WARSAW (Reuters Life!) - Some of the world's most talented young pianists are flocking to Warsaw for the International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition that opens this weekend, and Asians are especially prominent among them.
The competition, the oldest of its kind in the world, is held every five years in the Polish capital and is avidly followed by lovers of Chopin everywhere but has built up a particularly enthusiastic following in China, Japan and South Korea.
The Asians are becoming increasingly dominant as performers of Western classical music, a cultural trend that parallels the eastward shift of economic and political power in what is being billed as the new Asian century.
"Asia is the new power on the horizon. There are 30 million young pianists there learning to play the piano," said Waldemar Dabrowski, the general director of Warsaw's opera house and head of the Chopin 2010 celebrations committee. Of the 81 finalists in the 2010 competition, 16 are from Japan, 13 from China and four from South Korea, he said.
Russia, the United States, France and host country Poland are also well represented in the competition, which this year coincides with celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth. Dabrowski said the level of interest in this 16th competition underscored the universal appeal of a composer who wrote only for the piano and who died in Paris aged just 39. His entire oeuvre, which ranges from elegiac sonatas to lively Mazurka folk dances, can be played in just 24 hours.
"In the first half of 2010 alone, there were some 3,000 events, and not only concerts, dedicated to Chopin worldwide in honor of his anniversary," he told Reuters.
"Chopin defined romanticism in the most beautiful way... In China and Japan he is especially valued for his nostalgia for a lost paradise," Dabrowski added.
One of the participants, Yuri Watanabe from Japan, said she was thrilled to be taking part in the competition in Warsaw.
"Chopin has been my friend since childhood. I feel really close to his music because of the romantic melodies. I can really put myself into the music," she said.
"When I was just 12 years old I watched the 2000 Chopin competition on television and was very impressed. From then on I really wanted to come here to play for the Polish people." Poland has used Chopin's bicentenary to promote itself as a land of high culture, firmly back in Europe's mainstream after a tragic 20th century marred by wars and foreign domination.
It has invited internationally renowned pianists such as China's Lang Lang, Israel's Daniel Barenboim and American Garrick Ohlsson to perform, it has opened a new state-of-the-art Chopin museum in Warsaw and has renovated the composer's family home at Zelazowa Wola near Warsaw where he was born in 1810.
The Polish central bank has also unveiled a special zloty bank note bearing Chopin's image.
Dabrowski said he expected this year's competition to be especially strong because of the high level of the participants -- selected after preliminary auditions in the spring -- and because of changes made to the jury.
"We have fewer professors and coaches than in the past and more artists instead," he said, adding that such a jury would pay more attention to creativity and individual flair.
The jury includes past winners of the competition such as Martha Argerich, Adam Harasiewicz and Thai Son Dang. "The pianists who take the top three slots will become big new names in the world of classical music," he added.
The announcement of the competition results is set for October 20 and the prize winners' concert will be on October 21.
(Editing by Steve Addison)