Newsmoi will have the rare opportunity to see five of the nation’s best pianists just as their careers are taking flight.
The finalists for the 2021 American Pianists Awards, a biennial competition that alternates between choosing classical and jazz winners under 30, will pack solo, chamber and orchestra performances into one weekend from June 25-27. The winner will be named after the final concert.
If this were a non-pandemic year, audiences would have already seen finalists Sam Hong, Dominic Cheli, Kenny Broberg, Mackenzie Melemed and Michael Davidman perform live, solo and with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. They’d also have spent a three-day residency at a high school.
But this is 2021, so the American Pianists Association has organized a hybrid virtual-live competition. At 3:30 p.m. each Sunday through June 20, the competition is sharing each pianist’s virtual solo recital. People can watch at americanpianists.org, on the American Pianists Association Facebook page and on its YouTube channel. The concerts will be taken offline Sunday night and will be re-released after the competition is over.
The association awarded each of the finalists $50,000 — an amount usually reserved for the winner — to help support the musicians during a year that decimated live music. The winner also will receive the rest of the traditional prize, which includes career assistance, publicity, performance engagements around the world, an artist-in-residence post at the University of Indianapolis and a recording contract with the Steinway & Sons label.
Sam Hong, 26
Hong can name the exact moment when he decided that he wanted to become a professional pianist. On Feb. 5, 2008, as a sophomore at Texas Christian University, he came to the cadenza of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. As the soloist, he had the expressive freedom to play what sounds like an improvisation while the orchestra rested.
“(I was) having so much fun just manipulating the silence and the electricity in the atmosphere and just seeing how artful that could be and how energizing being a performer could be,” Hong said.
“It just felt right. It’s when something that you feel in a given moment is more powerful than something you’ve known before. You think to yourself, ‘OK, this is the way.'”
The pianist’s accomplishments support his decision. He was a joint second-prize winner at the 2017 Vendome Prize at Verbier and won second prize at the 2017 International Beethoven Competition. He was also a finalist for the last classical American Pianists Awards in 2017, when Drew Petersen won. He has performed with orchestras across the country as well as at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center.
Hong, who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and moved to the U.S. when he was 8 years old, now teaches at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He has studied with the late Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
He also spends a great deal of his time arranging music, and he’s a founding member of chamber music collective ensemble132, which performs many of his fresh arrangements of classical masterworks. More recently, the ensemble has been working on a piano quintet version of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.”
Early in 2020, Hong endured an injury, and he was looking forward to a comeback when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. But his work was canceled and left him with nothing to do. So Hong set his keyboard on his bed to soak up any thumping that would bother his neighbors, and he began to play Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
“It was playing that piece that I just experienced so much healing from the music in a powerful way that I hadn’t before,” Hong said. “So I tell people that I actually fell in love with music again because of COVID, and I think mostly that energy carries me through to this day.”
Dominic Cheli, 27
The piano masters whose performances felt accessible and exhilarating always stood out to Cheli. Stephen Hough captured the young pianist when he performed Rachmaninoff with the St. Louis Symphony.
“He was very, very warm and welcoming. He gave masterclasses for me and other students in the St. Louis area. We were invited to the rehearsal, we were invited to the concert,” said Cheli, who is originally from St. Louis. He thought “‘Wow, I can kind of relate to this person. He’s not some kind of mysterious person on a CD.'”
While Cheli had been playing piano since he was about 6 years old, he didn’t deeply study the scales and exercises that are fundamental to classical repertoire until he was 13 — which is considered late in the competitive world of solo pianists. His hard work earned him a spot in the Manhattan School of Music.
Then, the pianist faced his next challenge.
“That was a really pivotal moment for me because being in New York City, you’re in the hotbed of music, you’re surrounded by just countless amazing musicians everywhere,” Cheli said. “You start trying to figure out your place in music and sort of what you can bring to the table that is yourself.”
Cheli excelled in the transition, becoming the co-first prize winner at the 2017 Concert Artists Guild Competition and winner of the 2017 Music Academy of the West Concerto Competition. He’s performed in Carnegie Hall, with orchestras across the country and recorded two CDs on the Naxos label. He earned a master’s from Yale University and an Artist Diploma from the Colburn School.
The pianist is currently based in Los Angeles, where he performs, teaches and is the Piano Live director for the online music education platform Tonebase. He’s also an artist for the Recovered Voices initiative, which highlights the music of composers who were suppressed by the Nazi regime.
