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Bachauer Winners Take Risks, Reap Rewards

Although prestigious in name, Bruno Walter Orchestra Studio isn’t known for hosting the leading spectacles of artistic achievement. Located in the dusty bowels of Juilliard’s windowless interior, the facility known affectionately as “Room 309” instead offers a woodshed for aspiring musicians to hone their craft. Each year, thousands of students pass through its doors—taking auditions, playing in master classes, rehearsing for orchestra concerts—in anticipation of those special moments when the fruits of their labor are finally realized atop the stages of Tully, Fisher, or Carnegie. 309 is Juilliard’s boiler room, with its machinery perpetually grinding and churning to keep it afloat the waters of pre-eminence.

Michael Brown (left) and Eric Zuber, winners of the 2009 Gina Bachauer Piano Competition.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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But don’t let the fanciful imagery fool you: Room 309 isn’t all charm. Ask any piano major at Juilliard what they think of the space, and you’re likely to get a rather unfavorable response. For some of the more sensitive types, possibly even a sob story. Each May, 309 transforms into a purgatory for anxious pianists attempting to demonstrate in 15 minutes what they have achieved in the past 1,500 hours squatting on black wooden boxes elegantly furnishing the practice rooms a floor above. Once the jury has reached its verdict, a lucky few are selected to return to Room 309, this time vying for top prize in Juilliard’s illustrious Gina Bachauer Piano Competition.

“I find the atmosphere of playing in a room for our own teachers, sitting behind a table, very frightening,” said Michael Brown, one of a pair of pianists to win this year’s Bachauer competition. And it’s true: the setting is hardly comforting. Pitting each student 20 feet from a row of stern faculty members seems more akin to a parole hearing than a musical performance. Brown added: “The challenge is to be able to put oneself in another, perhaps friendlier environment that would prove more conducive to good music-making.”

These friendlier places shouldn’t be too hard on the imaginations of either Brown or 2009 Bachauer co-winner Eric Zuber. Both have made a habit in recent years of performing in the world’s most prestigious concert venues. Zuber’s recent engagements have spanned the globe, from the Kennedy Center in Washington to the Sydney Opera House. In 2007 he gave his Carnegie Hall debut—a performance that New York Times critic Allan Kozinn described as “irresistibly fluid,” demonstrating a range of expression “from vividly crisp articulation to broad-boned impetuousness.” Not your average jury-sheet.

Brown’s record deserves comparable accolades. He has been heard in virtually all of the major venues in New York City, most recently in a performance last month with violinist and Juilliard graduate Arnaud Sussmann as part of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. In June, Brown played in George Perle’s memorial concert in Merkin Hall in honor of the late composer and theorist—the program included the likes of Leon Fleisher, Seymour Lipkin, and Fred Sherry. “It was rather intimidating to share the stage with those giants,” Brown remarked, with characteristic humility.

As winners of the Bachauer competition, Brown and Zuber have the privilege of playing for an audience far bigger than would fit in any of the aforementioned halls, over the airwaves of 96.3 WQXR-FM and on the Web at wqxr.com, when the concert will be broadcast live from Juilliard’s Paul Hall.

With audiences rapidly expanding through broadcast technology, the rush of energy and fear in a live concert setting can be quite overwhelming. As the 24-year-old Zuber noted in an interview with ABC last summer during the Sydney International Piano Competition, which was streamed live on the Web, “We have two conflicting sides of us: one side that is very emotional and that loves the music and wants to perform, and the other side that is thinking more logically. ... It’s very exhausting.”

Of course the “logical” side of the brain often appears as that voice in your head, insidiously reminding you of how many people are listening and how easy is would be to stumble. For Brown, the absurdist, the insoluble mixture of logic, fear, and excitement simply makes for good comedy: “It’s so scary that it becomes amusing and fun.”

The live radio concert isn’t the only perk to winning the Bachauer competition. The Gina Bachauer Scholarship Fund was established in 1979 after the passing of the legendary Greek pianist, awarding a full-tuition scholarship to the winners for the following academic year. For many, like Zuber, the scholarship offers a special opportunity. “I had actually considered the possibility of not coming to Juilliard,” he said. “I was thrilled to win, and I feel blessed that I can come to Juilliard with somewhat less stress financially.”

Zuber’s long road to success began to take shape at age 11 when he started taking lessons with Boris Slutsky in his native Baltimore. Throughout high school and college, it was Slutsky who challenged him to explore his true potential as an artist. “He formed me, developed my technique, shaped what has become my own musical aesthetic ideals, and has been a leader for me both as a musician and as a person,” Zuber recalled. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory at just 19, Zuber went on to earn a performance diploma from Curtis, after which he returned to Peabody yet again to study with Slutsky. “Without his guidance, I would not be the same person or pianist.” Zuber enters Juilliard’s master’s program this season as a student of Robert McDonald.

Brown, 22, a native of Long Island, has spent his life juggling his time between two musical passions: piano and composition. Pursuing both fields at Juilliard is almost unheard of, but Brown has done it. As if a double-bachelor’s wasn’t enough, he begins a two-year double-master’s track this fall. Such dedication might not be possible if it wasn’t for a pair of teachers—Jerome Lowenthal (piano) and Samuel Adler (composition)—who have offered Brown more than just artistic instruction. “Mr. Lowenthal and Mr. Adler have been two of the greatest inspirations in my life. Not only are they amazing and caring teachers, but also incredibly involved in my life as mentors.”

Teachers like these foster a kind of artistic development that encourages students to take risks, allowing them to blossom as musicians and people. After each victory, though, comes a new challenge. Such a cycle can be exhausting.

“It’s tough and wearing, and I have no stress-reducing secrets to share,” Zuber confessed. “All that I can say is, nothing lasts forever, neither relaxation nor stress. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get through it.”

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