The Stecher and Horowitz Foundation

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The Competition Where Everyone Is a Winner: The New York International Piano Competition

From Fanfare Magazine, written by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
September/October 2014 Issue

Everyone is a winner. They leave the competition either as a prize-winner or a finalist. Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz, founders and executive directors of the New York International Piano Competition, are speaking enthusiastically about one of the policies which distinguishes their contest from so many others. The famous piano duo members, who have enjoyed a long partnership on stage and in educational ventures, were gearing up for the seventh NYIPC, to be held June 22-27, 2014, when Fanfare had an opportunity to speak to them about their foundation and their work with young pianists.

In June 22 young pianists, ages 16 to 21 from the Unites States, United Kingdom, China, Taiwan, Finland, South Korea, and the Republic of Georgia, who have been selected as finalists will grace the stage of the Manhattan School of Music and participate in several rounds of competition which include solo playing, four-hand duets, concerto movements, and a commissioned contemporary work. They compete before a rigorously selected international jury for not only a share of the $50,000 in prize money, but, even more importantly, for the coveted performance opportunities accorded the winners. Among these are a recital at Washington D.C.’s Phillips Collection and several concerts on the New York Subculture Series, which begins in September 2014.

The NYIPC grew out of Stecher and Horowitz’s first teaching venture, The Stecher and Horowitz School of Music, which the pianists founded in Cedarhurst, Long Island in 1960, and which mentored more than 15,000 pianists before closing its doors in 1999. The NYIPC was founded in 2000, allowing Stecher and Horowitz to continue their commitment to and special style of nurturing young talent. Their program includes seminars, master classes, performance experience, advice, and coaching from the famous duo themselves, who pride themselves on the follow-up they do with all their students, by monitoring their artistic development and taking a lasting interest in their careers. Through partnerships the duo has built over the years of their performing careers, Stecher and Horowitz are able to arrange performances for their former contestants over a period of years, and they pride themselves on attending these recitals and discussing the performances with the young musicians afterwards.

The incredible energy and delight these octogenarians evidence in their work serves as an inspiration and model to the young musicians, as does the example of their long and renowned partnership. Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz began their professional careers as a duo in 1951, while they were still in their teens, and they performed together internationally for five decades, while always finding time for teaching and educational ventures. Their involvement in their foundation, the NYIPC, and the Subculture Series gives these projects special vibrancy.

Taking time from the hectic preparation for the June competition, Stecher and Horowitz outlined the highpoints of their venture:

CMV-S: This is the seventh competition. How has it grown and/or evolved in that period and ??, changes or “new twists” will he implemented this June?

MS/NH: The 2002 Competition was quite different. The age category was 14-18 and not international. We always had 22 contestants performing; however the applicants were fewer and all from within the continental USA.

CMV-S:  How has the accepting of foreign applicants influenced or changed the ambiance of the competition?

MS/NH: With the entry of foreign applicants, the age category changed as well. It became a competition for ages 16-21, broadening the overall opportunity for those past high school age. Although we had foreign students studying in the USA previously, applicants are now applying directly from the countries in which they reside, and still continue to apply as foreign students studying here in the USA.

CMV-S:  One of the most unusual features is that there is no elimination in the four rounds of performing at the competition.  Can you articulate a bit more the philosophy that caused you to make that decision and give some concrete examples of how this has been a successful tool?

MS/NH: We were the first in the history of competitions to intrduce the concept of no elimination. It is extremely disconcerting for anyone to be eliminated after a first round. Many times, the contestant shines and blossoms in the second, third or concerto round, as well as the one-piano four hands round. There is a considerable edge that is removed, giving the contestant an opportunity to recover and move on with confidence. Recently, mention was made at the Artur Rubinstein Competition in Israel during a panel discussion how wonderful it would be to have a competition without elimination. It was pointed out by Mr. Gustave Alink from Holland that such a competition does exist in New York; The New York International Piano Competition. That was carried on YouTube for thousands to hear. (Totally unsolicited.)

