiring.

ADAMS: Unidentified Woman: If the finalists could please meet me in the orchestra room to draw lots.

ADAMS: By midweek, 11 contestants were left and then six. The six would become three. And now the competition prizes come into focus. The grand prize is $10,000. And the top three win full scholarships to the Oberlin Conservatory. That scholarship will be worth $100,000.


ADAMS: How do you feel it went today?

HANSEN: I thought I did very good and I tried to make Chopin happy.


ADAMS: Instead of watching the others play, George will practice. His mother stays with him. She's not a musician but she has been to every lesson and every performance of his career. Now, Katie Li sits on the practice room windowsill.

KATIE LI: I plan on to be here until he say, mom, I need to be alone, and then I'll leave. But I just want to be here when he needs me and share the music. And I enjoy, like sometimes when he really bring out the character I enjoy listening. And, you know, it's like you were reading a story or you're hearing something, like watching a movie in your mind.


ADAMS: And so the evening's work begins. George Li might be thinking of Severance Hall. The three finalists from Oberlin will be at center stage where Rubenstein performed and Horowitz and Lang Lang. And they will play with the Cleveland Orchestra.

ROBERT CONRAD: When they get here and they hear it in the rehearsal, I think they're going to have some butterflies in their stomachs.

ADAMS: Robert Conrad of WCLV, he's the broadcast commentator for the Cleveland Orchestra and has been since 1965.


ADAMS: George Li, age 14, of Lexington, Massachusetts won first prize. A review on ClevelandClassical.com said: Mr. Li's dreamy lyricism, notes like pebbles dropping into a pond, alternated with a romantic turbulence that gave meaning and soul to Chopin's musical swirls of notes.

ADAMS: For NPR News, this is Noah Adams.


HANSEN: You can hear a longer excerpt of George Li's winning performance at NPRMusic.org.

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