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PianoFest has a winning lineup

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 3, 2009 - The Artist Presentation Society is ready to kick off PianoFest 2009-10, a series of solo recitals by three young Midwest pianists who were winners of the 2009 APS auditions held in April.

The recitals, Nov. 8, March 7 and April 25, will feature Zsolt Bognar, Graciella Kowalczyk and Andrew Sheffield, respectively.

"This is the first time in many years that a piano series has been presented in St. Louis," said Persis Mehta, president of APS . "While St. Louis has plenty of symphony music and opera, solo recitals of high caliber are now few and far between."

The last time APS held an all-piano series was 1985, although there were seasons in 2000, 1995 and 1990 in which the only winner was a pianist.

APS encourages and promotes exceptional musicians, age 35 or younger, who live or study within a 250-mile radius of St. Louis by giving them each a $1,000 cash award and a public performance.

Zsolt Bognar

The season opens Nov. 8 with Zsolt Bognar, an Urbana, Ill., native who has won a number of competitions and has performed at such places as Lincoln and Kennedy centers and Tokyo's Suntory Hall. Bognar's "piano classics" program will feature works by Liszt, Beethoven and Schubert.

"This award is a great confirmation of the fact that even in difficult times, people still believe in music and support it. Around the world, arts budgets are seeing deep cuts, and the opportunity and support from this award is very important," said Bognar, who studies with Sergei Babayan in Cleveland.

"Musicians live to perform and share their music with appreciative audiences, and I have already been amazed by the kind people I have met who listened to the auditions," he said. "In classical music, one door leads to the next, and we as performers certainly remember the people who helped us along the journey."

Bognar earned bachelor's and master's degrees in performance in 2005 and 2007 from Cleveland Institute of Music. He frequently performs chamber music with members of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Quartet. He received the 2007 Arthur Loesser Prize for preparing and performing 13 full-length recitals in a single semester. Among Bognar's other awards are first prizes in the 2000 Harvard Musical Association Competition, the Boston Musician's Prize, the 2004 Allegro Vivo Competition in Austria and the 2006 Illinois Concerto Competition. He has performed in Hungary, Austria, Belgium, Japan, Russia and the Netherlands.

Graciella Kowalczyk

On March 7, French-born, Polish-raised Graciella Kowalczyk will present "Romantic Masterpieces," including piano works by Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Chopin and a Franck piano and violin sonata featuring violinist Lukasz Lagun.

"It feels great to be acknowledged for something I am so passionate about," Kowalczyk said. "It is an honor and great motivation to work toward the next idea, next inspiration, next performance. I'm also excited about the possibilities and doors this may open for me in the future of my musical career."

Kowalczyk is completing a doctorate in piano performance at the University of Kansas, where she studies with Jack Winerock. She earned a bachelor's degree in piano performance from the F. Chopin School of Music in Warsaw in 1997 and a master's degree from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow in 2000. She also has received artist diplomas in piano from Park University in Parkville, Mo., and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.

She won first prizes in the Philharmonia of Greater Kansas City Concerto Competition and the Jefferson City Symphony Concerto Competition and grand prize in the Naftzger International Young Artist Competition in Wichita, all in 2007. She also was the first prize winner in three competitions in Italy, Germany and Poland.

Kowalczyk has performed widely in Europe, Russia and Colombia as well as points closer to home such as Fort Worth and Kansas City. She has received a number of scholarships including the Lili Kraus Scholarship of Fort Worth and International Music Fraternity of Kansas City.

Andrew Sheffield

Kansas Citian Andrew Sheffield will wrap up the series on April 25 with a focus on "Piano Masters": Chopin, Beethoven and Schumann, with the out-of-the-box addition of three rags by the living American composer William Bolcom.

"This is the first award of its kind in my non-academic career, so it's a huge honor for me," said Sheffield, who received his master's degree in performance in May from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he still studies with Robert Weirich. "It's such a confidence booster to have my playing recognized by someone outside of my immediate circle of friends and teachers, and I'm always grateful and excited to have the opportunity to share my music with others."

Sheffield earned a bachelor's degree in 2007 from University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he studied solo piano with Frank Weinstock and collaborative piano with Donna Loewy.

He currently teaches piano and serves as music director of Faith Community Church in Kansas City. In addition to his solo recitals, Sheffield enjoys performing in ensembles such as ClarinetFest and the Kansas City Cello Clinic.

All concerts will be held at 3 p.m. on Sundays at the Ethical Society Auditorium, 9001 Clayton Road. Call 314-569-1828 or visit www.apsmusic.org for tickets.

Eileen P. Duggan is a freelance writer.