The First Berkeley Piano Competition

pianoIn 2006 Bay Area piano teacher Leone Squires McGowan (Class of 1943) passed away. When she had drawn up her will in 1992 she left an unusual bequest. She wished for her alma mater to find a home for her 1930 six-foot model L, six-foot Steinway piano, stipulating that it go to “a worthy student of piano at the University of California, Berkeley.” University organist, keyboard specialist, and music professor Davitt Moroney thought the gift might serve multiple purposes. One of them was to draw attention to the need for more funds for individual music instruction. Another was to serve as an incentive for piano students in the Music Department.

To meet those goals Moroney set about initiating a piano competition. Thirteen of the 25 competitors were music majors, nine of whom were double majors in disciplines as varied as molecular and cell biology, physics, English, Italian Studies, and Psychology. A further statement about the quality of Berkeley students is the fact that the rest of the contestants came from equally wide-ranging areas of study including architecture, business, chemistry, electrical engineering and computer sciences, mathematics, and Slavic languages and literature. There were two preliminary rounds, with the finalists competing on April 6, 2008—all were held in Hertz Hall, free and open to the public.The six finalists were Pheaross Graham, an undergraduate double major in microbial biology and music; Percy Liang, a graduate student in computer science; Tony Lin, a graduate student in Slavic Languages and Literature; Dinah Lu, an undergraduate double major in Music and Business Administration; Jared Redmond (BA, 2007, Music); and Richard Zhu, an undergraduate Business major. Each student performed four pieces, one of which was played by all: Brahms’s “Intermezzo in A major,” op. 118/2 (1893).

The 2008 competition was special in that the first prize was McGowan’s Steinway that, once restored, will be valued c. $50,000. A serendipitous turn of events occurred when Oscar-winning filmmaker John Korty was beginning work on a documentary film highlighting craftspeople at the studio of John Callahan, of Callahan Piano Services. They needed a once-grand piano in need of some serious work and a good story and Leone McGowan’s piano fit the bill. It will be a key prop in the film (thereby covering restoration costs), the competition will be woven into the narrative, and the finalists will be filmed, with the winner getting some extra screen time.

The second prize was $500, made possible by a gift to the department of Louise Bidwell, who teaches piano in the department. The award went to Tony Lin. The first prize, the McGowan piano, was won by Jared Redmond.

The competition is to be a biennial event. Watch the web site for information on future piano competitions.