By Catherine Reese Newton | The Salt Lake Tribune
Many youngsters go through a phase of binge-watching “Thomas the Tank Engine” or “Sponge Bob Square Pants.” For Conlan Miller, it was a Kurt Bestor Christmas video.
“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I watched it every day after school,” Miller recalled. He had abandoned piano lessons a year or two earlier after six months of study, but Bestor’s playing in the hourlong video inspired him to give the instrument another go. Now 24, Miller is the only Utahn selected to compete in the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, which opens this week in Salt Lake City.
“I only hope that he didn’t emulate my horrendous fingering,” said a flattered Bestor.
Soon after he resumed piano lessons in his hometown of Delta, young Conlan’s teacher recommended more advanced study. His mother, LuAnn Miller, contacted one of Utah’s most respected piano teachers, Irene Peery-Fox of the Brigham Young University faculty. Peery-Fox didn’t want to take on the 10-year-old student; 5 is considered an optimal age to begin lessons.
“She finally talked me into listening to him,” Peery-Fox said. “Immediately, even though he was just 10, I could sense that he had a natural facility and incredible talent. His fingers flew over the keys, and he was composing little pieces. He had a wonderful ear and a sense of harmony and rhythm.”
So, every week, Miller and his parents made the 200-mile round trip between Delta and Provo for lessons.
Kevin Miller, who confessed that he found his son’s audition with Peery-Fox “more terrifying than the Bachauer audition,” said the routine might not have been manageable if the family had had younger children at home. (Conlan is the youngest of four.) But seeing his parents’ commitment made the boy more determined to excel. Within a year, he was playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Utah Valley Symphony. He won a spot on the Utah Symphony’s Salute to Youth concert soon after that, leading then-associate conductor Scott O’Neil to invite him to play young Beethoven in a concert dramatization of the composer’s life. “I wasn’t the best actor, but it was fun,” Miller said.
Miller recently graduated from BYU, taking a two-year break to serve a mission in Houston for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Practice was limited to a half-hour to an hour, one day a week. “But it came back really quickly when I got home,” he said. “I was surprised.”
He will begin graduate studies at Yale University in the fall. Miller said he chose Yale over some prestigious conservatories to which he also earned admission because he likes the campus environment and because of the opportunity to study with Boris Berman, head of Yale’s piano department.
Miller’s résumé includes a first-place finish at the 2013 Music Teachers National Association competition, but the Bachauer is his first international competition. He will be facing pianists from 14 countries, chosen from 203 applicants representing 31 countries.
The field was chosen after live auditions in six cities: Barletta, Italy; Hamburg, Germany; Moscow; New York City; Hong Kong; and Salt Lake City. Douglas Humpherys, artistic director of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, heard every 20-minute audition in person. Juries in each city voted “yes” or “no” on each contestant; about 70 pianists made it through. After watching the videotaped auditions of those 70 contestants, the jury invited 39 to Salt Lake City. Two have since withdrawn.
All 37 contestants will perform two short recitals — one 30 minutes, the other 40 — before the nine jurors narrow the field to 12 semifinalists, who each will play an hourlong recital. All repertoire is of the contestants’ choosing.
After the semifinal round, three contestants will advance to the finals, in which each of them will perform a complete concerto with the Utah Symphony in Abravanel Hall. For practical reasons, they must choose from a list of 30 or 40 concertos in this round.
Humpherys said it’s traditional for competitions to prescribe a menu of pieces from which contestants must choose, but the Bachauer’s preliminary rounds have been free-repertoire since 2002, and many major competitions now are following suit.
“Every program is very well-balanced in representing historical styles,” Humpherys said, noting that it’s to contestants’ advantage to demonstrate their versatility. “The thing that’s really good about this rule is that all the individual artists play to their greatest strengths.”
Humpherys can empathize with the contestants. He was the gold medalist in the inaugural Bachauer competition. He has been back several times since, including 14 times as a juror (10 of those as foreman). Now the head of piano studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., he is the second artistic director in Bachauer history; founder Paul Pollei died last year.
The Bachauer foundation runs on a four-year cycle. There is a competition in even-numbered years (this year’s, for artists ages 19 to 32, is considered the main event; the summer of 2016 will bring competitions for juniors, ages 11-14, and young artists, ages 15-18). There are four-day piano festivals featuring recitals and other events in odd-numbered years.
“This is the first big competition without [Pollei] and the first one to be fully planned without his input,” said Bachauer board chairman Kary Billings, who added that Humpherys’ long association with Pollei and the organization makes him an ideal fit.