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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Piano Cleveland and its Virtu(al)oso Efforts

Insights from Piano Cleveland President Yaron Kohlberg

Illustration by Masha Potemkin

The piano matters in Cleveland. With its winners’ concerts anchored to its historic Severance Hall—Cleveland’s edifice headquarters of the region’s eminent orchestra—the Cleveland International Piano Competition (CIPC) and surrounding programs help focus on the single keyboard instrument’s capacity to, in the right hands, emanate its own symphonic soundscape.

Since 1974, the competition has built its name and those of some of its awarded virtuosos, establishing Cleveland as an international piano destination—a designation reinforced by the illustrious faculty members of its local conservatory, The Cleveland Institute of Music, who have coached artists as renowned as Daniil Trifonov.

To better reflect its broadening concertizing and educational outreach efforts, the organization just recently changed its name from one shared with the actual competition to the more overarching yet direct and inclusive title: Piano Cleveland.

One of the driving forces behind Piano Cleveland’s 2020 branding, which acknowledges its evolution into a fully-fledged non-profit arts organization, is Israeli-born pianist Yaron Kohlberg, who was named its president in 2018. “The competition will always remain our signature event, but the name Piano Cleveland more fully encapsulates everything we do,” remarks Kohlberg. The we consists of a new team that includes 2019 Musical America Top 30 “Professional of the Year” honoree Crystal Carlson, Director of Operations at Piano Cleveland, and the organization’s new Executive Director, Marissa Glynias Moore, who started as its Development Officer and has been instrumental in Piano Cleveland’s recent pivot to online programming.

Things change fast in Cleveland. A previous silver medal winner of the 2007 CIPC, Kohlberg remembers his momentous trip in 2018: “It was certainly a memorable visit for me that had a huge influence on my life; I arrived to be on the jury of the CIPC and also presented a small private performance and before I left, there were preliminary talks about becoming [the] president,” he recalls.

In close collaboration with Piano Cleveland’s Artistic Director Paul Schenly, who is Professor and Artist in Residence at The Cleveland Institute of Music, Kohlberg sets the general artistic vision of the organization. His assignments include overseeing the quadrennial competition, choosing its jury, and conducting presentations as part of the organization’s development of donor relationships.

There is no question this is a role made for the artist, who, born in Jerusalem in 1983, has established a name for himself as one of Israel’s top pianists. Mentored by some of Israel’s most respected professionals, including the eminent Arie Vardi, Kohlberg graduated from Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann-Mehta School, described as “the pianist with golden hands.” Perhaps an even more congruous element between his positions as president and pianist is that his convincing pianistic talent seems to be an extension of his comprehensive communication skills. This capacity to connect with a large audience as easily as in a personal dialogue distinguishes Kohlberg in performance, and with fluency in six languages, including Mandarin Chinese, he is truly an effective communicator in a variety of areas.

Kohlberg has also proven his ability to reach new audiences through interactive performances, his own transcriptions, and collaborations with other musicians in diverse settings. While living in China, he launched the company KY Music, one of his most entrepreneurial successes, with the mission “to build musical connections between China and the West.” The experience he brings to Cleveland allows him to further engage the local community while heightening the competition’s audiences’ commitment and participation. “We put a lot of emphasis on elements like the “jury roundtable,” were jurors speak about their experience in the competition and answer audience questions,” he says.

This summer, pitched to offer economic relief during times of cancelled performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in an effort to make up for the fate of CIPC’s 2020 installment, which had to be moved to 2021, Piano Cleveland introduced its first online Virtu(al)oso global competition.

Like CIPC, Virtu(al)oso presents young musicians of high artistic caliber from around the world. Pre-recorded at different Steinway & Sons locations in Cleveland, New York, London, Hamburg, and Beijing, 30 chosen contestants from 18 countries submitted recorded performances without having to travel to the United States. In the able hands of Mark Dumm, a violinist with The Cleveland Orchestra, and longtime technical partner of CIPC’s video production team, the first round of performances was streamed from July 30th - August 4th with the final round of six performance broadcasts taking place on August 7th and 8th.

Martin James Bartlett, a young British pianist, took first prize, commenting:

“Performance is a driving force for artists. Not having any opportunities to play for an audience kind of makes you feel like the bottom has fallen out beneath you. This competition has given me much-needed inspiration and motivation.”

While Virtu(al)oso’s big brother’s coveted Mixon First Prize of $75.000, a Carnegie Hall debut, a recording contract on the Steinway & Sons label, and professional management, as well as its performance opportunity with The Cleveland Orchestra, remains only in the hands of actual CIPC winners, the online competition did a little to support its participating artists, who all received $1000 with three receiving $2500 medal prizes. Virtu(al)oso certainly did plenty to enhance Cleveland’s leadership in U.S.-based virtual presence, among various global piano presentations, and provided a much-needed artistic outlet for the artists involved.



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