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Cleveland International Piano Competition rebrands as ‘Piano Cleveland’ in bid to deepen impact

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 2/9/2020 By Zachary Lewis, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland International Piano Competition will soon be a household name, if a new rebranding effort goes as well as planned.

Starting today, in a bid to boost its profile, the presenter of one of the world’s top keyboard competitions is adopting the name Piano Cleveland. Meanwhile, hoping to reach more people, it’s amplifying its education programs and tweaking the contest itself.

“Our organization isn’t really known throughout the city,” said Yaron Kohlberg, executive director of the competition and second-prize winner in 2007. “But something of this top international caliber ought to be the pride of the city. People ought to know about it and feel involved.”

The old name of the group was fraught with problems, said former marketing coordinator Susan Petrone. Not only was “Cleveland International Piano Competition” a serious mouthful. It was also narrow. It failed to reflect the full and growing range of programs offered by the organization beyond the quadrennial keyboard contest.

“Piano Cleveland,” on the other hand, with its new logo of keys emerging from the Cleveland skyline, was designed to be easy to say and remember, and broad enough to cover everything from the competition and festival events to an ongoing recital series and educational work at area schools. In short, to encapsulate what the organization really is: an arts group aiming to transform lives via piano, in all its forms.

“This is who we are,” Petrone said. “We’re piano, and we’re Cleveland. This allows us to present all these different events in a way that make sense. It’s very clear now who we are, and now people can feel a part of it through all these different activities.”

The first ramifications of the new name will be felt this spring, when Piano Cleveland holds “Prelude to Piano,” a free lecture series designed to help people get more out of the piano competition this summer.

From March through May, at the Bop Stop, Praxis Fiber Workshop and Gilmour Academy, three local pianists will present talks called “I Love a Piano,” “Listening to Music” and “What Makes It Great.” People who attend all three will be added to a virtual jury and permitted to vote on a real prize at the competition.

“The idea is to take piano out of the concert hall and into a much more relaxed atmosphere, and teach people how to listen to music,” said Kohlberg, the third and final presenter. “We want people to feel engaged in what they’re about to hear.”

Developments continue at the competition itself, which starts July 27 at the Cleveland Museum of Art and concludes Aug. 7 and 8 at Severance Hall, with four finalists playing concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra.

The first change is about access. This year, for the first time, the contest’s two opening rounds will be free and open to the public.

The rest are about experience, making the long-running competition more efficient, effective and enjoyable for all.

Instead of 30, the pool of contestants in 2020 will consist of just 24 pianists. This, Kohlberg said, will serve both to shorten the opening rounds and stiffen the competition, all with an eye to making Cleveland a premier piano destination.

They’ll also play a little less. Instead of 70 minutes over two days, each pianist in the opening rounds will play for a total of 50. Still, Kohlberg said, listeners should end up knowing those pianists better, thanks to video interviews that will be displayed before each performance.

The competition also should feel a little more lighthearted. On July 31, just after the second round, the contest will host the musical comedy duo of Igudesman & Joo. Then, during the semi-final round, in addition to traditional repertoire, eight contestants will be tasked with playing virtuoso transcriptions of music from pop culture. Kohlberg himself sampled one such selection: a high-flying take on the theme from the film “Pulp Fiction.”

“It’s really challenging for the contestants, and very fun for the audience,” Kohlberg explained. “Overall, we’re really just bringing out a lot of what’s already there.”

The third and final wave of change with Piano Cleveland concerns outreach, promoting and using the piano to bring music into more people’s lives.

They’re not starting from scratch, of course. For years, competition instructors and performers have been a steady presence in Cleveland-area schools and senior centers.

The objective now, as Piano Cleveland, is simply to broaden that effort, to deliver more on-site performances for adults and use portable keyboards to teach more lessons on a more regular and continued basis. Ideally, Kohlberg said, contestants in town from foreign countries would also play for locals with roots in those same nations.

“Hopefully, they could connect with communities they feel at home in,” he said. “We want to understand how we can bring piano to all the different facets of the Cleveland community.”

The competition also aims to boost piano ownership, to get more pianos into homes where they’re wanted, whether for classical or any other kind of music. To that end, said education coordinator Emily Shelley, the new Piano Cleveland is partnering with Steinway & Sons to build on an existing piano donation program.

As students reach the point where they wish to practice at home, Piano Cleveland will help facilitate exchanges between those students and people looking to shed instruments. The idea, Shelley said, is really nothing new. It’s just a different approach to the same goal that drives the entire organization, now more than ever.

“We want to train people from beginning piano students into piano lovers,” she said.

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