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Piano “plays well with others” on Hilton Head

Steve Shaiman, Director of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition
Bradley Fuller
Steve Shaiman, Director of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition

The keyboard instrument’s collaborative side is set to be showcased in a range of performances at this year’s BravoPiano! Festival, presented by the Hilton Head International Piano Competition.

In this Sonatas & Soundscapes interview that aired Wednesday, February 21st, host Bradley Fuller speaks with Steve Shaiman, Director of the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, or HHIPC. Steve previews the HHIPC’s 2024 BravoPiano! Festival, sharing about each of the wide-ranging performances and how they are connected through the theme “Plays Well with Others”. The 2024 BravoPiano! Festival runs from February 29th – March 4th.

More information can be found at


FULLER: Steve, thanks so much for joining me!

SHAIMAN: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be back.

FULLER: Well, this is the third BravoPiano! Festival, a newer addition to the annual rotation of HHIPC offerings—a rotation which also includes an Adult and Young Artist competition. Those, of course, are structured a bit differently—you have kind of a different goal in mind—but with a performance festival there's room to have more of a theme or an emphasis. And that theme this year is “plays well with others.” What’s the angle?

SHAIMAN: That’s right. Well, yes, so it is what we call a “triennial” festival—every third year—and this is the third time we are doing that. And “plays well with others” is a concept that I came up with because it struck me that the pianists we normally deal with who are in our competition are by nature solo artists and live fairly solitary lives. They spend so much time on their own in a practice room, perfecting their craft, working on their artistry. Then, when they're performing very often they're traveling alone, they're in their dressing room, waiting to go on, on their own. It is a very kind of a solitary existence.

And yet, the piano itself as an instrument is one of the most collaborative instruments anyone could imagine. It's hard to imagine a musical setting where there's not a piano or a keyboard of some sort present, and so I thought that was an interesting, you know, dichotomy, and I thought well why don't we concentrate on the collaborative nature of the instrument and give these artists a chance to be onstage with other artists? Either, you know, colleagues or friends or, in some cases, spouses this year, so that's kind of where the concept came in.

FULLER: So some of these performers are actually married couples?

SHAIMAN: Yes. So for our opening night we are leaping into the festival on Leap Year Eve with Ran Dank and Soyeon Kate Lee who are husband and wife. They also have strong ties to the HHIPC—Ran, who's an Israeli pianist, was our 2008 first prize winner, and Soyeon, who is his wife, and they're celebrating 10 years as a married couple this year as well as a performing duo. She has been a judge for us at various competitions and also has performed both solo and with Ran in the past. So it's great to bring both of them back. They're both audience favorites. The program that they came up with is really wonderful. They're starting with Rachmaninoff. Each will play a little bit of solo Rachmaninoff on their own and then they'll finish the first half with one of the beautiful Rachmaninoff suites for two pianos. And then, on the second half, it's going to be a real wham-bang: they're doing Stravinsky's own transcription for two pianos of The Rite of Spring. So it's going to be a really spectacular way to open our festival.

Then I was thinking about how do you follow that up? And, inspired by the fact that we had a married couple of classical artists, why not bring in the reigning power couple of jazz husband-and-wife artists? And we were lucky enough to be able to get Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes to come in and play on our second night. They are both amazing pianists in their own right, but of course they perform together quite often. And actually the two of them can be heard on a Grammy-winning album by Tony Bennett from a number of years ago. Bill Charlap at the time was playing regularly for Tony Bennett—he played with Tony for a few years, and so on this Grammy-winning album of Jerome Kern, from I think it was 2015, Bill is heard on the entire album playing for Tony but there are a few tracks where Bill and Renee are heard together. So they're going to be coming in to do a variety of jazz and Great American Songbook classics for two pianos. And this will be their first time on Hilton Head, so we're thrilled to present their debut on Hilton Head here.

