Chautauqua School of Music’s annual Sigma Alpha Iota competition — which rotates each year between the school’s Voice, instrumental and Piano Programs — is being held for piano students this season. The preliminary round of the competition, which 18 of the student pianists have chosen to take part in, will begin at 10 a.m. Friday, June 27 in Sherwood-Marsh Studios.
Each piano student will play an excerpt of a concerto piece of their choice, usually about 15 minutes in length. The three judges will then choose four or five finalists to move on the final round, which will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 29 in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. Finalists will then play the entirety of their chosen concerto.
The winner of the competition will receive $1,000, and get to come back to Chautauqua next year to perform alongside the Music School Festival Orchestra in one of its concerts.
“Students love the opportunity to play with an orchestra,” said John Milbauer, co-chair of the Piano Program. “It’s a great feeling to be onstage with so many musicians that are supporting you. Those opportunities are coveted and very competitive.”
The money for the prize comes from SAI’s philanthropy branch. The international music fraternity has funded the competition as far back as Chautauqua Institution has computer records — 1986, or even earlier — said Sarah Malinoski-Umberger, manager of the Chautauqua Schools of Performing and Visual Arts. Initially, the prize amounted to $250, but has gradually increased over the years; altogether, SAI has given $25,500 to competition winners.
Piano student Vincent Ip won the SAI competition the last time it was held within the piano program, in 2016, and performed with MSFO in 2017.
“It was really like a dream,” Ip said. “I think that the competition attracts many strong pianists to apply for Chautauqua so that they can participate in this competition, because I think it’s really special to perform with MSFO.”
Ip is a student in the Piano Program again this year, but since he has already won, he is not eligible to compete again.
“I’m glad I’m on the other side and I don’t have to compete,” Ip said. “There seems like there are a lot of very strong pianists again this year, and I’m happy to be watching in the audience this year rather than up there on the stage.”
The competitors will be accompanied by Siyuan Li, a Piano Program alumna who won the SAI competition in 2007. She will play the orchestral part of the concertos on a second piano and has had to learn the accompaniment for more than 10 concertos to do so.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to be able to pick almost any concerto that they want to learn,” Li said. “This is a great opportunity for any young pianist. … It set me up very well in my career.”
Both Ip and Li are impressed by the talent and competitive spirit of the students they have worked with so far this season and look forward to seeing them perform.