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A classic sense of excitement at the José Iturbi International Music Competition

Energy pumps through the hall as emerging musicians vie for money and recognition.

June 19, 2009|Yvonne Villarreal

The mass hysteria surrounding "American Idol" may have cooled as another season has come to an end. Gone are renditions of Michael Jackson's "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On." There's a different music competition rolling through Los Angeles. Only, when these contestants hit the stage, they perform works by Bach or Chopin, Puccini or Gershwin.

The Jose Iturbi International Music Competition showcases emerging classical music talent in piano and singing. It's been dubbed "Classical Idol." Just don't expect a media flurry surrounding the sexuality of the finalists. An evocative cover of Rolling Stone magazine? Not likely. But that's OK. This competition -- named after the popular classical musician and composer during the 1930s to 1970s -- awards the largest cash prizes (more than $250,000) of any classical piano and singing competition.

"It began as a way to continue the legacy of my godfather," said Donelle Dadidgan, co-founder of the competition and founder of the Hollywood Museum. "Showcasing tomorrow's classical superstars today is one way of doing that."

The weeklong competition, in its third year, is open to the public. It kicked off earlier this week at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall with 48 competitors from around the world. The competition is open to pianists and singers who are 17 to 32 years old. Hundreds apply each year; only 24 are chosen to compete in each category. And compete they have.

In the dimly lighted venue, each performed complex selections with intensity. Some pounded their fingertips along the piano keys, their bodies hunched over like a lion about to pounce on its prey. Others moved their fingers more gingerly, careful to nurture each note. The singers have been equally powerful -- sometimes playful and coy with their harmonies; at other times ferocious in their delivery.

"You get so nervous being up there with everyone looking at you," said Kateryna Titova, 26, a contestant in the piano category who lives in London and studies with international concert pianist Norma Fisher. "It's like a fishbowl. You just hope to make it to the next round."

The number has now dwindled to six pianists and six singers, who will compete in the final rounds tonight and Saturday. The winner in each category will receive $50,000.

"It's a crazy amount of money for a competition like this," said Rhoslyn Jones, 29, of Canada, who competed in the singing category this year. "I'm sure a lot of us could use it."

And though the monetary compensation is a welcomed and sought-after prize, many, like Rufus Choi, winner of the piano category in the competition's inaugural year, said exposure created from the competition is more valuable.

"Winning it has gotten me a lot of publicity," said Choi, 32, of Los Angeles. "That's priceless. I've been able to book more performances. And I even have management now."

Not that these artists are exactly unknown before they enter the competition. Unlike many featured on "American Idol," most of these competitors aren't amateurs. Many have completed esteemed programs in their field; performed in prestigious concert halls, such as Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall, Teatro la Fenice in Venice and Boston Symphony Hall; and performed alongside renowned orchestras and opera companies. And many have won top prizes in international competitions.

"The level of talent is extremely high," said Daniel Pollack, international concert artist and judge in the piano category. "There is no doubt that they can play piano or that they can sing. The challenge for them is to go beyond technique and transport us to another world.

"That's not something everyone can do."

It was that type of talent, Pollack said, that the competition's namesake possessed. Iturbi, a native of Valencia, Spain, who died in 1980, was the first classical artist to sell 1 million records and the first to get a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (1960). He played himself in seven MGM musicals.

"He was an immensely talented pianist," Dadigan said. "And he wanted classical music to be enjoyed by everyone. He loved it and was passionate about making it accessible and increasing its popularity. This competition is helping to achieve that."

It may not be "Idol" mania, but it's a start.

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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Jose Iturbi Competition

Where: UCLA, Schoenberg Hall, Westwood

When: Final round for singers, 7 p.m. today. Final rounds for pianists, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday.

Price: $25 per session

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.tickets.ucla.edu or www.joseiturbifoundation.org

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