International Russian Music Piano Competition

S.J. Competition Draws Piano Talent From Abroad

It's been more than a year since the San Jose Symphony went bankrupt, and some say Silicon Valley just isn't serious about classical music.

Yet Friday, about 80 top-ranking young pianists from Uzbekistan, China, Germany and Cuba -- not to mention Cupertino and Palo Alto -- will converge here for a nine-day competition. The International Russian Music Piano Competition, now in its fourth year, is drawing notice from outstanding young players who typically compete in Moscow, Munich and New York, and who will help form the next generation of concert pianists.

"We've put San Jose on the map,'' says Dan Morgan, a French hornist, high-tech entrepreneur and co-founder of the competition, who has lived here nearly 30 years. San Jose could, he says, "become the catalyst for the next Horowitz.''

Morgan and recital pianist Irina Prilipko-Morgan, his wife, have created a musical Olympics, sponsored by the Bay Area's Steinway Society, with $8,000 in prize money. Remarkable young players go through round after round of musically grueling and emotionally wrenching performances in the 400-seat Le Petit Trianon theater. The hall typically is filled with excited family members, friends and music lovers.

Last May, the place went nuts when Dmitri Demiashkin, a 20-year-old from Siberia, won in the advanced category with his finger-busting performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto.

"Everyone cries when they hear his playing,'' says Prilipko-Morgan, who grew up in Tbilisi in what was then the Soviet Union, and has accompanied opera stars such as Renée Fleming and Nicolai Gedda. "He's new genius.''

She wants to give the young players "a little push.'' Demiashkin won $3,000 and a contract to play with San Jose's Nova Vista Symphony. And with that prestigious first-place finish on his résumé, he also has performed in Germany, France and Spain.

A few of the musicians coming to San Jose this week are as old as 30, but most are in their teens, with some as young as 6. It's a shock to see children barely able to reach the pedals launch into Rachmaninoff. Their revelatory performances are open to the public, and most are free. (A full schedule for young, junior, intermediate and advanced players is at www.russianmusiccompetition.com).

There are also special events: Vladimir Viardo, a recitalist who won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1973, performs Friday night. Alexander Tselyakov, another acclaimed pianist, plays Sunday night. Both men sit on the competition's seven-judge panel.

Ticket sales for those two concerts, and for a May 31 "Russian Extravaganza'' with Russian balalaika music, food and performances by the judges, will help cover expenses. Somehow, the Morgans and their board of directors are making it all happen on a bare-bones $30,000 budget.

That means digging into their own pockets to help subsidize Uzbek brothers Nuron and Navfal Mukumiye, 7 and 12, who are traveling here with their mother from Tashkent.

There have been some disappointments, however. The U.S. State Department has been holding up visa applications because of fears of terrorism and severe acute respiratory syndrome. About 20 competitors from the Philippines, South Africa, China, South Korea, Germany and other nations have had their visa requests rejected and won't be coming -- after preparing an entire year for the competition.

Already, many of the participants have won regional and national competitions. Any "international'' competition -- this is the only one in Northern California -- has strict performance standards and a tough repertoire. In this case, that means Bach, Chopin, Mozart and plenty of music by those Russians in the San Jose competition's title: "Pianists always have Russian music in their fingers,'' Prilipko-Morgan says. "Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff.''

The audience has been growing since the first competition was held with 35 contestants and three judges at Foothill College in 2000. And each year, what stands out for Morgan and Prilipko-Morgan, aside from all the great music, is how much it means to the young people.

"You'll get screaming and yelling and just plain exuberance when they make a round'' and move on to the next stage of competition, Morgan says, "and just sitting on the steps and crying for hours'' when they don't.

Last year, sisters Michelle, 14, and Kimberly Cann, 18, were beside themselves as they advanced round to round, hugging each other and shouting the news over the phone to their mother in Florida.

"And then there was a guy from the South Bay who didn't make it past the first round,'' Morgan recalls. "He was smoking a cigarette and crying, and the judge came out and just hugged him. It takes a year to prepare for a 10- or 12-minute performance.''

And then it's over.

Still, Prilipko-Morgan can't wait for the playing to begin again.

"When I see the talent,'' she says, "when I hear the talent on stage, I love this person -- immediately. I want to help this person 100 percent. Someday, my fingers are going to stop moving. But knowing that Dmitri Demiashkin is famous because of us, because we gave him a little push, it just feels good.''

- San Jose Mercury