Piano competition in La Jolla hits the right notes with amateur players
La Jolla resident and longtime piano player John Gutheil may be considered an amateur, but he came close to making his love of music a career. He started playing at age 8 and entered college as a performance major with a music scholarship. But after a couple of years, he decided to go to medical school instead of going pro on the piano.
After a long hiatus, he returned to the piano about 10 years ago with the AmateurPianists group in San Diego. And next weekend he’ll compete during the AmateurPianists 2022 San Diego International Piano Competition & Festival for Outstanding Amateurs at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. The free event June 24-26 will bring piano players from all walks of life. Those who don’t enter the competition can perform in the non-competitive festival.
“AmateurPianists puts on recitals every month, and anyone can sign up and perform for an audience,” Gutheil said. “I joined the group and did a lot of those recitals.”
Gutheil proceeded to the competition circuit, traveling around the country performing. In 2016, he played in the amateur division of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Gutheil said he appreciates the opportunity to perform for an audience and the “spirit of competition” and camaraderie among amateur piano players.
“It’s a very different experience to play for an audience,” he said. “It’s more stressful, so if I can do it and do it well, it feels like I’ve accomplished something. It also helps with your playing of the piece. You need to go through the stress of performing it and making it enjoyable for the audience. It’s an extension of practice. … I like the fact that one has to work hard to get a piece up to performance status. Once you have it up there, I get a lot of satisfaction. It’s like building something.”
AmateurPianists board Chairwoman Lulu Hsu said the upcoming competition, which is held once every three years, is a demonstration of the performers’ passion for piano.
“The word ‘amateur’ sometimes feels inappropriate,” she said. “These people focus on piano playing to an extent that I am so impressed with. They perfect their pieces, which can take hundreds of hours to do, and then they have the courage to enter a competition.”
She noted that every participant “has a day job” — there’s an actuary, a dental assistant, a chemist, an office manager, a former airline employee, a software manager, a math teacher and more.
“Competitors came from four countries in addition to the United States,” Hsu said. “From the U.S. we have people from 11 states. ... And the age range is from the mid-20s to the mid-80s.”
Five applicants are from San Diego, she said.
Some of the pieces the performers choose are “very difficult,” and Hsu said she wonders “how they found the time to get it to that level. They are very professional and play incredibly.”
Gutheil, the chief executive of a company that runs cancer drug studies, agrees.
“The level of piano playing, not just talking about myself, is really bordering on professional,” he said. “The pianists that end up placing could have had professional careers. It just so happens that they decided to do other careers.”
“I like the fact that one has to work hard to get a piece up to performance status. Once you have it up there, I get a lot of satisfaction. It’s like building something.”
— John Gutheil
For performers, the competition is “an excellent opportunity to get better” at piano playing, Hsu said. “If you are really into a sport, you might enter a tournament to get better. Here, you hear what people do and get insights into how to create a program. And even if you don’t make it past the first round, you still get to perform at The Conrad.”
For the audience, the competition affords an opportunity to listen to piano music for free, Hsu said. “Equity is important to me, so we did away with pay tickets. I want everyone to come in and listen for a bit or stay for the whole thing. We want everyone to have a memorable experience.”
AmateurPianists 2022 San Diego International Piano Competition & Festival for Outstanding Amateurs
When: Friday, June 24, through Sunday, June 26
Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
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