by Daniel Hathaway
This Thursday afternoon, more than forty young pianists from seven countries will arrive in Oberlin to compete in a new and much enhanced version of the Oberlin International Piano Competition. Launched in 1995 by Oberlin Conservatory piano professor Robert Shannon, that competition for 13-18 year old pianists continued annually through 2008, when Warner Concert Hall was closed for renovations.
Reborn in 2010 as the Thomas and Evon Cooper International Competition, the contest will now alternate each year between pianists and violinists, with pianists up in 2010 and violinists in 2011. Cash prizes of more than $20,000 and Oberlin scholarships will be distributed among the winners, and the first prize winner will have the opportunity to perform with professional orchestras in Beijing and Shanghai. And in another big leap forward for its inaugural year, the Competition has made arrangements for the three finalists to play their concertos in Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra under Jahja Ling.
We spoke with Robert Shannon by phone in his office at the Oberlin Conservatory to ask how this all came about.
“Before 1995, we had had a summer piano festival that had no age requirements and no focus at all. You’d come and you’d take some lessons, and you’d go to a lecture or two. We had lawyers from San Francisco who had never played the piano before! We wanted to upgrade this, and establish an age group of 13-18 — which is of course the group of people we either want to get excited about Oberlin or recruit from. There are many youth competitions now, but in 1995 that wasn’t really true. We thought we could combine having a competition with more educational programs so people would come here for a about a week and nobody would really lose because they could all learn something while they were here. That’s always been my dream”.