A month after the initial rounds of competition, the final round of the Dallas International Piano Competition is set.
Hosted by the Dallas Chamber Symphony, the competition will wrap up on June 24 at the Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District. Three finalists, Alexander Agate, Narae Lee and Jonathan Mamora, will perform a full concerto with the orchestra led by guest conductor Tong Chen. In addition to a panel of judges selecting the winner, the audience will be able to cast a vote for their favorite.
The finalists talk about their early days of performing, playing with an orchestra in a competition, and their ambitions for the future.
NBC DFW: At what age did you begin playing the piano and what made you decide to pursue music as a career?
Alexander Agate: I began relatively late in life, compared, at least, to other professional pianists I’ve met, beginning formal training at age eleven (Horror!). Being home-schooled, I enjoyed plenty of free time that my parents took advantage of by signing me up into various extracurricular activities. I always enjoyed music, but my first appearance with orchestra as a thirteen-year-old solidified my ambitions to become a performing classical pianist. I am one of the lucky few, I think, that found the field in which the “work” part, (practicing, preparing, etc.) never feels like work for me, at all.
Narae Lee: I started playing the piano at the age of six. My mom used to play the piano as her hobby and my brother played it as well. At the time, I always wanted to do whatever my brother was doing. The first time I wanted to do piano as my career was when I was chosen by one of the government music prodigy programs during my second year of middle school. After that I transferred to an arts school, I wanted to pursue music more because I always thought my career could be something that I could enjoy and make me happy, and that part of me hasn’t changed!
Jonathan Mamora: I started going to piano lessons at age 4, as my older brother had begun lessons the year prior. Seeing him play the piano had encouraged me to want to play piano as well, and (as the story I’ve heard goes) before I ever started lessons, I would “practice” his music until I was able to play what he would be playing! So, then my parents also put me in lessons.
NBC DFW: This is the first year the Dallas International Piano Competition has included the orchestra as part of the competition. How does playing with an orchestra change the dynamic of the competition for you?
Agate: It certainly elevates the prestige of the competition, although my current approach to competitions is to attempt to forget that competitive aspect and treat the rounds as a series of performances. In this light, I view the opportunity to play with orchestra as a special treat and I look forward to it.
Lee: It is always a good opportunity for the pianists to get to play with an orchestra, because not a lot of people get to play with an orchestra often. I think people would be more interested in applying if they see that they could have a chance to play with an orchestra. It’s more fun to play with more people sharing music.
Mamora: Getting a chance to play with any orchestra is a real privilege. Most times, we pianists are only able to practice concertos by ourselves or with a second piano playing the orchestral reduction. Having the orchestra playing for the final round of the competition I think only encourages myself and the other finalists to try to elevate all aspects of our performance, from our own musical conceptions of the pieces, to the technical execution, to the collaboration between us and the musicians of the orchestra. I find it a real privilege and honor to be able to play with the orchestra for the finals, and I look forward to it.
NBC DFW: Beyond competing, what are your career goals and ambitions?
Agate: I enjoy teaching very much, particularly private lessons. Of course, the immediate goal remains to find some semblance of financial security, be it through connections for more performances, or a teaching position. But if I had to state a grandiose ultimate goal, it would be to reinvigorate the classical scene into something that both audiences and performers, alike, might find enjoyment in.
Often when listening to modern high-level performances I find the playing either in exercise in execution and athleticism (which I think appeals more to pianists who are aware of the technical difficulties on a more personal level) or pandering to an audience that I think musicians vastly underestimate. I don’t believe that music considered “high-brow” needs to be avoided or played in a way to “help” an audience along. My job as a musician is to channel those emotions and thoughts that we all experience through the lens of the composition.
Lee: I used to enjoy competing in competitions, but as I get older, I feel satisfied with teaching. It makes me happy when I see my students improve, and I also learn from my students all the time!
Mamora: I love to perform, and I hope I get to perform for the rest of my career, in whatever shape or form that comes in. I’ve found that I also really enjoy teaching! It is a lot of hard work and can be quite unglamorous, but it is incredibly fulfilling to be able to pass on whatever I know and contribute into making the next generation of musicians even better.
NBC DFW: Over the last year, more orchestras have returned to performing for live audiences following pandemic shutdowns. What role do you think music and live performances play in recovering from the pandemic, emotionally and spiritually?
Agate: I believe that at the end of the day all of our pursuits aim to create a better experience for our time on this earth, and music and the arts are the cherry on top for a society that has built itself up and flourishes. As music and the arts return in their live formats, I like to take that as a sign that we are returning to form, but I don’t like to over-inflate the importance of my craft like, for example, a Hollywood actor.
Lee: The pandemic was something that I did not expect to happen. Consequently, not being able to play in public or communicate with the audiences was quite a bummer. During the pandemic, I was appreciating more than before having music in-person. A lot of musicians and music halls had their concert series virtually. I think that made more people accessing music easier, finding music more interesting since a lot of people stayed home, working from home especially those who could not go to the concert halls to listen to music. Despite all the conveniences, music is meant to be shared with other people, and the audiences are the most important part of playing. Live music reunites us as a community.
Mamora: During the pandemic, I performed a recital as part of the requirements for my degree for a live audience that consisted of two people, my piano teacher and another piano faculty member. No one else was allowed in the hall, and everyone else watched online. I considered myself lucky that I even was able to perform a recital during that time. A year later, I played another recital, and this one was open to a live audience. I realized just how important that was for everyone involved in that particular moment, whether it was for the performer or the listener.
As performers, having a live audience listening to what we have to share creates an energy and dynamic that we feed off of. But also as listeners, attending a performance in person can be such a fulfilling experience. While every person may go for a different reason (whether they may go for spiritual fulfillment, emotional fulfillment, etc.), we go to enjoy a collaborative experience where not only do the performers feed off of the energy the audience emanates, but the audience in turn feeds off the energy and music the performers share. It’s a dialogue between everyone, using a language we call music. To me, this is critical in the understanding of our humanity, and why live performances play a huge role in us striving for this understanding.
NBC DFW: You had some time to spend in Dallas during the preliminary competition. Is there anything you are looking forward to when you return later this month?
Agate: Last time I didn’t spend too much time outside of my hotel/competition site. I have actually booked my return ticket to CA a few days after the competition wraps up, so I am looking forward to exploring the city a bit. If someone reads this and has recommendations, please let me know!
Lee: I love exploring, trying food everywhere I go. I was shocked to see Dallas had In-n-Out Burgers, so my friends and I went there twice last time! I definitely would like to go there again. And want to try some Texas BBQ as well!
Mamora: I greatly enjoyed my time in Dallas during the first two rounds of the competition. Anytime I visit anywhere, I always am most excited to try the food, and when I was in Dallas last month, the food did not disappoint! I’m particularly excited for some good barbecue.
Learn more: DCSymphony.org