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SEPF turns Columbia into a capital city of piano talent

Pianist Marina Lomazov, a festival founder and guest artist in 2024, shares musical insights with one of the SEPF's teenage participants.
Pianist Marina Lomazov, a festival founder and guest artist in 2024, shares musical insights with one of the SEPF's teenage participants.

With its 22nd season underway, the Southeastern Piano Festival is once again drawing a range of acclaimed performers and up-and-coming teenage competitors to the University of South Carolina for a week of concerts, master classes, and other events.

In this Sonatas & Soundscapes interview that aired Monday, June 10th, SC Public Radio's Bradley Fuller speaks with Phillip Bush, Artistic Director of the Southeastern Piano Festival, about the artists, students, and events of the 2024 festival.


FULLER: Philip, great to have you again.

BUSH: Thanks, great to be here.

FULLER: Another Southeastern Piano Festival or SEPF is underway, and this is your second one as Artistic Director?

BUSH: That's correct—my second time as Artistic Director but the 22nd season of the festival overall.

FULLER: So still going strong and, you know, the two of us may be biased—maybe it's not fair we don't have another instrumental representative in here—but the piano truly is such a versatile, wide-ranging instrument—quite literally spanning over seven octaves. And it seems to me that the Southeastern Piano Festival really does try to present this instrument in all of its breadth, to really showcase its multifaceted character.

BUSH: I think that it does. I mean, it's all falling under the category of “classical” piano but even that is such a wide-ranging category. And I think that the programming, certainly that we've tried to do the last couple of years, including this year, spans a lot of time from the early Baroque music all the way to present music that was just written in this last year. So we really try to cover a huge span of time and a variety and styles of playing, and I think that's something that we're proud of.

Pianist Phillip Bush, Artistic Director of the Southeastern Piano Festival.
Pianist Phillip Bush, Artistic Director of the Southeastern Piano Festival.

FULLER: Yeah, well I was perusing through some of the programs for these guest artists and I've seen some of the usual suspects among composers—ones that, of course, people love hearing: Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann. But also one from very recent times, as you mentioned, a composer born just in the 1980s or the late 80s: Meadow Bridgham and a piece about the life cycle of a cicada?

BUSH: Yes, that was kind of a happy coincidence really. That’s being played on Tuesday night by Lisa Moore, who is known in many ways for being a new music pianist (she was the original pianist in the Bang on a Can Ensemble based out of New York City), but she's also wonderful and very adept at creating these hybrid programs that combine newer works with older works. And she's doing that on the Tuesday night concert, too. There's Janáček and Scriabin as well as some much newer works.

I confess I'm not familiar with Meadow’s work myself, but when Lisa submitted this program, I saw this thing about the cicadas and it was about right at that moment when they were emerging from their seventeen-year hibernation. So I thought, “Well, that's really apropos for our neck of the woods.”

FULLER: Quite literally [laughter]. If you did go to a more rural area you could just hear the drone, the constant pitch, and I’ve forgotten—I think it’s an E-flat, maybe it’s a B-flat? I can’t remember, but they were kind of coalescing around a certain pitch there. A wonderful thing to hear.

Could you give a little overview of all these guest artists? I know the programs are so diverse and wide-ranging, it might be a lot to get into all the details, but just kind of a snapshot of the guest artists coming?

BUSH: Yeah, absolutely. I think each night is really very different in its own way.

Monday night—continuing a tradition that actually my predecessor in this job Marina Lomazov started which was to present an artist, somebody who had actually been a young participant at the festival, a young student, and then who has gone on to fame and acclaim—that's Rachel Breen playing on the Monday night concert. She was actually at the festival as a teenage student about 11 years ago but she has since moved to Germany and completed studies at Juilliard and so forth and has won top prizes in many, many competitions including the Beethoven Competition in Vienna, the Esther Honens Competition in Calgary, and a whole host of others. So she's playing a really interesting program on Monday night that features a lot of short pieces in the first half, and then the second half is the epic, monumental, Bach Goldberg Variations, which is, of course, one of the landmarks of the keyboard literature. So that's going to be really exciting.

