Composed and collected, Maria Luisa Rayan climbed the stairs at the Musical Arts Center Sunday evening before a crowd of hundreds. Swathed in burgundy velvet, the striking Argentinian smiled graciously at the audience, shook the judges' hands and accepted her second-place award in the fifth triannual USA International Harp Competition. It was her third time entering the contest -- and her second emergence as runner-up.\nTwo tries, and two second-place finishes.\nFor some, such outcomes may signal defeat. Others may retreat from the instrument.\nBut for Rayan, the harp is practically an appendage. It's evident in her caress of the strings, in her soft, transported expression as her hands graze the instrument.\n"The evening was one of challenges and rewards," Rayan said. "I am excited about the opportunity to perform as part of my prize."\nAnd as Rayan stepped away from the awards table and took her seat among the six other prizewinners, the grand prize winner was coronated. Amid thunderous applause, 27-year-old Dan Yu of the China modestly assumed her place at center stage.\nIt's a place the diminutive graduate student will get used to over the next few years. After facing 10 days of grueling emotional and physical stress and exhausting practice and performance, Yu won both the gold and the opportunity to enter professional music circles. The first-place award includes a debut CD recording; debut recitals in London, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Fukai, Japan; cash prizes and a commemorative 24-karat gold-gilded concert harp.\nCarved from bubinga wood, the coveted instrument is a gift of the Victor Salvi Foundation and is valued at $55,000. It was constructed by Lyon and Healy Concert Harps of Chicago and "serves as an unparalleled artistic tribute to the excellence achieved by the competition's gold-medal winner," said Susan Lyon, director of public relations for the competition. \nHARP MECCA \nThe competition is the realization of many years of intense study and determination for founder Susann McDonald, distinguished professor of music in IU's Harp Department.\nShe first strummed the harpstrings at age five, a mere child in Rock Island, Ill. \nBy the age of 20, longing for her family back home yet fueled by an intense love of the instrument, she was living in Paris boarding houses and studying with premier harp pedagogue Henriette Renit. That same year, she won the first prize in the Paris Conservatory competition. \nAt 23, she made an unprecedented three-concert debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City. \nAnd in 1989, she founded the USA International Harp Competition to allow talented young harpists the opportunity to launch a professional career.\nShe chose to host the competition at IU because of the many performance venues and practice facilities available to students. IU also boasts a summer orchestra, a necessary precursor to performing concert works. \n"This is a dream come true," said McDonald, beaming, as she gazed into the packed auditorium Sunday evening. "I am moved greatly by what I see here -- the support of the community of Bloomington for our program and the performers."\nThe community's support has been overwhelming, McDonald said -- and rightfully so. Dubbed in music circles as the "Harp Mecca of the World," IU boasts the world's largest harp department. Consequently, said Lyon, Bloomington is home to more harps than in many small nations. \nMcDonald compares the IU faculty to that of Juilliard, where she formerly served as chair of the harp department. The decision to leave Juilliard proved difficult, yet McDonald was prepared for the drastic contrast between the bustling city and a sleepy Midwestern town.\n"I hoped that the finest harpists would come to work with me at IU," she said. "The faculty there was similar to here, all working and travelling a lot."\nShe attributes the IU harp department's immense success to its students. As graduates go on to pursue professional careers, winning international acclaim, the department's reputation of excellence is furthered. \n"I think we will continue to try to train and prepare our students for the profession, as soloists, orchestral players, and teachers," McDonald said. "I try to reinforce each player's natural abilities, and encourage them to attain a higher level of performance ability. I want them to believe they can indeed have such a career if they pursue it with all their hearts."