Backstage at the George Gershwin International Music Competition

Whether one considers music competitions a necessary evil of the trade or a stimulating opportunity for disseminating excellence and for young artists to shine and transform their careers, there are plenty of good vibes to be found at the George Gershwin International Competition in New York. Photo: George Gershwin

Inaugurated in 2013, the event is still securing its place among existing high-ranking competitions that grant management and performance opportunities, and monetary awards. Now in its fourth installment, its high artistic level and international flair imbue it with the promise to measure up effectively.
With a discerning desire to be supportive to its participants and to judge fairly, the competition’s goal is to make everyone into a participating winner, rather than to score through elimination. Thanks to the artistic and entrepreneurial crusading of its founder and director Michael Bulychev-Okser, the potential for international exposure is granted on  quite a large scale to the competition’s participants.

A pianist and educator of note, Bulychev-Okser himself frequented the competition circle as a young pianist, earning some accolades in Europe, the US, and Mexico, and later became a juror for many of these international hotspots of talent development. Combining technical brilliance, sensibility, and an interest in exploring new musical paths as a musician and producer, musical passion underpins Bulychev-Okser’s innovative leadership, as well as connections to a worldwide network of artists and educators.

In addition to the Gershwin competition in New York, and cross-pollinating its international reach, he created the Alion Baltic International Music Festival, a “mission impossible,” as he recalls its fast-moving initiation in 2014. Held annually in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland, the festival quickly became the largest classical music event in the Baltic Region with a mission to give young musicians—now hailing from 33 countries—the opportunity to perform and obtain artistic experience while learning from legendary masters, including: Anastasia Kozlova, Dimitri Bashkirov, Pierre Amoyal, Olga Kern, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Albert Markov, Olga Makarina, Philippe Raskin, Leonel Morales, and Mikhail Voskresensky.
Integrating an international forum with the new competition in New York became a decisive element of its growing success, which reflects Bulychev-Okser’s foresight in creating opportunities for the competition’s participating artists. A bit of a lucky strike played into the branding his New York competition; much to his surprise, previously, there was nothing to be found honoring the great legacy of George Gershwin.

Bulychev-Okser wanted to leave his own footprint on the New York music scene, and he had always felt a strong personal affection for Gershwin’s genius that connected Broadway’s musical theater to classical elements and stylistic nuances of pop and jazz. “My uncle had been a pianist for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and brought home a recording of Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue with orchestra. He also brought the score; I was smitten right away and Gershwin and his music became the great love of my youth,” he says.
Honoring this heritage, the G. Gershwin International Music Competition now takes place in Manhattan with an outreach arm in Brooklyn, where Gershwin, the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, was born in 1898.

“I consider Gershwin a true All-American contribution to musical traditions, so intertwined with all sorts of styles and inter-connecting different worlds. I came across Todd Gershwin, his great-grandson, in New York, and with some mediation by our great supporter, singer Harvey Granat, a longtime friend of the Gershwin family, Todd Gershwin endorsed the competition’s mission and granted us permission to honor its namesake,” he explains.
The 2019 installment of the Gershwin Competition focused entirely on its strong pool of pianist applicants, and featured masterclasses, lectures, and performances. Attracted by opportunities in New York, its candidates hailed from the Republic of Georgia, Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Bolivia, Norway, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Belgium, Armenia, and 25 States within the US, performing in semi-final and final rounds, separated by age groups.

Talent Show Category (Ages 8 to 12)

13-17 years old, followed by the Artists Category (Ages 18 to 37).
The diverse cultural impact was reflected in the jury, which included next to its chairman, Bulychev-Okser, other esteemed pianists, educators, and/or music influencers: Olga Kern (United States), Anastasia Kozlova (The Netherlands), Krystian Tkaczewski (Poland/United States), Marilyn Nonken (United States), Yin Cui (China), Nikita Fitenko (Russia/United States), Ilona Oltuski-Critic Award (Germany/United States/Israel), and for the preliminary round, the competitions previous 1st prize winners Ivan Gusev (Kazakhstan/Russia) and Yinfei Wang (China). Moving welcome speeches, masterclasses by Olga Kern and Bulychev-Okser, and presentations surrounding Gershwin’s art and life, including a lecture by David Dubal, broke up the performance rounds.

