A top-notch piano festival doesn’t have to be exclusionary.
That’s the belief of the team behind the Lancaster International Piano Festival, an annual event that unites some of the world’s best pianists with up-and-coming musicians. The nine-day festival hosts numerous performances that are open to the public, too.
“We opened the door to everyone who loves classical,” says Xun Pan, who serves as the festival’s co-artistic director alongside Ivo Kaltchev.
There are no skill or age barriers to those who register, which makes for a diverse group of students. This year’s 85 students range from elementary school students to doctorate students, and they come from nine different countries. It’s the festival’s largest class to date.
The eighth annual Lancaster International Piano Festival kicks off Friday, July 19, and runs through Saturday, July 27.
“We just felt we wanted to have a really first-rate piano festival,” says Robert Falk, chairman of the festival’s board of trustees. “I think that is still our mission … it’s to bring world-class musicians to the festival to teach the students, but also educate the people of Lancaster.”
The festival offers a limited amount of scholarships, but most students pay tuition. That, plus donors, ticket sales and partners like Millersville University and Jacobs Music help make the event happen, Pan and Falk say.
Students participate in seminars and lessons during the day at the Winter Center for most of the festival. After dinner, students attend concerts by guest performers that are also open to the public. Eric Fung, a professor at Lebanon Valley College, will give a brief lecture before each performance to enhance the experience. He’ll provide context about the piece audiences are about to hear, and provide a few suggestions for elements to listen for during the performance.
Each guest performer will give a master class for students the following morning.
Oxana Yablonskaya will perform the opening concert at this year’s festival. Yablonskaya has been playing music internationally and winning competitions since the 1960s. As a Russian native, she was denied permission by the Soviet Union to perform outside of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
After more than two years, she obtained a visa, thanks to a petition organized by Americans celebrities like Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Katherine Hepburn, Elie Weisel. She taught at the Juilliard School before retiring and moving to Israel in 2015. Her upcoming performance will be her first in Lancaster, Pan says.
“It’s lucky that we got her,” Pan says.
Other guest performers include pianists Pavel Nersessian, Jeremy Young and Aysylu Salyakhova.
There’s also a chamber music concert featuring cellists Emilio and Cara Elise Colon, pianists Christopher Shih and Kinwai Shum, and violist Agnes Maurer.
Pan and Falk say the festival added chamber music about four years ago. He believes playing with other musicians is a valuable skill for young musicians learning to train their ear.
“It’s so important because as a pianist, we are always lonely,” Pan says. “We practice alone. We get on stage, we’re still alone … I’ve learned a lot from chamber music myself.”
There’s also a competition, with preliminaries during the day on Saturday, July 20, and the final round, with a show open to the public, on July 23 at the Trust Performing Arts Center in downtown Lancaster.
The competition, guest performers and master classes are staples of many established piano festivals. What Pan and Falk believe sets the Lancaster International Piano Festival apart are special additional offerings, like yoga designed to target issues specific to pianists, like tense shoulders from hunching over the keys.
Most days begin with a session of solfege, a technique created by Hungarian musician Kodaly utilizing singing and movement to train an instrumentalist’s ear and aid in rhythm. There’s also a cultural seminar, in which students from around the globe can share and compare experiences in musical training and more.
Students will also take an all-day trip to Philadelphia to tour the Kimmel Center and Curtis Institute of Music.
And the music doesn’t stop once the festival is over. For the first time, the Lancaster International Piano Festival will host events outside of its summer session to maintain its footprint year-round. It will host three concerts at the Trust Performing Arts Center: the Pennsylvania Piano Quartet on Oct. 25; Matthew Graybil and Rhiannon Banerdt on Jan. 17; and Kyra Xuerong Zhao on April 24.
As with the festival, Pan hopes to provide entertainment opportunities Lancaster County music lovers might not find elsewhere.
“I’m trying to create something unique for the area,” Pan says.