American Pianists Awards Will Crescendo With In-Person Performances

American Pianists Awards finalists, from left, Dominic Cheli, Kenny Broberg, Sahun Sam Hong, Mackenzie Melemed, and Michael Davidman pose onstage at the Indiana History Center.

The Indianapolis-based American Pianists Association has pitted the nation’s top musicians against each other in competition for 40 years, dating back to its inaugural American Pianists Awards in 1981. For both better and worse, none of them have been quite like this.

The APA altered this year’s schedule due to the pandemic, and added online streaming as an option to see the five musicians vying for the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship (which includes two years of career assistance, in the form of publicity, performance engagements, an artist-in-residence post, and a recording contract with the Steinway & Sons record label). 

The final three events will host in-person audiences on June 25 through 27 at the Indiana History Center, Hilbert Circle Theatre, and Indiana Landmarks Center.

The APA traditionally reserves a $50,000 cash prize for the overall winner, but unprecedented times called for generous measures. The association’s president-slash-CEO and artistic director Joel Harrison, a pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts before taking the post in 2001, successfully lobbied the board of directors to award $50,000 to each of the five American Pianists Awards finalists.

“It’s a good time in the life of APA,” Harrison says. “We’ve achieved national and international visibility. We’ve achieved financial sustainability. We have a really strong professional staff. The organization will not collapse. It will continue.”

The American Pianists Association gathers the top U.S. classical and jazz pianists ages 18 to 30 for alternating competitions every two years, this year featuring classical pianists. Harrison, who will exit his role as artistic director and president-slash-CEO on June 30 after the competition’s end, is already confident in whoever might follow his act to preside over the next jazz awards in 2023.

“I still have energy and ideas,” Harrison says. “But I think new blood coming in can bring forth things I’d never think about.”

Meet the five finalists competing for the DeHaan fellowship:

American Pianists Awards finalists, from left, Kenny Broberg, Michael Davidman, Mackenzie Melemed, Dominic Cheli, and Sahun Sam Hong gather in the Basile Theater in the Indiana History Center.

Kenny Broberg

Minneapolis native Broberg won the silver medal at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and the bronze medal at the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Even with his strong showings in competition, Broberg isn’t fixated on rivalries. “The minute you start thinking about somebody else’s playing or competing with them, you’re really doing a disservice to the music,” he says. Crediting Harrison for a less-cutthroat, celebratory “festival” atmosphere at the American Pianists Awards, Broberg says he’s eager to perform for in-person audiences after months of online streaming. “I’m a different person and I play differently in front of people,” Broberg says.

Dominic Cheli

St. Louis native Cheli (pronounced kay-lee) studied at the Manhattan School of Music, Yale University, and the Colburn School in Los Angeles, and has released multiple albums for the Naxos label. Hoping to de-mystify a classical world sometimes perceived as elitist, Cheli says that people should know Bach’s compositions were dance music in the 18th century, and that Beethoven’s loss of hearing weighed heavily in the writing of his immortal Fifth Symphony. “It’s important to try to talk and share tidbits about the composers’ lives,” he says. “You can show that these composers were real people. They had emotions, they had struggles, they had goals and aspirations.”

Michael Davidman

New York City native Davidman won the 2019 Gina Bachauer Piano Competition at Juilliard, as well as the “four hands” ensemble category of the 2018 New York International Piano Competition. Davidman, who operates the PucciniMD YouTube channel which features rare and historical opera recordings, says it’s meant to acknowledge how a musician’s work can outlive them. “I think it’s important to not only honor those artists, to know about their work as a musician, and how they spent their life, but also to know how music was performed in those days.”

Sahun Sam Hong

At age 8, Hong moved with his family from Seoul, South Korea, to Fort Worth, Texas. Just 15 years later he competed in the 2017 American Pianists Awards, making him the only returning finalist among this year’s quintet. “It’s always better the next time around,” Hong says of revisiting familiar venues in Indianapolis and staying with the same hosts four years later. Hong says his recent travels include a violin-and-piano performance for an audience of 1,250 people wearing face coverings at the Seoul Arts Center. “All I could feel was gratitude that I’m able to do this,” he says of the pandemic-era concert. “And all these people came here to listen.”

Mackenzie Melemed

Massachusetts native Melemed placed third at the 2019 China International Music Competition, and he took first prize at the 2017 Maj Lind Piano Competition in Finland. His ties to Finland are significant, as he’s lived in the Nordic country since July 2020. Before that Melemed and his roommate, the violinist Max Tan, livestreamed concerts from their New York City apartment to the world. The pianist says the pandemic lockdown helped him build skills he otherwise would have neglected: “We learned about four hours of violin repertoire, and I hadn’t really had time to dive into that duo repertoire.”

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