The Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra has performed Robert Schumann's "Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54" many times. In fact, Gary Sanders, Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra board member and pianist, said he remembers seeing such a performance as early as the mid '70s.
However, 23-year-old pianist Eunhyang Koh will not only perform Schumann's concerto for the first time personally, but will also perform with an orchestra for the first time in the United States. As the 2019 Piano Competition winner, Koh will present this piano concerto alongside the Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra during the group's final concert of the 2018-19 season, "A Tribute Concert to Robert and Charlene Mitchell," at 7 p.m. March 19 at Mitchell Auditorium on Lincoln University's campus.
Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra has held the piano competition for many decades, Sanders said.
"As a young teenager in the early 1970s, I used to go every year and listen to the competitors," he added. "As a self-taught pianist, I was absolutely enthralled with what I was hearing. It forged my desire to pursue my piano performance degree."
Sanders, who now serves as the orchestra's Piano Competition chairman, said he and two judges not affiliated with the Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra assist with adjudicating the competition, which was Nov. 17 at Mitchell Auditorium. Each qualified judge is an established pianist/instructor — one who teaches concerto repertoire to their students, he added.
The pieces they judge are piano concertos or a work for piano and orchestra that must come from an established piano repertoire spanning the Baroque through Modern eras of music, Sanders said.
"No arrangements are allowed outside of the standard two-piano reductions," he added. "Each Missouri college, university or private teacher in Missouri may submit candidates for the competition. Also eligible are residents of Missouri studying out-of-state. Unlike most piano competitions, there are no age restrictions whatsoever."
During the contest, Sanders and his two fellow judges listened to pieces from three students — one from Kansas City and two from Springfield, one being Koh.
"Each pianist must be accompanied by a second pianist playing the orchestral reduction. The simple criteria for winning this contest is whomever performs a concerto most stylistically and technically representative of the composer's musical purpose and intention is chosen as the winner," Sanders said, noting they give a score of "1" for first, "2" for second etc. and whomever has the lowest score wins the competition. "The concerto performance that won for this year is Schumann's 'Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54.'"
Koh has been studying music at Missouri State University in Springfield for two and a half years, however, piano has been a big part of her life since she was a toddler growing up in her native South Korea. Her father plays piano and organ, her brother plays violin and her mother played piano and violin.
"My mom teaches piano at her academy and I started playing piano at the age of three from one of the students in my mom's academy. I was hanging out with my mom's students a lot in my childhood, so maybe the experiences influenced how I started piano," Koh said. "I just love music but also piano. Piano is the way that I can concentrate on myself. I more enjoy practicing rather than performing because I love the process that I am sensitively concentrated on my physical movement, the sound around me and fingering movements. Also, I can make a sound like percussion on the piano or I can mimic a string's sound on piano. Piano has very huge range compared to other instruments, which I like, too."
When Koh considered studying aboard, she thought about continuing her degrees in Germany, but she decided to come to Missouri State University and continue her piano education under Dr. Hye-Jung Hong. Practicing Robert Schumann's "Piano Concert in A Minor, op. 54" for the last six months alongside a piano accompanist, it was exciting for Koh to win this competition and get the chance to perform the concerto as it was truly intended with a full symphony orchestra.
In preparation for Koh's first rehearsal with her host ensemble March 4, the Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra also utilized Sanders' talents to serve as "pre-pianist" in learning Schumann's piano concerto.
"It's very helpful to the orchestra members to have an idea of what the piano parts sound like in advance of the dress rehearsal," Sanders added.
The mix of sounds together is what attracts Koh both to performing full piano concertos and particularly Schumann's classic Romantic era piece she will perform in mid-March with Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra.
"I love piano solos, but the orchestra is quite different. We have to make harmony with the other instruments and that is going to be very challenging but exciting. I will be contributing to them and they are contributing to me, too," she said. "This Schumann piece is very emotional. After I play the 30 minutes of the concerto, I am tired emotionally, but that is also an attractive part of the piece. It's the emotion."
In addition to her performance, Koh is also awarded a $500 honorarium for her competition win. However, the thrill of the upcoming concert is what most excites her.
"In Missouri, I think there are not many concerto competitions allowing us to play whole concertos. I think this competition is a very good opportunity that pianists can play a whole movement with orchestra," she said. "The people here were all nice and friendly. This is my first attempt to play Schumann Piano Concerto with orchestra and I am very happy that I can play this concerto with Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra."
This is the main reason why Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra continues its piano competition each year.
"An opportunity to perform as soloist with an orchestra is one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences a pianist can have," Sanders said. "It teaches musical collaboration with an entire orchestra while celebrating and showcasing their individual talent."
The upcoming concert will also pay tribute to Charlene and Robert Mitchell, both pianists and Lincoln University faculty. Robert was also the department chairman at Lincoln University for more than 25 years. Known as the organ symphony, Camille Saint-Sans' "Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, op. 78" and the Lincoln University alma mater song will also join the concert program.
Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for students, and are available at Will West Music, Capital Music or at the door. For more information, visit jcsymphony.org.