Past winner returns to Hermanns competition in honorary post

In just a few days, the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition will bring 16 performers to Westport’s Town Hall, where they will compete for $10,000 in cash prizes. The bi-annual piano competition, now in its 40th year, is being presented by the Connecticut Alliance for Music and the Westport Arts Center.

This year, a field of 85 entrants was winnowed to 16 performers who will audition throughout Saturday, Nov. 19, with the hope they will be among the six finalists for Sunday, Nov. 20. That group will perform during the finals concert, after which the top three winners will be named.

The event’s honorary chairman, pianist Frederic Chiu, pictured above, is a former winner of the competition. Since that win in 1986, the Westport resident has gone on to a successful performing and recording career.

Chiu recently answered a series of questions about his work and the competition.

Q: How often are you on tour, and what has the schedule been like this year? Do you also teach throughout the country?

A: I would estimate I’m on the road about a quarter of my time, although sometimes it is a day, sometimes a month. I don’t travel as much as some of my friends, but I am one of few musicians who work exclusively as a performer, and do not teach regularly anywhere. Right now, I’m in a crazy period, playing over a dozen concerts since September, keeping three different solo programs and chamber music and concert in my fingers! As for teaching, I’m hoping to schedule a couple of my Deeper Piano Studies workshops in the coming months.

Q: What initially drew you to the piano? Did you have plans to become a classical concert pianist when you were young?

A: My parents put me at the piano, as part of my general studies and culture. They are and were big fans of classical piano, listening to Richter, Horowitz, Gould, etc. all the time at home. They did not have professional plans for me or my brother (now first violin in the Chicago Symphony), but we studied seriously and diligently, as parents try to get their children to do. Most fail at some point, but my brother and I were well-guided.

Q: You are a previous winner of Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition. What did the honor mean to you?

A: Competitions are always stressful and winning them is always exhilarating. I was just beginning the whole process of developing a professional career, building professional experience, and the Heida Hermanns’ competition and prize was a big boost for me at an important stage.

Q: What does a competition like this, and perhaps even a win, mean for the musicians who are performing?

A: The goal of preparing for the competition is valuable, and the attention an established competition has developed over the years is a great coattail for a young, unknown competitor and, of course, for a winner. There are pitfalls to avoid, mostly emotional ones around confidence and self-confidence, but that can also be part of the learning process.

Q: Do you find there are more or less competitions now, as opposed to when you were starting out?

A: Today, there are many more competitions, national and international. In fact, young pianists can actually develop a competition career, traveling around the world vying for prize money. It’s become a little like the pro golf circuit!

Q: Did you know you were going to be named the honorary chairman? What does such a designation mean in terms of responsibility and presence during the competition?

A: I am so pleased to be honorary chairman, because it ties together my professional life with my personal life, being considered now a resident of Westport. I’m proud to be a winner and also to be able to support a local artistic cause that has developed an impressive track record doing important outreach for classical music. I look forward to hearing some of the competitors, and happy that I have no official responsibility to have to choose between them!

Q: Why should people save time over the weekend to watch some of these performers?

A: The whole point of a competition is to get a concentrated dose of music, performers, audience excitement. It’s as much a festival as a competition. It’s a rare opportunity for pianophiles locally.

Finally, just a few last questions:

Q: What do you see as the lasting legacy of Heida Hermanns, in terms of this competition?

A: While the Heida Hermanns competition  is not a household name, like the Van Cliburn Competition or the Tchaikowsky competition, it has played an important role of giving substance to the framework that supports those events, and in creating the fabric of piano and music appreciation in general. The personal involvement of all the organizers and presenters has kept the spirit of Heida Hermanns alive, and that is a great, continuing legacy.

Q: This is such a community collaboration. What do you think such a focus on art does for a community? Is that what initially drew you to Westport?

A: I love being part of the Westport community, even though the fact that I ended up here was due to many random personal circumstances. The arts tradition here creates a sense of respect for the arts and artists that I felt very strongly in France and in Paris, where I lived for many years before coming to Westport.

Q: What are some words of advice you would give to the young musicians of today, who are aspiring to build a professional musical career?

A: For pianists who are of the age and level where they are competing in the Heida Hermanns, my first advice would be to think about why you’ve spent all those hours, days and years holed up in a practice room in the first place. Developing your technique and musical skills takes a huge amount of time, but in the end, you’re building your toolbox in order to do something bigger. Knowing when you’ve practiced enough is hard to do, but it is critical. For most people at this stage, they’re most likely ready to make the change!

The Westport Town Hall is located at 110 Myrtle Ave., Westport. Saturday, Nov. 19, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (semi-final competitions). Free. Sunday, Nov. 20, 3 to 6 p.m. (Finals Concert). $20,adults; free, youth 18 and younger. The top three winners will be announced during a post-concert reception on Nov. 20. 203-222-7070,,

Christina Hennessy