FULLER: I'm amazed at someone playing something with the Goldberg Variations. What a feat!

BUSH: I know. She does the Goldbergs—those variations have repeats. She does it in a without-repeat versions so it's a little bit more condensed. But yeah, it's going to be a very interesting and varied program

And Tuesday night we have Lisa Moore who I mentioned before who I've known personally for many years in the new music scene in New York City going back 20-30 years. Pieces have been written for her by many of the most renowned composers of the late 20th century, early 21st century, and she's doing some of those kind of pieces by Philip Glass, Frederick Rzewski, and some other things like that. But she's also melding that with pieces in the first half by Leoš Janáček (the Czech composer) and Alexander Scriabin—one of his late sonatas, one of those mystical, kind of amorphous, floating, highly- perfumed-harmonies kind of pieces. So that's Tuesday night.

Wednesday night is the return of our much-beloved founders of this festival, Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, who were longtime faculty members at University of South Carolina until they left a couple years ago to teach at the Eastman School of Music. But Marina and Joe are coming back on Wednesday night to do a duo concert. They do a lot of two-piano programs and this is going to be a really spectacular concert. Most of the concerts are in the USC School of Music Recital Hall, but the Wednesday night duo concert with Marina and Joe is going to be in the Johnson Hall at the Darla Moore School of Business which is just a couple of buildings over, next door to the Koger Center. And their program includes everything from the great Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, to a piece actually by Fang Man, one of our faculty composers, and also the four-hand version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which, that's really going to be something; they’ve made something of a specialty of playing that piece. So they have a big following here so we're really thrilled to have them back

And then on Thursday night the last guest artist coming in is Inon Barnatan, a fantastic pianist who is equally adept at solo playing and chamber playing. In fact he will have just come here from a stint just down the road at Spoleto being one of the house pianists for the chamber music series at the Dock Street Theatre. And Inon, he's somebody that I've had on my list to try to get here for a long time, so we’re delighted that he's able to come. And his program is also going to be really spectacular, capped off by his own transcription (that he premiered in New York City this past season) of Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances, which is an orchestral work, but Inon made his own solo piano version and that's gotten a lot of acclaim wherever he's played it. So that's going to be really exciting, and the rest of his program also looks pretty spectacular as well.

FULLER: Well you mentioned these performances being as much for the participants—the student participants you have—as for the general public and community here in Columbia. Although it's called the Southeastern Piano Festival, 20 teenage participants come from all over the United States. In fact, I think with the exception of one from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina and another from Virginia, all the rest are from other regions. And there seems to be some serious California representation!

BUSH: Yeah, the last few years have been more and more from California. We've got some from Washington state, New England, a lot from Texas—I haven't looked in detail at the geographic distribution, but I know it’s quite widespread.

And these 20 that we invite—that's the culmination of an audition process where they send a tape, a video, actually, and we have a panel that peruses that. And I think they were maybe about four times that many applicants—80 something—and all of whom, I mean, they were incredible, the level of playing. So, very hard to make a choice. Even these 20 that are here, they're already, as I always tell them when they first get here, they're really winners already regardless of what happens in this competition that we have at the end of the week on Friday. But they really have been given a great privilege to already get to this point.

And they range in age from 14 to 18 (not yet in college) and the level is just staggering. And then, there are a couple of opportunities for people, for the public to hear them perform, and it's just jaw-dropping what these young people are capable of. And the dedication, too, that they display and that is in evidence is quite awe-inspiring

FULLER: Could you give a snapshot of a week in the life of one of these participants leading up to the Arthur Fraser competition?

BUSH: Well it's a lot of practice. They want to practice all the time, you know, that anytime we have events like master classes and things, that's great. But they seem to want to maximize their practice time.

FULLER: There not slipping out to Columbia's Five Points district?

BUSH: [laughter] They’re not...no, no, not these kids. Yeah, but they come, they stay in a dorm during the week—a University of South Carolina dorm—and they walk over to the School of Music and we have some practice time. They attend every day, Monday through Thursday, they have a group lesson, two-and-a-half hours. Each of the four piano faculty (my piano faculty colleagues)—Scott Price, Omar Roy, and Nicholas Susi, and myself—each of us have a group of five of the kids that we work with all week for a two-and-a-half hour group lesson. So we can share what they're working on with each other and we can convey some basic ideas and things like that.

