Classical Music World Watches Westport

From August 11 to 13, the eyes of the piano world will be on Westport.

Will we notice?

After a 2-year COVID absence, the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition returns. The winner — one of the top young pianists on the planet — will earn $10,000. The other 3 finalists receive $2,500 each.

The 4 finalists (clockwise from upper left): Nathan Cheung, Katherine Benson, Artem Kuznetsov, Aaron Kurz.

The musicians will compete at MoCA, on the Hamburg Steinway “D” piano that once graced the Carnegie Hall stage. Sandwiched around the performances and awards ceremony are master classes at the Westport Library, plus a lecture on Nathaniel Dett — the pioneering yet long-forgotten Black composer whose work will be featured in the competition.

The international event has a strong local flavor, too. Staples High School 1983 (and Yale University and King’s College Cambridge) graduate Alexander Platt serves as artistic director. Longtime resident, internationally renowned pianist (and 1986 Hermanns winner) Frederic Chiu chairs the jury.

This is Big Time. So how come you haven’t heard of it?

You should have. The Heida Hermanns Competition is 50 years old. It alternates every other year, between pianists and vocalists. Both events draw enormous attention, in the classical music world.

The venue and sponsors have changed. It bounced for years between the Westport Arts Center’s various homes, and Town Hall. Now, MoCA has taken the reins. Hopefully, they can give it the press it deserves.

The public needs to learn a bit about its namesake, too.

Born in Germany in 1906, Heida Hermanns studied with some of Europe’s top musicians. She debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic at 18, then toured Euroope.

She married Artur Holde, a noted music critic and author. In 1936, with Nazi power on the rise, they emigrated to the US.

Hermanns made her debut at New York’s Town Hall in 1942. She gave annual recitals by composers outside the mainstream repertory, and performed often with John Corigliano. (The New York Philharmonic concertmaster lived in Westport. He’s buried in Assumption Cemetery.)

Heida Hermanns and John Corigliano (father of today’s composer).

A few years later, Hermanns and her husband moved here. The couple liked the town’s “eclectic, liberal, creative, artistic” reputation, Platt says. They quickly became involved in its cultural life.

She recorded frequently with Ruth Steinkraus Cohen (the musician and UN activist, for whom the Post Road bridge is named).

Hermanns and Holde formed Friends of Music and Performers of Connecticut (now called the Connecticut Alliance for Music). She also supported the Levitt Pavilion. When the Westport Arts Center was built in the 1980s, she underwrote the Artur Holde Concer tHall.

Hermanns died in 1995. But her support of young musicians lives on.

Musicians like Chiu and Platt are paying it forward. One way is by carrying on Hermanns’ legacy of highlighting overlooked musicians.

Nathaniel Dett

Artistic director Platt first learned of composer, organist, pianist, choral director and music professor Nathaniel Dett while in college. Platt is thrilled to program Dett’s music. Each finalist will include some of his work, as part of their recital.

“This will be the greatest Heida Hermanns Piano Competition ever.”

MoCA executive director Ruth Mannes, her staff and board are fully behind the event. The 3 American and 1 Russian competitors have a packed schedule — and should draw packed houses.

They should certainly enjoy conducting master classes at the Library, and playing at MoCA. As for the piano itself: there’s nothing better than that Steinway.

“It’s exactly what Heida would have played on in Vienna,” Platt says. “It will be like she’s back here with us.”

(Click here for tickets and more information on the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition.)

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Alexander Platt conducts the Minnesota Philharmonic.

One response to “Classical Music World Watches Westport

  1. Fascinating backstory. Would love to attend but, unfortunately due to Covid and my underlying health conditions, this is one more event we will have to miss until the pandemic is over.

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