CMV-S:  Another interesting aspect is the ensemble/four-hand playing round.  No doubt, this idea has grown from your own partnership.  Can you explain how and why you feel it an important skill for a pianist?

MS/NH: Collaborative “music making” is one of the great joys within the profession. Not everyone envisioning a career as a soloist will have success, however there is always a need for instrumentalists to perform in ensembles, orchestras and as accompanists in so many diverse areas. We encourage the broadening aspect of collaborative performances and former contestants are experiencing considerable success.

CMV-S:  The competition offers its prizewinners not only monetary rewards, but also performance networking opportunities.  Can you elaborate on some of those performance possibilities in the past and for this year, as well as how you are able to arrange them?

MS/NH: Once again, we are the forerunners in this category. We spend each year contacting specific venues hoping to create a partnership with the organization or educational institution involved. Also, churches, synagogues and private clubs enter into that category. We provide approximately 3-4 concerts a year for each venue. Hopefully, we enlist a response for some financial remuneration; however that never deters or discourages us. No matter the outcome, each young artist receives an honorarium; and when necessary, travel and hotel accommodations. It takes a great deal of effort, considerable time, patience and devotion. Our passion for our lifelong endeavor has never waned.

CMV-S:  How do you select the jury for each competition? What is the philosophy behind the jury’s composition?

MS/NH: You seem to be hitting on the high points extremely well. We are most unique and forthright when it comes to jury selection. Unlike most competitions, we do not select any juror who might have a student involved with the competition. Years ago, our jury chair entered a contestant and we had to make the choice of either the contestant or the juror. Upon further discussion, the juror withdrew and the student entered. You can find many competitions where members of the jury have several contestants accepted to the competition where the juror is seated. We feel it is extremely unethical and will not endorse that concept.

CMV-S:  The competition then leads to the Sub Culture concerts.  How did the concert series first come about?

MS/NH: We, together with our wonderful Board of Directors, decided to present a First Prize Winner in concert at a New York venue. We thought unusual programming and/or commissioning a specific composition would be part of the theme. Having stumbled upon the subject of SubCulture at a family wedding (the founders were in attendance,) we were invited to come down to visit the site to see if it could work for our needs. Newly created, we loved it from the beginning. It had cachet, youth appeal, great sound, lighting and ambiance; what more did we need? We immediately booked three nights and came up with a theme that could possibly be attractive to bloggers, the press and a young audience.

CMV-S:  This year’s Sub Culture concerts feature 2 world premieres and 2 New York premieres.  Why do you think it is important for these young artists to play new works?

MS/NH: It is extremely important for new repertoire to be introduced within a standard concert program. Critics are not intrigued with coming to a concert where only the standard repertoire is performed. They themselves frown upon attending a concert where there is nothing new to report, or comment upon. We also feel it is the responsibility of the younger generation to assume their rightful place by introducing music of their generation to audiences of any age. Our experience is extremely positive. Having commissioned works for each of the past four competitions, we have had great success when the contestant has performed the work in public. Young people appear to have an identity with music that would have been out of the loop fifty years ago. Difficult rhythmic patterns, dissonant harmonies and technical requirements never thought possible are simply a matter of fact for most. It is amazing, astonishing and so refreshing to witness the growth of today’s musical resources, no matter the area of achievement.

CMV-S:  In your career you were able to concertize extensively throughout the country because of CAMI’s community concert series.  What was the importance of those regional performances in your own career? Can you address how the loss of those opportunities has seriously impacted musical life in America?  And how you are endeavoring to mitigate that situation?

