By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 05, 2014 at 4:56 PM

The summer music festival season is just about to begin, with all sorts of assorted music and sound erupting from seemingly every stage and street in the city. There’s a different kind of musical event, however, coming to Milwaukee this weekend, one that carries with it national recognition, prestige and high stakes – as well as big money (take that, Summerfest).

For the next week, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music will play host to the PianoArts North American Piano Competition. The competition, now in its 14th year, assembles some of the nation’s finest young pianists for a three-part gauntlet of a contest.

The competition officially begins Saturday, June 7 with the first round, a solo competition in which the semi-finalists each perform a 45-minute recital for a jury. The second round involves performing with another pianist, as well as a violinist or cellist. It concludes Wednesday night with the final round, in which the top three performers perform alongside Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

"They look young, and they are young," said Sue Medford, one of the chief organizers and creators of the competition. "On the other hand, they’re already concert artists at a very important time in their lives. This is the time when they’re really beginning to move forward with their careers, their studies and all the things that you have to do to become the kind of musicians and names that you’ll recognize."

The North American Piano Competition was Medford’s brainchild, a side project back when from she worked for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. With the help and support of the orchestra, the contest debuted back in 1999.

"When we started out, we did have people from around the nation," Medford recalled. "We’ve grown now to the point where, for our age group and for what we’re doing, we’re one of the most recognized competitions internationally. Those who were actually with us in 1999 do have amazing concert careers right now."

This year, there are 11 young pianists gathering in Milwaukee from the all corners of the nation – from Alaska to California to New York to Alabama – to compete and stay with host families. In many ways, it’s an international competition as well, with contestants originally born from eight different countries – as far as Peru, China and Taiwan. They all share a few things in common: they are all great pianists who’ve been working insanely hard for a chance to shine here in Milwaukee.

"They usually start preparing for a competition of this size a couple of years in advance because the repertoire is that demanding," Medford said.

"You can’t win if you can count the hours (of practice)," said Sahun "Sam" Hong.

Hong won the competition back in 2012. Born in South Korea, he moved to America in 2002 and started playing piano when he was just four years old. Now, he’s currently pursuing his graduate degree at the music school at Johns Hopkins University (he finished his undergraduate degree when he was 16), focusing on practicing and becoming the best musician he can be while jokingly "waiting for other people to catch up."

He’s returning to Milwaukee this weekend not as a competitor this time, but as a guest performer. He’ll take the stage Friday night to set the tone for the week to come. He plans to stick around throughout the contest to check out the competition and listen to the talented young pianists coming hot on his heels.

"All the people entering put so much time into this, but it’s really awesome to see the high level of competition, and I think it’ll be even higher this year than last time," Hong said. "It’s a really big undertaking. Whoever wins won’t be by luck."

16-year-old contestant Huan Li grew up in China and currently studies in New York City. She first started playing the piano when she was five years old.

"I think piano is almost everything for me," Li said. "It’s my life. Music is a language I think."

Flash forward 11 years later, and she’s one of the selected few competing in the North American Piano Competition, practicing hours upon hours every day to hone her chosen songs. 

"The average I think is about four hours of practice a day," Li said. "That’s with homework and school every day and homework from pre-college too, not only academic school."

If performing three intense recitals with an audience of spectators and judges carefully listening and watching on wasn’t enough for the young musicians, there’s also a required public speaking component to the contest. In it, the contestant prepare a speech of sorts about their songs, its history and other contextual elements. Its intention, however, isn’t to be sadistic nervous breakdown fuel.

"The important thing is that their speech should bring in the audience to their music," Medford said. "They should share with them really wonderful aspects of that music that really appeals to them as performers. Share that with the audience, so the audience knows that it’s coming and that they’re involved in the performance and have fresher ears."

"They want to find ambassadors for classic music and verbal communication is completely necessary in that way," Hong said. 

The end prize, other than the impressive title, is $10,000 along with more teaching and performing opportunities in Milwaukee. The contest offers a number of additional awards, such as Best Performance of an American Work, Best Audience Communication and Best Performance of a Work Johannes Sebastian Bach.

The big reward, however, is the experience, performing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and learning overall from professionals throughout the week. The contest also has various non-competitive concerts and performances scattered throughout the event as well, meaning the contestants will be learning while being surrounded by their passion: beautiful music.

"Honestly, I really enjoyed the whole experience," Hong said. "As counterintuitive as it may sound, this competition is probably one of the most non-competitive competitions I’ve ever been in. It was just a really enjoyable experience."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.