Keboard Competition

Grace Fong is not likely to forget this summer.

No matter where her efforts take her in life, the 26-year-old Cleveland Institute of Music piano student can always be proud of what she's doing this month, performing in the Cleveland International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious events of its kind.

In nonmusical terms, simply qualifying for the biennial competition is comparable to making an Olympic team. Hundreds apply but only 35 compete for the $50,000 grand prize.

"I'm kind of at an age when this is the time to go for it, now or never," Fong says during a rare break in her nine-hour daily practice routine.

Fong is only one of four local artists participating in the 2005 Cleveland Competition, which runs July 27 through Aug. 7.

Among those joining her is Spencer Myer, a 26-year-old North Ridgeville native, graduate of Oberlin College and resident of New York City, who is engaged on a 20-concert tour of South Africa. Ning An, 28, is an alum of the Cleveland Institute of Music's Young Artist Program and an artist-in-residence at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn. CIM student Andrius Zlabys, 28, lives in Euclid and placed fourth at the competition in 2003.

Each has already survived intense scrutiny from a panel of audition judges and will perform twice more before judges make the first cuts.

"It's incredibly frustrating [at other competitions] to know you only have 15 or 20 minutes to show everything you can do," Myer says. "Hearing everyone twice provides the opportunity to see the complete artist. This is one of the things that attracted me to apply this year."

A donation from Mr. and Mrs. A. Malachi Mixon III allows the Cleveland Competition to offer one of the highest first prizes in the piano world, $50,000. Additionally, the Cleveland winner can make a recording for international distribution and gets booked for about 40 concert engagements, including a recital at New York's Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center.

The top four contestants perform a concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under Jahja Ling at Severance Hall and second-, third- and fourth-place winners receive $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000 respectively.

But Fong won't let dreams of money and fame distract her. "I just want to play how I would play for any audience, without those outside influences," she says.

For tickets to solo performances at the Cleveland Play House, call (216) 795-7000. For tickets to orchestral finals and the Severance Hall winner's recital, call (216) 231-1111. For a competition subscription, call (216) 707-5397.

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