Last Wednesday, June 23, pianist Soyeon Lee played in the finals of the Naumburg Piano Competition at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. Friday morning she sent out a “good news” email to her webmail contacts announcing that she had won first prize. By Friday afternoon, she was not answering her phone, presumably because she was on her way to Finland to open the Mantta Piano Festival.
Having won the Naumburg, Lee’s velocity is likely to accelerate. As first prize winner in the prestigious competition, she has earned two New York recitals as well as recitals in other United States locations, and a cash prize of $10,000. She will have to add the Naumburg engagements to her present schedule.
The 42 Naumburg competitors this year, an international group, ranged from ages 17 to 32. They were required to present two full-length recital programs and a piano concerto. Second prizes of $4,000 went to Ran Dank, an Israeli, and Alexandre Moutouzkine, a Russian. Christopher Guzman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, won honorable mention and an award of $1,000. A team of nine prominent musicians judged the competition.
Created in 1925, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation aims to further the careers of young artists. Founder Walter Naumburg, a member of a New York banking family, was an amateur cellist.
Originally a piano competition, the contest has expanded to include other instruments, as well as chamber ensembles, conductors, and composers.
Robert Mann, the foundation’s president since 1971, won the competition in 1941. “It was a big help,” he says. Mann has been the first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet. His wife, Lucy Rowan Mann, is executive director of the foundation.
Second prize Naumburg winner Dank joined Lee in opening the Mantta Festival in western Finland on Tuesday, June 29, with a Franz Liszt transcription of Ludwig Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 for two pianos. On Saturday, July 3, both Lee and Dank are scheduled to play solo groups of pieces by Frederic Chopin. Mantta is the only Finnish summer festival devoted to piano music.
In an E-mail from Finland, Lee writes: “I am just happy to have won (the Naumburg) as this was my last competition I planned to do. The competition has an illustrious history, and I am excited to be a part of it.”
Born in 1979, Soyeon Lee, the daughter of two lawyers, began her piano studies at age five in South Korea. When Soyeon was nine, the family began a five-year stay in the United States while Soyeon’s father studied at West Virginia University. When she was 14, the family returned to Korea while Soyeon stayed on to study at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy. Her sister, Soeun, three years her junior, returned to Korea with the family, and became a pop star. The sisters have performed together in Seoul, Korea.
Lee earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York’s Juilliard School. While a Juilliard student, she harvested a fistful of honors and prizes, including the William Petschek Piano Debut Award, which made possible her 2004 debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. It was at that concert that Lee met her future husband, Tom Szaky, founder of Terracycle, the Trenton-based company that turns garbage into environment-saving products.
Contributing to environmental consciousness, Lee wore a floor-length strapless gown created from 6,000 recyclable grape juice containers for a recital in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in 2008. Hundreds of American schoolchildren collected the containers. Nina Valenti designed the gown.
In an April, 2009, concert Lee played Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (U.S. 1, April 22, 2009). Readers will have to travel beyond Nassau Street, however, to share in the benefits of her first Naumburg prize concert. It takes place March 29, 2011, in New York at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.