“I’m happy with my journey because for me, music always started off as fun and games and beauty,” Cheli said.
Michael Davidman, 24
For Davidman, playing piano has always felt like a logical extension of his personality.
“I’d say I always knew that that was what I was going to do,” he said.
His resume matches his ambitions. Davidman won first prize in the 2018 New York International Piano Competition chamber ensemble, was co-winner of the 2019 Juilliard Gina Bachauer Competition and took first place in the 2011 Mary Smart International Concerto Competition. He has given recitals in Europe and performed with orchestras around the country. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music and is working on his master’s at The Juilliard School.
The pianist, who grew up in New York, gravitates toward late Romantic and Spanish repertoire. Pieces from Enrique Granados’ Goyescas, Op. 11, offer imagination that feels personal to him, Davidman said. Listeners will hear him perform it on his June 13 virtual solo recital for the American Pianists Awards.
“He wrote music that was sort of analogous to poetry,” Davidman said. “It’s also all about his imagination and sort of the poetry that he was reading and how he interacted with the world.”
But whether he’s performing Liszt or Mozart, Davidman finds a way to feel at home.
“I don’t play anything that I don’t feel like I have something to say with,” he said.
The pianist also runs PucciniMD, a YouTube channel that expands on his interest in old opera recordings. Davidman’s grandmother listened to opera singers, so the music shaped his ear. While his channel focuses on live recordings of Italian operas before World War II, it has grown to include orchestral music and other recordings that aren’t widely circulated. The technology brings to life music that otherwise would be difficult to find, he said.
“I just do it for that availability and for it to just be there so that people can rediscover some of these artists for themselves — and musicians as well to know what the traditions were, their sort of musical ancestors,” Davidman said.
Mackenzie Melemed, 26
The promise of ice cream and calling out bingo numbers were major reasons that Melemed enjoyed his gigs performing at a senior center as a young child.
But as he spread his performing wings, listeners saw Melemed’s talent and nudged him to deepen his understanding of the piano.
“I was playing ‘Clair de Lune’ super loud, and the guy backstage said, ‘You really don’t know about the dynamics, or you really don’t know about the sensitivity that Debussy requires,'” the pianist said about a comment he received after playing a concert at the Tropicana resort in Atlantic City.
“‘You have the basics,'” the man told him.
Melemed, who grew up in central Massachusetts near Worcester, dived into studying piano thoroughly, and in high school he entertained thoughts of specializing in linguistics, international business or becoming a pilot. But competitions, including one that took him to Finland, resulted in prizes that boosted his confidence enough to apply to The Juilliard School.
With that, his future path appeared. Melemed ended up earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard and graduated from the Artist Diploma program. He also has won The Juilliard School’s 2019 Leo B. Ruiz Carnegie Hall Recital Prize, 2018 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Prize and the 2018 Paris Recital Prize from Poland’s Prix de Tarnów Competition. He’s performed in the U.S., Europe and Asia, in Carnegie Hall and with several orchestras.
With money from the American Pianists Awards and other funding, Melemed commissioned a piano concerto from composer Avner Dorman that he plans to premiere in Europe and bring to the U.S. The pianist is in the process of moving to Helsinki, Finland.
“I’m just enjoying playing, even if it’s for a competition. It’s just a recital,” Melemed said. “We’re just performing our version of what we think the music is saying.”
Kenny Broberg, 27
A little upright piano, which had been a wedding gift to his parents, captured Broberg when he grew up. So did the opera his grandfather listened to. In World War II, he’d been stationed outside La Scala and had the opportunity to be in the audience at the storied Milan opera house.
The pianist earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. He won the silver medal at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and a bronze medal at the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition. The pianist has performed with orchestras around the country and abroad, and he released his debut album on the Decca Gold label, which includes one of his signatures, the Barber Piano Sonata.
“My career path happened sort of suddenly,” said Broberg, who grew up in Minneapolis. “I was never really too much focused on that aspect of it. I just really liked to play the piano and really liked to play music.”
Broberg now lives in the Kansas City, Missouri, area and studies at the International Center for Music at Park University.
The unexpected turns of 2020 gave him the chance to compose, an activity he’d always wanted to make time for. He thought it would help him understand the thought processes of those whose works he performs. But it’s given him even more.
“I realized I love doing that,” Broberg said. Composing is “a very different creative process than learning other people’s music.”