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The music lives on

This weekend, L.A. is host to competitions that seek to continue the legacies of Iturbi and Rachmaninoff.

June 20, 2008|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles has no dearth of contests. There are the Oscars. The Emmys. Sometimes the NBA playoffs. But even in this competitive city, the current week has been notable. Two classical music tourneys -- each honoring a brilliant expatriate pianist who lived out his life in Beverly Hills -- have been overlapping. And anyone hoping to catch a future keyboard star on the rise will be torn over the weekend between UCLA and downtown, as the second Jose Iturbi International Music Competition and the third Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition and Festival draw to a close.

At stake are not only championships but also prize money totaling nearly $300,000.

The confluence of these two contests is only a coincidence. But their existence speaks to the esteem in which the musicians they are named after are held by their founders. Rachmaninoff, of course, is widely known. Iturbi, a native of Valencia, Spain, who died in 1980, is less so. He was, however, the first classical artist to sell a million records (Chopin's "Military" Polonaise" in 1950), the first to receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (1960) and a feature (as himself) in seven MGM musicals.

"Jose was a phenomenally gifted pianist, and he was passionate about making sure that classical music remains accessible and popular," says Donelle Dadigan, co-founder of the Iturbi competition and founder of the Hollywood Museum.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Iturbi competition: A Calendar section article Friday on the second Jose Iturbi International Music Competition at UCLA gave an incorrect phone number to call for information. The correct number is (866) 488-7242.

Iturbi and his longtime companion, Marion Seabury, who died in 2006, were Dadigan's godparents. Five years after the pianist's death, the women established the Jose Iturbi Foundation -- "to give young people an entree into the professional world," Dadigan says. "And equally important, to continue what my godfather did for his entire life, which was to help popularize classical music."

This year, the competition will award more than $250,000, divided equally between voice and piano. (Seabury was a soprano.) The top prize in each category is $50,000, plus performances aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2.

"It is a lot of money," Dadigan says. "We raise it ourselves. But our staff is very small. I believe that all nonprofits should have very little of their funds going to administrative work and the bulk going to what it is we want to promote."

The competition grew out of a recital series that Seabury and Dadigan started seven years ago at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

"My godmother wanted to see that expand, and I promised her I would do that," Dadigan says. "So we have our competition now. And this year we have contestants representing 23 different countries."

Indeed, there were than 160 applicants, ages 17 to 32, divided about evenly between piano and voice, she says. A committee narrowed the list to 24 in each category.

Dadigan acknowledges there is some controversy about awarding prizes for artistic performances.

"There will never be the definitive answer to that," she says. "It's all subjective. But it also has to do with the judges that you select. I try to pick a jury that recognizes the need to go past the safe bet and find the person for their true talent, because this is what it's all about."

Her piano judges this year include Daniel Pollack and Eduardo Delgado. Among the vocal judges are countertenor David Daniels and soprano Gianna Rolandi.

"I'm very passionate about the competition," she says. "It's all about opening doors and helping young people."

The Rachmaninoff competition has an additional distinction: In the final round, all the competitors perform works by Serge Rachmaninoff, who was a composer and conductor as well as a pianist.

Born in Russia in 1873, Rachmaninoff immigrated to the U.S. after the 1917 revolution. Thereafter, he divided his time between here and Europe until his death in 1943, playing the series of extravagantly Romantic piano concertos on which his fame now rests.

"The fact that Rachmaninoff was a Russian and an American -- because he got American citizenship just a few weeks before he passed away -- was the perfect reason to have such a competition in Los Angeles, not in San Diego or Las Vegas," says the competition's founder, businessman Armen Ter-Tatevosian. "I also thought it would be good to have a cultural bridge between the countries which basically affected my personal life in terms of music and culture."

Ter-Tatevosian, born in the Soviet Union, came to this country in 1995 and held the first Rachmaninoff competition in Pasadena in 2002. The second was in 2005. This year's edition drew more than 80 applicants, ages 18 to 32, for a chance to earn the $30,000 top prize. As with the Iturbi, a committee narrowed the list to 24.

Like Dadigan, Ter-Tatevosian keeps competition expenses low by doing most of the legwork himself. Even so, he has ambitious plans.

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