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Fairbanks music contest will go worldwide with 'playerless' pianos

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published June 22, 2014

Over the next few days, 24 of the very best up-and-coming pianists on the planet will arrive in Fairbanks to vie for $65,000 in prize money at the Alaska International Piano-e-Competition.

The two-week tournament will combine the structure of major musical contests, like the Van Cliburn and the Tchaikovsky competitions, with high-tech, real-time transmission of the contestants' performances to pianos around the world.

"It's a 21st century magic trick," said Eduard Zilberkant, chair of the UAF Music Department and host of the upcoming competition.

Here's how it will work: An audience will gather at Davis Concert Hall in Fairbanks, where a Yamaha grand piano will be on the stage. A contestant will come out, bow and sit down to play. Meanwhile, at Yamaha studios in New York, another audience will look at a similar piano standing on a similar stage.

The pianist in Fairbanks will launch into Mily Balakirev's "Islamey," one of the most difficult pieces of piano music in the repertoire. At the same moment, the hammers and pedals of the piano in New York will mimic every detail of what's happening with the mechanics of the piano in Fairbanks, note for note, nuance for nuance.

The International Piano-e-Competition started in 2002, the brainchild of Minnesota university music professor Alexander Braginsky. "In the past, it's usually watched by as many as half a million people in 100 countries," Zilberkant said.

This is first time the in-person portion of the contest has been in Alaska, which will become its permanent base in the future, Zilberkant said. Now named the Alaska International Piano-e-Competition, it will take place every three years.

Zilberkant said he's long dreamed of having a world piano competition in Fairbanks. But getting an audience to a performance in Interior Alaska presents a problem. The computer age solves that problem by bringing the performances to audiences around the world.

At the heart of the e-competition is Yamaha's Disklavier, basically a standard acoustic piano fitted with electronics that can record and replicate every element of the action. The concept has precedents in the player pianos of the past, but that's sort of like comparing an old-time telegraph office to an iPhone.

"It reproduces exactly," Zilberkant said. "The pedal has at least 300 degrees of nuance that the computer calculates. Each key is calibrated up to 1,000 times for weight and speed."

Zilberkant said he wasn't familiar with the instrument until a top-of-the-line model was delivered to Fairbanks recently. "It's a beautiful, magnificent instrument," he said.

The more expensive Disklaviers can cost upwards of $100,000, about the same as a first-rate full-size concert grand that's not computerized.

But its long-distance instant communication and built-in recording capabilities have made the Disklavier a handy tool for education. As part of the Fairbanks competition, workshops and lectures will be held and disseminated far and wide. A visiting musicologist from Juilliard, for instance, will use the instrument to present a demonstration and talk about the piano music of Joseph Haydn.

The competition judges are all prominent world-class pianists. They include 2005 Van Cliburn gold medalist Alexander Kobrin.

The contestants also have impressive resumes. They range in age from 19 to 32 and come from Finland, China, Spain, South Korea, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

Lindsay Garritson of Connecticut, one of two Americans in the field, competed in the Van Cliburn competition last year. Martin Leung of California is famous on the Internet as "The Video Game Pianist." A video of him playing the Super Mario Bros. theme blindfolded went viral in 2004, pulling in 40 million viewers.

Competition will begin with recitals by each of the contestants. The 10 who survive that round will then perform one of the late Schubert sonatas, works that are known for their slow, long, meditative character.

The choice of Schubert has a purpose. "The preliminary recitals will be full of every kind of piano fireworks you can imagine," Zilberkant said. "But with Schubert you can't impress people with your flashy technique. It showcases your understanding of the long line, control, mental capabilities."

After the solo rounds and eliminations, the remaining competitors will perform chamber pieces and then a piano concerto with Fairbanks orchestral musicians. Those performances will also be transmitted afar -- to auditoriums, schools and living rooms -- but with a twist. The orchestra will be specially miked and its sound sent to speakers in venues outside Fairbanks; in some places a video transmission will accompany the sound. As the orchestra plays its part, remote Disklavier in Seattle, Minnesota and elsewhere will replicate the solo part as played by the pianist with the orchestra in Davis Hall.

Contestants were allowed to pick any concerto they wanted, Zilberkant said. The choices have centered on the big warhorses of the literature -- Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, Brahms' 1st and 2nd Concertos. Fairbanks instrumentalists are working up 13 different piano concertos to cover all possibilities.

"Hopefully (the finalists) won't want 10 different concertos," Zilberkant said.

Listeners in disparate time zones will have the option of catching the action live and in real time or after the performances. The programs will also be available in audio format online.

Contestants will draw lots to determine their order of performance on Saturday, June 28. The competition will wrap up with an award ceremony and gala concert in Fairbanks on July 12. For that concert, the performances of the runners-up will be presented by the unmanned Disklavier. The grand prize winner will use his or her own fingers.

More information is available at

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