Chinese pianist Jiale Li has won the inaugural Gurwitz International Piano Competition. Li, originally from Hulu Island near Huludao on China’s northeastern coast, emerged from the weeklong competition with the gold medal and the top prize of $25,000.
Three finalists competed Saturday night for a full house at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, accompanied by the San Antonio Symphony. Following the three-hour competition, the panel of five jurors voted in secret, while Mayor Ron Nirenberg co-hosted the awards ceremony alongside Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the City’s Department of Arts and Culture, handed each of the 12 contestants a Mayor’s “Emissary of the Muses” certificate and announced, “This has been a wonderful experience having the Gurwitz in San Antonio, bringing the world stage to our own home.”
After the rousing final bars of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which Li had selected to perform for his final round, he received a standing ovation and two dozen roses, which he promptly and sheepishly handed to conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing and an orchestra violinist.
Holding his trophy, designed by Gini Garcia of Garcia Art Glass, Li said he allowed the emotionality of the piece to flow through him, in what was his first performance of the concerto with a full symphony orchestra. Li swayed with emotion during delicate passages.
“I moved myself,” he said. “I was so so elevated from this piece. That never happened before. … When I hear the strings, I felt really improved, and inspired.”
Winning second place with a silver medal and $15,000 was Yedam Kim of South Korea, who performed Beethoven’s grand “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5.
Italian Leonardo Colafelice took the bronze award and $10,000 with a stirring rendition of Piano Concerto No. 3 by Prokofiev. Colafelice also won the audience favorite award of $5,000 for his Friday evening performance with members of the Silk Road Ensemble, who performed a specially commissioned piece, Murmurs from the Exile, by San Antonio composer Ethan Wickman.
All three celebrated their awards by performing for guests at a ticketed brunch Sunday in the lobby of the St. Anthony Hotel. Li reprised his second-round performance of Evocation by Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz.
Anya Grokhovski, founder of Musical Bridges Around the World, which produces the Gurwitz, said the choice of including Latin composers in the competition was a deliberate reflection of San Antonio’s cultural heritage. Another feature of the Gurwitz was an improvisational passage in the Wickman composition, unusual for classical pianists.
“I haven’t seen this in any other place,” said Yaron Kohlberg, one of five jurors presiding over the competition. “That was a very interesting and interesting choice. I thought that brought another side of the contestants that we were not able to see otherwise. So that was indeed a very good idea.”
Kohlberg praised the 12 contestants who arrived in San Antonio at the start of the week as “of the highest international caliber.” He said the three finalists stood out for their versatility and “fantastic control of the piano, great understanding of style … all of them communicated with the orchestra pretty well.”
Of gold medalist Li, Kohlberg said, “I thought he played wonderfully all week. He showed incredible control of the piano and beautiful phrasing. He had a wonderful way of like shaping bigger pieces.”
Juror Carolyn True, a San Antonian who performs regularly as a member of the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, said in judging, they seek a “pianistic voice,” which is “what makes them them as compared with all the other candidates in the world.”
The Gurwitz, as the quadrennial competition is known, evolved from the San Antonio International Piano Competition founded in 1983. A major driving force behind that longstanding event was Ruth Jean Gurwitz, a San Antonio musician and arts advocate. When local nonprofit MBAW agreed to take over the competition in 2017, it was renamed in her honor.
Contestant Colafelice traveled to San Antonio with his coach, Pasquale Iannone. An experienced competitor, Iannone praised the Gurwitz for being well-organized, which he described as a hallmark of American piano competitions, making them desirable for European pianists.
Reflecting on the week, Grokhovski said, “Can you believe that there’s just six of us at Musical Bridges, and we pulled it off? There’s some things we’ve learned this time that we’ll do better next time, but it’s pretty good for the start.”
The Gurwitz, which takes place every four years, is compared to the Olympics, another quadrennial international competition, in no small measure due to the skill level of the competitors and the athleticism and focus required to perform through an intense week of competition.
Coincidentally, Friday was Li’s 28th birthday. He was initially encouraged to enter the Gurwitz by girlfriend and traveling companion Wan Ting Zhao, also a competitive pianist, who gave Li a long hug after he received his trophy.
In attendance was Jonathan Gurwitz, son of Ruth Jean, who said the first competition named for his mother honored her memory. “Everything about this – she loved the Rachmaninoff concerto, and I heard her play it many times – was a beautiful tribute to my mother.”