Photo: Competition’s Jury


“Gershwin was a nonconformist; a true artist,” says Bulychev-Okser. “I am thrilled to honor his artistic legacy. He was a genius, and his music has such an uplifting, life affirming element. In fact, many performers say there is a particularly joyful feeling when you play Gershwin. On stage it helps you ease into a difficult recital or competition round; it helps you feel more welcomed by your audience,” he says. While the competition features mainly classical repertoire, there is a special prize to encourage performing an original or transcribed Gershwin piece.
Having Marilyn Nonken, Director of Piano Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School and champion of new music, on the jury may be an indication of the competition’s open mindedness towards new music. The special prize for the best rendering of a contemporary piece was given to the young pianist Bailey-Michelle Collins, for her performance of a jazzy transcription of Schumann’s Träumerei. Previously, she won the Lynn Concerto Competition with her “lyrical and spacious” performances of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Santa Fe Symphony.

Photo: Bailey-Michelle Collins.

And Gershwin—while not mandatory—was often heard, this time around. Winning the special prize for a Gershwin piece/ transcription performance, and tying in the competition’s second prize win and the GetClassical Critic’s award together with Chelsea Guo (the first prize was not given this year), the talented and thoughtful pianist/composer Aaron Petit from Oregon, performed his own striking transcription of Gershwin’s I got Rhythm.

Photo: Aaron Petit.
From Portland, Oregon, Petit is currently in his junior year of the Bachelor degree at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, studying with Santiago Rodriguez. As a winner of several competitions, including the Seattle Philharmonic Don Bushell Concerto Competition and the Metro Arts Van Buren Concerto Competition, he has performed with orchestras  throughout the North West, since making his concerto debut aged 15. “I did not expect to get into the Gershwin International Competition, as I had taken off from competitions for about 2 years and had just started hesitantly entering again; yet I thrive with a goal to chase after,” he says. “I knew I was ready, but I also knew the talent pool to be gigantic and when I found out that I was accepted, I only had three weeks to prepare. Since I had performed all of the repertoire though, I thought I would try and give it my all.”

Being in New York City he describes as inspirational, and as it was only his third time there, it influenced his whole experience at the competition, he describes as professional and engaging. After hearing he made it into the finals, he says ” I let my hair down,” playing with the kind of freedom and personal dedication that won the jury’s admiration. He expressed his appreciation for the great feedback and encouragement he received from some of the jury members, valuable for advancing his playing. He also acknowledged the valuble opportunity  of a house concert and private party, getting to know the other contestants and realizing it is very much about who you know in the music world. He also spent a good hour before playing the final round in meditation and prayer. “I believe God created music as a gift to humanity, so as I prayed I wanted to feel his presence, and it made me think that what ever would happen was meant to happen… sharing top honors and the critic prize, and receiving the Gershwin award has been a great stepping stone for me.”

Co-winner Chesea Guo, who double majors in voice and piano in her first year at Juilliard, is also a young scholar of the Lang Lang Foundation and an alumna of the Juilliard Pre-College Division with an already impressive list of career shaping accomplishments. She shares: “I don’t often apply for competitions, as I am not the biggest fan of simplifying music, which is so personal and abstract, into a straight-forward judging of who does it ‘better’ or ‘best.’”

“Every artist has something different to say, and they should all be respected. However, I cannot deny the benefits of competing; it’s always a great learning experience,” she says. “Competitors have the chance to perform, hear each other, potentially earn career advancements, and most importantly, gain feedback and insight from a panel of respected professionals, as was the case in the Gershwin Competition! It was such a wonderful honor to share the stage with unique pianists of all ages and to play for a panel comprised of highly esteemed artists. I particularly loved that I had the chance to express myself through free-choice repertoire in two rounds that were like mini-recital programs. I was also provided the opportunity to have a wonderful masterclass with Olga Kern, which is an experience coveted by many pianists.” The renowned pianist, a previous Van Cliburn competition winner, also has her own competition in New York. Guo continues: “Although I was not entering the competition with the expectation of winning any prizes, I am very grateful for the second-place award and Critics’ Award.”

