Bienen doctoral student to compete in international piano competition


Source: EunAe Lee

Northwestern student EunAe Lee. She is the first NU student selected to compete in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Lee was selected as one of 30 pianists from around the world.

Elizabeth Byrne, Reporter

When she touched a piano for the first time 24 years ago, EunAe Lee had no idea she would one day be performing for hundreds of people at one of the most prestigious international piano competitions in the world.

After that fateful day in the early 1990s, Lee continued to take piano lessons casually until she was 9 years old and discovered her love for performing in front of an audience.

“I really liked to play for people, but at that time I was pretty serious in swimming,” Lee said. “My mom thought I would swim, but instead I chose to do piano.”

Lee, a fourth-year doctoral student in the Bienen School of Music, is one of 30 young musicians from around the world invited to compete in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas. She is the first Northwestern student ever selected to compete. The 15th edition of the quadrennial competition will run from May 25 to June 10 at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall.

Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Cliburn, the company that oversees the competition, said young musicians like Lee practice for years to build up the stamina and technical skill for music competitions like the Van Cliburn. The four and a half hours of playing needed to win the competition shows the jury the musician is ready to play professionally, he said.

Lee’s teacher, Bienen Prof. James Giles, said Lee’s work ethic and dedication to practice has helped her excel. In preparation for the competition, Lee practices anywhere from eight to 10 hours a day, he said.

“Her work habits are very admirable and she is always trying to get better, so she does get better,” Giles said. “Her talent has ripened over the years since I’ve known her.”

Lee said one of the hardest parts of the competition is not necessarily the music itself, but the amount of mental focus required for each round. She said it’s easy to let outside pressures and opinions affect one’s performance.

The structure of the competition is elimination-based. In the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds, contestants are expected to play a 45-minute concert. Those who advance to the semifinal round will play a Mozart piano concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in addition to a 60-minute concert. The six finalists will perform with the Brentano Quartet and another concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Contestants are not allowed to repeat pieces from previous rounds as they advance. The six finalists will have performed more than four hours of music throughout the competition, according to the competition website. Marquis said stamina is a large factor in deciding if young musicians are ready for a professional music career. The three winners of the competition receive three years of individualized career management by the Cliburn that begins immediately following the announcement of the winners.

“In the world of international music competitions, the main mandate of any competition is to promote young artists,” Marquis said. “When you’re like the Cliburn, we really focus on launching careers.”

Whatever the outcome, Lee said she is excited to participate in all aspects of the competition, including meeting the host family she is staying with in Texas and other young musicians.

“My goal is just to do what I can do, just do my best,” Lee said. “From that, the judges will do whatever they want.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @lizbyrne33