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David and Art - Music City...but Different Music

International piano players for a short time transformed the sound of Music City, USA.

When I say Nashville and music, what comes to mind? My guess is that you probably said country music. I would hope so, actually. But now, there’s another word that could pop into your head. A very unexpected name, to be specific. And “unexpected” really doesn’t capture the magnitude of the incongruity. The name is Frederic Chopin. Right, the early nineteenth century polish pianist and composer. If you’re driving right now, I don’t blame you if you have to pull over.

In the middle of last month there was held the inaugural of an event called the Nashville International Chopin Piano Competition. It’s planned as a biannual event to bring young pianists of different ages in front of an international jury of leading Chopin experts. The idea for the competition goes back more than two decades when the founders met while studying at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.

Back in September, it announced the names of 26 finalists who then competed for $50,000 in prizes on October 14 & 15 at Vanderbilt University's performing arts center. They ranged in age from 7 to 21 and came from Austria, Canada, China, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, the UK, and the US. There are three different age groups in the contest: ages 6-10; ages 11-15; and ages 16-22. Interestingly those aren’t set in stone and pianists can move up if they wish and compete against players that are older.

The winner of first prize in the Artist Division and the Audience Prize was a 12-year-old blonde-haired cherubic kid who’s won awards at piano contests in Dubai, China, Cleveland, and Poland. His name is Elisey Mysin and he was born in 2010 in Stavropol, Russia. He began studying piano at the age of four. Neither of those things is very long ago. There are numerous clips of him on YouTube and he’s nothing short of incredible. The depth of feeling with which he plays and the technique with which he masters the piano would be breathtaking in a person twice his age.

When I first heard of him winning this contest, I immediately thought of Fort Worth’s own Van Cliburn who of course went to the Soviet Union in 1958 and won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Then someone pointed out to me that when Van Cliburn did that, he was 23 years old--11 years older than Mysin. A better parallel may be cellist Yo-Yo Ma who played for Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy when he was only 7. I'm glad Nashville has this competition because the more people who know of great pianists of every age, especially wondrous young people, the better off the arts, and all of us, will be.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.