Photo: Olga Kern honors the prize winners

Guo says, “Unfortunately, I did not actually perform any Gershwin music at the competition, though I really wanted to. I have always loved the heart-tugging, soul-moving music he wrote ever since watching the Broadway musical An American in Paris on tour several years ago. Hearing others play Gershwin certainly inspired me to seek out more of his works, and perhaps play more of it myself.”

Says Bulychev-Okser: “I would love to see more transcriptions of Gershwin’s strings and brass concert music, to promote his work further among pianists. It’s not all that renowned and there is so much creativity.” Separated from the piano category, its competition cycle for voice, strings, brass, and woodwind instruments will follow in 2020. “I regularly perform almost all of his works and many transcriptions. It’s trending now, as music promoters like to pair classical programs with something more contemporary or jazzy; it’s often a welcomed added element. I love exploring different musical elements,” he says and explains about a cycle of his that transforms Chinese songs into jazz. “My duo partner Anastasia Kozlova [and I] recently recorded our own arrangements for violin and piano,” he adds.

Photo: Anastasia Kozlova and Bulychev-Okser perform the beautiful Cesar Franck Sonata for violin and piano

Jury member Anastasia Kozlova from the Netherlands, where she is the director of Musicfield Academy and Festival Groeneveld, was the only non-pianist judging the competition. She is an expressive violinist, entrepreneurial powerhouse, and educator in her own right. The two musicians met at the Alion festival where they performed together for the first time, finding a deep musical and personal connection, which resulted in their current collaboration as a duo. Together, they plan yet another initiative, bringing classical music to wider audiences and creating opportunities for young musicians, honing their skills and bringing the business of music into the performing field; Music Field Academy, will become a natural outgrowth of their combined strategic strength, and starting in 2020, will offer young musicians master classes and education on marketing tools, which have both become indispensable aspects of a career in the classical music world.
About the Gershwin competition, Kozlova says: “Perhaps most importantly this is a really fair competition; there are no students of any jury members competing [and] there is no invested interest beyond the search for excellence.” The charismatic performer’s welcome speech to the contestants strikes a chord with me, putting the goals and values of competitions in general into perspective. The highlights of Koslova’s address follow:
“As a performing musician I did my share of competitions. I have a friend (and a winner of some of the biggest competitions himself)…and his unusual hobby is counting mistakes of pianists in recital. According to his findings, on average, a professional pianist makes between 150-1500 ‘mistakes’ by touching wrong notes accidentally. Also, a Grammy-awarded recording producer shared with me that to make a recording of 45-50 minutes, a well-trained soloist needs about 10-15 hours of recorded music and about 500 edited takes, to master it. So how much can we rely on our idols on a recording? what is perfection? and how important is it?
“Of course, we all practice very hard and intend not to make any mistakes at all. But [let’s put perfectionism in its place]; how we can possibly achieve that ‘perfect’ live performance, which is such a unique happening, ‘a hold in the moment.’ Rather, it’s important to recognize why we are here. We love music making and we want to be discovered so we can bring this amazing gift to people around the world. And more importantly than focusing on some wrong notes, it is our job to show our musicality and musical personality, and like actors, tell a story to our listeners… and about nerves, we often feel: ‘I will do my important professional presentation tomorrow, I will be better prepared, I will look better, thinner, have a better dress…’ but the truth is, tomorrow is today!
“It can always be better someday, but that is not the point. The hero is not who wins, but the one who stands up, and despite everything, dares to try. It is very difficult to enter the arena—believe me I know—but everyone who does is already a winner.”

And then of course, there is always the chance to catch up over dinner.