FULLER: Well, in addition to literal married couples, I think the festival as a whole, as you've alluded to, is a marriage of genres with classical and jazz very well represented. You also have some classical chamber offerings with a program titled quintessential quintets?

SHAIMAN: Yes. So, obviously one thing I always encourage, especially the younger competitors who come here as solo pianists, is to encourage them to incorporate chamber music as part of their existence so that they don't lead such solitary lives as musicians, because so many of the artists I know really cherish the opportunity to play chamber music and to be on stage with colleagues and have sort of that musical conversation on stage playing these great masterworks. So, in thinking about who we wanted to come perform for our chamber music evening, the pianist I selected was Angela Cheng, who also has a big history with us. She's been a judge for us numerous times and has also performed numerous times both as a soloist and in duo and trio formations with her husband. She also has a spouse who plays piano, Alvin Chow, and his twin brother Alan Chow. Sometimes the three of them perform as a trio. And they have performed for us in that formation. So I thought Angela would be great to have.

And it so happens that her colleagues on the faculty at Oberlin Conservatory is a fantastic young string quartet called the Verona Quartet, who happened to be former clients of mine in my former career as a manager of young artists. The Verona quartet were clients of mine and I know how fantastic they are. So I thought wouldn't it be great to have Angela and them come to play two what I call quintessential quintets—two of the cornerstones of the piano quintet repertory—the Dvořák and the Schumann piano quintets? I mean, I can't imagine a better program than that and I couldn't imagine better artists to bring those pieces to life.

FULLER: The Schumann quintet truly, I think, is one of my top five, maybe top three, favorite works, period.

SHAIMAN: Yeah, it is one of those works. And I feel that chamber music at least on Hilton Head Island is a little bit underrepresented locally and it's a passion of mine, so I want to try to kind of spread the gospel and increase people's interest in chamber music locally and I thought what better way than to have these pieces that people, even if they don't know chamber music, I'm sure they're going to recognize some of the tunes because these things are heard so often, you know, because they're the greatest pieces of the repertoire? So I think people are going to be really excited to hear this program.

FULLER: The chamber [music] continues the following day, March 3rd, with a jazz-meets-classical, piano-meets-bass program.

SHAIMAN: Yes, this one I'm also very excited about because the pianist that's coming in—it will also be his Hilton Head debut—is a fine, fine artist called Aaron Diehl. And Aaron, who's a Columbus, Ohio native—and I know in Hilton Head there's a lot of people from Central Ohio and Columbus in particular—so I tried to promote the fact that “hey, he's from Columbus!” But he studied at the Juilliard School and early on caught the attention of Wynton Marsalis and actually toured with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Septet for a while—I think he was undergrad still—so he's that talented. An amazing young man and amazing artist, but also having the classical training and a passion for classical music very much informs his artistry, and he often does programs even in a jazz vein that are influenced by classical music. So when I spoke with his manager about hey, you know, is he touring with any special collaborative projects—because that's the theme of the festival—she told me “well, he has this special duo program with this bassist David Wong—who is his regular bass player—where they are inspired by preludes and fugues.”

And there was a fantastic jazz pianist, who, in my opinion is deserving of much wider recognition: Sir Roland Hanna. And he wrote a set of 24 preludes that is the focal point of this particular program. And in addition to that, Aaron and David are adding preludes and fugues by J.S. Bach and also the jazz piano icon Bud Powell. So I think it's going to be a really great program with something for everyone: jazz fans, classical fans, and chamber music fans. So I'm really excited about this one and I know Aaron's excited to come to Hilton Head to share this with us.

FULLER: Orchestra enters the scene for the grand finale on March 4th featuring three…concertos, really. They're not called concertos, maybe not set up the traditional three-movement formats, but you do have a single piano in the spotlight and then a whole ensemble. One of them, of course: George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue. It’s a big centennial year for the piece—did that seem like a must-do for you?

