September 16, 2020

Piano Competition Goes Virtual And Participation Goes Global

AND THE WINNERS ARE: Finalists and top players at The Princeton Festival’s 2019 Piano Competition displayed their trophies in person, but this year’s winners will vie virtually for the honors.

By Anne Levin

For the past 13 years, The Princeton Festival has been holding a piano competition for young musicians ages 6 to 24. More than 100 entrants have been known to take part in the popular event, coming to Princeton from the tri-state area to play works by major composers in front of discerning judges.

The pandemic has changed all that. The event is virtual this year. Judges accustomed to observing the young musicians up close — sitting with them in small piano studios at Westminster Choir College — are instead making their decisions after watching and listening to them online.

A video concert by the finalists will be available on the Princeton Festival website ( on Wednesday, September 23 at 6 p.m., with the winners to be announced at the end. Tickets are $10 and streaming will be available until September 27 at 10 p.m.

Festival supporters weren’t sure, at first, how the change would be received. But they needn’t have worried. The 2020 competition has developed a global reach, drawing contestants from as far away as Serbia, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Austria, Taiwan, and China. The number of participants has more than doubled.

“After consulting with experts to see if this was really viable, we got a clear yes,” said Tom Lento, vice chairman of the Princeton Festival board. “Other competitions had actually been doing this for a while, but for professional pianists. The experts thought this would work very well for a youth piano competition. So we spread the word internationally through piano teacher magazines and social media, and waited for the results. We were very surprised at the interest, but I suppose we shouldn’t have been. This is a global pandemic and young people are looking for outlets, and they don’t have them.”

Judges have been reviewing entries to name three finalists in six age categories ranging from elementary (6-9) to open class (25 and under). They will also pick the winners. Contestants were required to play works by major composers such as Bach, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff, which finalists and winners will play in the video.

“We thought very carefully
about how they should enter and what they should be doing,” said Lento. “Normally, we’d have preliminaries and finals, and they would have to come here a couple of times. That obviously wasn’t going to work virtually. So we arranged for them to send videos, and the adjudicators were very comfortable with this. That was a surprise, too, because it’s such a different way of judging. The criteria has had to change. They’re not hearing on the same piano or acoustical environment. They have to listen in a different way.”

During the two-hour video presentation, three pianists in each of the six competition categories will perform before the winners are announced. Ticket holders will receive an email with a link 24 hours before the start of the stream.

Gregory Geehern, the Festival’s associate conductor and assistant to the artistic director, will emcee the event. “These young artists topped a field of over 200 pianists from around the world,” he said. “All of the entrants are talented musicians, so viewers will see truly amazing performances from the best of the best.”