There's a couple of chances for them to perform. We have a lunchtime concert on Wednesday at this beautiful space in downtown Columbia—1208 Washington Street. It’s a restored former bank that's now a kind of a ballroom, sometimes rented out for weddings and so forth, right across diagonally from the Sheraton downtown. 12 noon on Wednesday, this coming Wednesday, where the kids will play a lunchtime concert. People can come and go, bring their lunch or get it from any of the nearby establishments, and just hear a few of the kids or stay for the whole thing if they want.

Some of the kids will play in master classes. Lisa Moore is doing a master class with three of the young pianists who were doing late 20th or early 21st century works. Marina Lomazov is doing one on Saturday, and we have other guest artists, too. So they participate in the master classes. and

And then attend all the evening concerts of course. And then they rehearse—we have a wonderful pianist, Ināra Zandmane who works at UNC Greensboro, who comes and accompanies all the kids in the concerto's that they play for the competition. So they rehearse with Ināra during the week also a couple times.

And then this all culminates in Friday—the all-day event, the Arthur Fraser Piano Competition which starts at 10:00 in the morning and goes till about 9:00 p.m. with a couple of two-hour meal breaks there in the middle. All 20 kids play for about 20 minutes each, and then the jury--the esteemed jury which is led by Inon Barnatan, but also Joseph Rackers and some of the other guest artists serve on the jury—they listen to this entire day of piano playing and then at the end there are prizes, significant cash prizes as well as the winner having an opportunity to solo with the South Carolina Philharmonic. And Maestro Morihiko Nakahara is also on the competition jury. That's been a tradition that's been going for a long time, that the SC Phil has, then, a winner of the Fraser competition as a guest artist. Not the immediately-following season (because they've already planned that) but the season after that. So there’s always been a Fraser Competition winner playing on their season each year for quite a long time now.

FULLER: What would you hope that one of these young participants, whether they win the competition or not, what would you hope they leave the festival with?

BUSH: Yeah, that's a great question. I think one thing would be certainly to have their minds expanded as to the range of not just repertoire but also the styles of playing. Because as you and I both know, there are so many great performers that you can hear many different great interpretations of a Beethoven Sonata, that can be quite different in approach but equally valid in their own way. And I think having these kids have a chance to hear live piano artistry at the highest level is a really wonderful opportunity for them. I also hope that the University of South Carolina piano faculty can share some ideas about their playing with them—some tips, some things that they might want to think about going forward.

They also do share a great camaraderie. I think it's really great for the kids to be together. They become very close by the end of the week, because these are unusual kids who spend a lot of time alone in the practice room, and it's not the typical sort of American teenage life. And sometimes it can seem very lonely, and I think for them to meet 19 other kids who are kind of doing the same thing they are, I think it's quite affirming to them—reaffirming to them—and they bond quite strongly over the course of the week. Even though they're “competitors,” there's not that sense among them. They're very congenial with each other.

And the other thing is just also for them to experience a little bit about what the University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina School of Music is all about. We try to convey a lot through the activities of the festival and faculty—just to convey a lot of information about what our school’s all about, our philosophy. And that's something we're going to continue to expand going forward and in future years of the festival, so they can really get a sense of what our School of Music is all about, our point of view, and what we believe about the role of music in society.

And then also to have them just enjoy seeing Columbia, South Carolina and getting the support from the public here, which has been great over the years. The people, the audiences really take to these kids’ performances and give them vigorous ovations when they perform. So I hope they come away with a nice memory of Columbia as well.

FULLER: Philip all best to these 20 participants, the guest artists, you, and everyone else working to put the festival on. Sounds like a really exciting time for the SEPF 2024!

BUSH: Thanks. Bradley, thanks for having me. It was great to be here and be able to talk about the festival.

More information about the Southeastern Piano Festival can be found on the festival's website.

The Southeastern Piano Festival is a supporter of South Carolina Public Radio.

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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.