By Cecelia Porter


A Yugoslavia-born public relations specialist, Jelena Vladikovic took first place in the fifth annual Washington International Piano Arts Council Competition at the French Embassy Sunday.  She was the first woman to come in at the top since this contest was founded in 2001. (In fact, four of the five semi-finalists were women.) Monika Mockovcakova, a diplomat’s wife from Slovakia came in a close second. A Russian housewife, Gala Gurinovich won the third slot. The other winners were Robert Finley, a telecom engineer and native of England, who placed fourth, followed by Jee Ean Kim, a Korean graduate student at the University of Illinois in fifth place. The five winners were selected from twenty-eight contestants competing in the preliminary rounds. Their performances made for an impressive evening of music, in which Jerome Barry, director of the area’s Embassy Series, acted as master of ceremonies.

Unlike typical “professional” music competitions--where the ante can be high in both financial awards and future performance opportunities—an infectious strain of congeniality reigns above combativeness in WIPAC’s events. Yet these “amateur” pianists have taken music seriously since childhood, studying music intensely even through the conservatory level, but choosing their ultimate profession outside the musical world.

For Sunday’s finale, Vladikovic played a brief suite from “Platform” by Vojislav Vuckovic and Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, Op. 57, No. 23, showing a strong sense of command, control and focus. She uncovered the Andante’s breathtaking profundity, giving focus to Beethoven’s interrelated themes, which evolve irrevocably out of the harmony. Mockovcakova’s sensitive approach was evident in both Fryderyk Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7, and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Ten Pieces from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Op. 75.  She probed delicately into Chopin’s thematic interrelationships, sharply defining Prokofiev’s sometimes playful or tender and sometimes wildly ferocious romps, recalling characters and emotions from Shakepeare’s drama with fervid, penetrating insight.

Gurinovich chose etudes and preludes by Alexander Scriabin and Franz Liszt’s arrangements of Chopin’s “Polish Melodies,” treating them with controlled passion and a keen feeling of involvement. For the Chopin/Liszt pieces, Gurinovich underlined the music’s tonal luster and it’s sentimental melancholy. Finley’s version of Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor grasped some of its intensity and triumphal lyricism, though falling short of expressing its episodes of frenzied insanity. Kim took on Rachmaninoff’s taxing Variations on a theme of Chopin, Op. 22, with a incisive grip on its technical hurdles, although she might have dug deeper into its Sturm-und-Drang surface to discover its more delicate subtleties underneath.      

“If they can do it in Paris and Texas, why can’t we do it here in D.C., where so many countries are represented?” was the spark that ignited the annual competition for amateur pianists sponsored by the Washington International Piano Arts Council. John and Chateau Gardecki, husband-and-wife co-founders of the event, plunged into creating the competition in 2001 after John had played in several competitions for amateur pianists in Paris and Fort Worth. The popularity of these contests has spawned a growing number of competitions in other cities including Boston, Colorado Springs and Salt Lake City, and (in 2008) St. Petersburg, Russia. After setting up WIPAC, finding a venue and gathering financial support, the organization held its first competition at the French Embassy four years ago. WIPAC also focuses on winning support and participation on a worldwide level all the way from Argentina to Moldava. And, since WIPAC’s inception, many embassies here have offered WIPAC support, including those of France, Bulgaria, Poland, Mexico and Iceland, to name a few. During the year, WIPAC also presents an annual piano series here at Anderson House, along with master classes, workshops, piano recitals and piano marathons—all free and open to the public

A surprise announcement made at the competition’s close by Roland Celette, cultural director of the French Embassy, reinforced WIPAC’s global bent. In the near future, he said, his embassy will join WIPAC in sponsoring performances in its concert hall by winners of amateur pianist competitions worldwide, including those here and in Paris, Berlin and several other venues.

            The Polish Embassy awarded prizes to contestants Mark Graham and Jinah Lee for their performances of music by Polish composers Karol Szymanowski and Chopin.


(Note: Parts of this review were published in The Washington Post.)