SHAIMAN: Well, yeah. Where I started with that program was this title I came up with called “Rhapsody and Fantasy.” And the idea is taking pieces that allow the composer’s imagination to run wild. And, as you say, they’re not called concerti, but for all intents and purposes that's what they are. But they’re sort of in a different format. And it's about letting both the composer’s imagination run wild and also giving the performer some artistic freedom—not to improvise per se, but to have the, kind of the theme and variations, and the various, you know, different guises that the melody takes throughout each piece. I was caught up with that idea and I thought this would be a cool concept.

So obviously the first one that came to mind was Rhapsody In Blue, partly because of the 100th anniversary, and partly because it's such an iconic work that audiences love. And I'm thrilled that we have Drew Petersen coming to be the soloist on that particular piece. Drew was our 2011 second-prize winner, and that was our very first Young Artist Competition. So at the time I guess he was like, maybe 14, 15 when he won. Of course now he's a mature artist, has a thriving career. He was just actually in Savannah last spring for the Savannah Festival, so he's been here recently but hasn't been on Hilton Head for a little while. So we’re really, really happy to have him come back and be our soloist to kick off that program.

Then, the second piece on that program is one of these little-heard gems by another great pianist composer Ferruccio Busoni—very, very respected in the piano world. Maybe not so universally-known among non-pianists. But everybody in the piano world knows Busoni. And he wrote this fascinating piece called the Indian Fantasy for piano and orchestra. And what's cool about that is that the source material is Native American themes. And where he got those Native American themes is a particularly-interesting story, because back at the time—this was the early 1900s, so I think the piece was written in 1914—there was a female musicologist—which was very rare in those days—who was cataloging Native American themes. She would travel into the heartland of the US and into the plains and go to various tribes and various Indian peoples and write down some of this thematic source material. And she fed much of that to Busoni who then took it and used it for this piece. So it's really cool and we're very happy to be able to share this with people who—most of them, I'm sure—have never heard it before. There's very few recordings of it.

And we’re lucky to have a soloist who actually had already played the piece. She happens to be Wynona Yinuo Wang who was a medalist at our ’22 competition. So just a couple years ago she was here. And she also happens to be another former client of mine from my management days, so I certainly knew what a great artist she was and when I found out that she played this piece I said “Oh, this would be great to have her back to play this piece.” So we're really excited about that. And I know the Maestro John Morris Russell who's conducting the Hilton Head Symphony, of course, is also really, really excited about this piece because this will be his first time performing it as well. And he really got into the whole backstory, so that's a thrill.

And then of course the cherry on the sundae is our finale—the big final piece, which is Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So essentially we're opening the festival with Rachmaninoff with Ran and Kate on the opening—they're playing some Rachmaninoff—and we're ending with Rachmaninoff, partly because he's such a great composer (also another pianist composer extraordinaire). Of course this past year we just celebrated his 150th birthday, so there’s been lots of Rachmaninoff and deservingly so. And so the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is one of the all-time great, the most-beloved, you know, piano masterworks with orchestra. And we're fortunate enough to have with us Orli Shaham, another wonderful, wonderful artist. She was a judge for us back in 2019, I think it was, and we stayed in touch with her. And when we found out she was available it was a no-brainer to have her.

So I couldn't be more excited with this lineup of world-class talent. There's lots of great music.

FULLER: Well, it certainly sounds like a jam-packed, variety-packed festival start to finish, you know, with something from the solo and chamber level all the way to the orchestral. Steve, thanks so much for making the trip up to share about all these exciting offerings and all best to you, to the performers, and to everyone else who's working to bring this wonderful keyboard showcase to Hilton Head.

SHAIMAN: Thank you so much and thanks for your support. We really appreciate it.

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Originally from Greenwood, SC, Bradley Fuller has maintained a deep interest in classical music since the age of six. With piano lessons throughout grade school and involvement in marching and concert bands on the saxophone, Bradley further developed musical abilities as well as an appreciation for the importance of arts education.