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Hotchkiss Piano Portal


Salisbury’s hills will soon be alive with music—piano music, that is, all of it created by a coterie of exceptionally talented young people and their distinguished instructors. The Hotchkiss School will welcome 32 piano students to its Portals program July 15 and will conclude in late July with a Grand Finale Concert on the 28th.

Along the way, the students will receive individual and group instruction and will perform in a number of free public concerts at the school. Those chosen from among their numbers by program director Fabio Witkowski will get a chance to perform July 24th at Carnegie Hall. Even the instructors will get in on the act, offering a series of five free concerts and concluding with the Grand Finale.

“This will be an amazing display of an amazing piano repertoire,” Witkowski said. “We hope more and more people will come and take advantage it. The concerts will all be performed in our beautiful Elfers Hall and will offer a little bit of everything.”

He noted particularly the Frederick and Mary Tanner Frank Concert on July 21st, “a special night of chamber music,” featuring the Fine Arts Quartet composed of Ralph Evans, violin, Efim Boico, violin, Gil Sharon, viola and Niklas Schmidt, cello, with Witkowski and his wife, Gisele Nacif Witkowski, on piano. They will perform Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in Eb Major, op. 87 and Piano Quartet in A Major, op. 81.

The Summer Portals Piano Program, the only musical program in the multi-disciplinary Portals Program at the school, is now in its sixth year. It brings exceptional piano students, ages 11 to 18, to the campus where they are exposed to rigorous conservatory-level study. But unlike some summer festivals, selection of students is not confined to those dreaming of a musical career.

“What we try to do in a two-week period is to mirror the experience of our four-year students,” Witkowski said. “These are extremely talented musicians. We have the rigor and depth in our program to train them, but I believe strongly that it is also important to have a meaningful number of students who love music but are not going to be professional musicians. I don’t agree with festivals that say, ‘If you are not going to be music students, we are not interested in you. I don’t care what they are going to do with it. I say, ‘Let’s have fun with it.’”

“We want to make sure we’re offering the most amazing experience,” said the program director.

The Piano Portals program accepts young pianists solely on the basis of merit—financial aid is available—and has welcomed students from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Spain, France, Ukraine, Slovakia, Russia, Hong Kong, South Korea, China, Vietnam, and Singapore. The diverse group of young people are engaged together and individually.

“This year we have 32 students,” Witkowski said. “Nowadays, if you want to attract top talent, financial aid is prerequisite because they are sought after by every music festival.”

Indeed, Witkowski, who began his long musical career at age 6 in Brazil, attended his first festival when he was 8. “I can’t think of a summer I haven’t been at a festival,” said Witkowski, who is currently making a musical circuit in Europe. “In addition, Portals is a fantastic recruitment tool for Hotchkiss—70 to 80 percent of those who attend Portals apply to Hotchkiss.”

“It’s a really nice thing, not only to have the students but to invite amazing pianists and teachers,” he continued, “just to meet these amazing students from all over world and to be with an incredible team of performers. We have guest artists from Brazil, Israel, China, Spain, Russia … . Most, if not all, will be performing concerts, all of which are free and open to the students and the public.”

Each year, an increasing number of applicants compete for a limited amount of space, with nearly 300 applications submitted in 2018. Each student has to provide a video to be reviewed by Witkowski and his pianist wife. “We’ve heard them, had a dialogue with them all.” said Witkowski. “That’s important to create a group that will be harmonious and nice.”

Harmony is particularly important because of the format of the lessons. Each student gets hours of individual attention, but also spends a portion of each day in three-hour master classes. “Taking a lesson in public entails a little bit of stage fright, of butterflies in the stomach,” said Witkowski, who knows what it is like to perform publicly at a young age.

“The student performs and the teacher is talking to the student, but also to everyone else,” he explained of the master classes. “A lot of what the professor is saying applies to everyone else. It enhances listening skills and collaborative critical skills.”

Students are encouraged to join in the critical analysis but to do it with respect and empathy. “I subscribe to that notion that to be successful, we all need to be play well,” Witkowski said. “Music is much better when it’s collaborative and we drill that into the students. At the same time, they get a great degree of individual attention. It’s a very nice balance.”

Starting in 2018, Hotchkiss students are to perform two concerts annually at Carnegie Hall. “There is one in January for the full-time students and one in July for Portals,” Witkowski said. “It’s very exciting for the students. Imagine, coming to this beautiful place, getting great instruction and making your Carnegie debut!”

The Portals concert schedule is: Oxana Yablonskaya, Sunday, July 15th, 4PM; Yuri Bogdanov, Wednesday, July 18th, 7:30PM; The Frederick and Mary Tanner Frank Concert, Saturday, July 21st, 7:30PM; Leonel Morales, Monday, July 23rd, 7:30PM; Leonel Morales-Herrero, Morales’ son, Monday, July 26th, 7:30PM, and the Grand Finale on July 28th, 7:30PM.

Young Artists concerts will be held Saturday, July 21st, and Sunday, July 22nd, at 4PM in the Katherine Elfers Hall; at Carnegie Hall Tuesday, July 24th, at 8PM; Wednesday, July 25th, at 7:30PM at Hotchkiss’ Fairfield Farms, and Friday, July 27th, in Elfers Hall at 7:30PM.