\nIt certainly worked for McDonald. In the years spanning her professional career, she's founded the World Harp Congress, established the most prestigious harp competition in the world and served as teacher, friend and mentor to students who have gone on to attain unparalleled success in recording and solo careers. Yet she lauds teaching as her true passion. And while she continues to perform, she no longer tours. Rather, she aims to be her students' greatest resource. \n"I truly love teaching," she said. "The essential, I believe, is to play for one's students." \nTHE PROCESS\nThe competition kicked off July 4 with ceremonies in the lobby of the Musical Arts Center. \nThe first stage of competition spanned July 5 - 7. The 37 competitors played a piece of their choice, Bach's Etude #2 or The King's Hunt, and Tailleferre's Sonata or Glanville-Hicks's Sonata. No competition took place July 8. Rather, competitors enjoyed a solo concert by 14-year-old harp prodigy Jane Yoon, winner of the Nippon Harp Competition in Soka, Japan. \n25 contestants played four pieces for the second stage on July 9-10. They were treated to a jazz harp concert the evening of July 10 by musician Park Stickney at the Fourwinds Resort and Marina on Lake Monroe. \nThe third stage spanned July 11-12 and concluded with a solo concert on a historical Chinese folk harp by Cui Jun Zhi. After the third stage, three finalists were named. Dan Yu of China, Julie Smith of the United States and Maria Luisa Rayan of Argentina were chosen to compete in the grand finale concert Sunday evening, performing Ginastera's "Concerto for Harp and Orchestra."\nTo be chosen, potential competitors must be nominated by three teachers, according to McDonald. The contest is open to all harpists between the ages of 16 and 32. \nSunday's audience played a particularly important role in the musical process, said associate dean of instruction at the School of Music Eugene O' Brien. \nA jury of seven, judiciously chosen by McDonald and her committee, deliberated for over half an hour Sunday before announcing the top eight winners. The results were "as objective as could be," said Charles Webb, president of the jury and dean emeritus at the School of Music.\nAll rounds were taken into account when ascertaining the overall winner, Webb said. The first two stages of competition accounted for 15 percent of the overall score. The third stage accounted for 35 percent, while the final stage composed 50 percent of the final tally. \nVICTORY AT LAST\nThe competition was fierce, with each harpist bringing their own measure of creativity to the required piece.\n"It's difficult -- you have to be precise," Rayan noted. "You can't step too much outside the stylistic boundaries, but you can also bring your own personality into your playing."\nAnd though the concert spanned nearly three hours, the audience was visibly moved by each competitor's performance.\nIn the end, Dan Yu of China walked away triumphantly with the first-place title -- and the first harp she's ever owned.\nEvidently the crowd favorite, Yu seemed almost transported while performing. Face reflecting utmost concentration, she soared through the piece's complicated cadenzas.\n"The sound she managed to pull from the instrument was huge," commented senior Michael Henry, a music education student in the School of Music. "It was just the best."\nThe 27-year old IU graduate student, born in Shenyang, China, received the gold-gilded harp modestly, bowing slightly to the crowd and jury. \n"I never expected to win," said Ms. Yu after the awards ceremony. "A year or so ago, I was not certain which path I should take, teaching or performing. My teaching left little time for performing. Entering this competition challenged me to concentrate on my playing."\nYu additionally received $5,000 in cash prizes, a CD recording, and debut recitals around the globe. \nMaria Luisa Rayan of Argentina placed second, earning her two debut concerts in the Pacific Northwest, two more debut concerts or one concert and a CD recording deal and $2,500 in cash prizes.\nMcDonald praised Rayan as "one of the most talented and artistic performers that I have been blessed to work with." She said the 28-year-old doctoral student labors over every detail of her work, maintaining tireless dedication to her studies.\n"She will have a great career, of that I am sure," McDonald said. "Life is not a contest and she is superbly equipped to do whatever she wants in the music field."\n22-year-old Julie Smith of the United States garnered the third prize of $5,000 in cash. The Nebraska native will complete her senior year at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio this fall. \nAnd though only one walked away the grand-prize champion, the competition's founders' sincerest hope, said the competition's Executive Board President Peter Rollo, is that each leaves Bloomington positively affected by the experience. \n"This is one of the most grueling international competitions," Webb said. "It represents some of the best harp performances by any young people"
Get stories like this in your inboxSubscribe