MS/NH: Having just completed the writing of a book describing just what you requested the first comment we must make is each of us was determined from a very young age to succeed. We did not concern ourselves with hours, time required to accomplish our goals, and even financial rewards. We worked harder than anyone we knew within our age category. We knocked on doors, traveled up to the “borsht belt” sold ourselves to hotel booking offices and finally to management. Our first five years were spent in nightclubs, saloons, five-star hotels and restaurants. Nothing phased our ambition and we plowed ahead. In 1955, we were able to procure a concert management and from there on, for more than forty years, we toured the United States, Canada, Central and South America, Europe, Israel, Japan and Australia.

CMV-S:  Education has always been important to you.  What is it you have enjoyed most about teaching in Cedarhurst and how has that translated to your mentoring young artists through the New York Piano Competition?

MS/NH: We founded The Stecher and Horowitz School of Music in 1960, having remained as directors until 1999. We then transitioned to New York City, and after considerable planning and investigating, chose to establish The New York Piano Competition. The school was always a labor of love, dedication and devotion. From the beginning, we were always conscious of quality, repertoire, development of the individual student and the overall results. We opened with approximately 40 students in 1960, and closed the doors with a student body of 500 and a faculty of 25 in 1999. It was time to move all our concepts to a broader audience and today, as an international piano competition we are accomplishing our mission. When we left Cedarhurst, we had nurtured a student body numbering more than 15,000.

CMV-S:  Over the years as performers and teachers, how would you assess the caliber of young performers who come to you?  Are there any trends to be seen in their prior preparation, education, maturity, etc.?

MS/NH: Young people of today cannot compare with those of the past. The internet undoubtedly is greatly responsible, making today’s youth more aware, more demanding, and more productive. The private nurturing teacher is a blessing to have experienced and one that has been greatly appreciated within the realm of The New York International Piano Competition. This is generally apparent in contestants prior to college entry. Several of our first-prize winners were completely the products of the private studio or teacher.

CMV-S:  What lessons do you hope the competition finalists take away from the experience, no matter where they place?

MS/NH: In our eyes everyone is a winner. Placing anywhere within the competition indicates an acceptance into a world-recognized event that indicates a superior accomplishment even before final judging. Through our programs of mentoring, constant guiding, selecting repertoire, arranging concerts, encouraging the creation of adequate biographies, professional photos and advice, either personal or educational; after one becomes a contestant, we never let go. We are a family and growing constantly.

CMV-S:  What are the greatest challenges facing young artists today and have these changed since you began your career in the 1950s?

MS/NH: The lack of venues is paramount. When we began there were about 3,500 coast to coast. Today, there might be 350. These were generally affiliated with Civic Music and Community Concerts. There are independent presenters out there however they are always looking for a “name.” Years ago, one became an entity by appearing on every series available. Today, they are nonexistent. One must indeed have a superior education in music and academically. Joining the faculty at a college or university requires a minimum of a Masters degree. Most institutions require a Doctorate. Then, the artist can replenish his desire to perform as a member of the faculty, on campus or elsewhere.

CMV-S:  You’ve enjoyed several distinguished careers as performers, teachers, music publishing consultants, and now with your Foundation. What do you envision as the most important elements of your own musical legacy?

MS/NH: Never losing the love of the subject matter; that has intrigued and colored our lives since we were children. This driving force has entered into every phase of endeavor and has never deviated. We are striving to leave behind a Foundation whose credo supports integrity, honesty, quality, refinement, consideration and high standards. The subject is primarily music: music performance; music repertoire; music interpretation and communication. Guiding young people is a great responsibility. We become the musical parents, and now for some the grandparents. We have not deviated in our output and we have continuously involved ourselves in each and every contestant accepted since 2002. At the helm of our Board of Directors is William S. Hearst, Chairman of the Board. He is about to celebrate a fifty year affiliation with Stecher and Horowitz, having started at the school as a young piano student.

A powerful legacy, indeed – one which not only reaps the rewards of Melvin Stecher and Norman Horowitz’s artistry and wisdom, but one which also strives to secure a contiuum of a brilliant pianistic tradition.