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In the cold-blooded world of international piano competitions, Calgary's Esther Honens is the kinder, gentler event.

Its organizers talk, not of winners and losers, but of nurturing the "complete artist." They aren't interested in the robot virtuoso who plays with soulless technical precision. "We're looking for someone who has read literature, who appreciates painting," says jury chairman John P. L. Roberts, "someone who understands the historical context of music and its use in contemporary society." Competitors are allowed to choose their own classical repertoire to show their strengths. The three top players win three years of career development, including recording sessions and concert dates. Even the $70,500 (U.S) in prize money is spread out so that the semi-finalists who don't make the last round still take home a share of the pot.

"It brings a humane aspect to what is a very inhumane process," says Katherine Chi, one of the 25 competitors in the third quadrennial Esther Honens contest. Chi, a native of Calgary now based in Cologne, is among three Canadians vying with highly skilled young pianists from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia in what is Canada's only major-league piano competition.

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"Very few other competitions give you a chance to play very, very long programs to show your range," says Chi. "Often they have too many competitors and they have to run through them as quickly as possible."

Not that the Honens is easier than other competitions. In some ways, it's harder. In this year's first round, competitors have to program and play two solo recitals of 30- and 50-minutes duration. "It really is demanding," says Chi. "It's like playing two concerts." The 10 semi-finalists have to choose a selection of piano trios and lieder by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Ravel or Shostakovich, and play them in an hour-long concert with violinist Geoff Nuttall, cellist Shauna Rolston and soprano Ingrid Attrot. After that, the five finalists must square off with a piano concerto composed post-1760, which they'll perform with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Kazuyoshi Akiyama.

And let's not forget this year's commissioned Canadian work, The Dream of Amphion by Andrew Paul MacDonald, which is proving a workout even for these able players. "It's very difficult," says Stephen Ham, a self-assured 27-year-old from Toronto. "It's longer and more involved than most competition commissions" and even calls for improvisation.

"This competition is not just looking for some brilliant, very advanced student," says Roberts. "You really have to be a young artist who can handle the demands of repertoire."

It was that philosophy which coaxed expatriate Brit Andrew Raeburn to Calgary shortly after the inaugural competition in 1992. Executive director for the high-profile Van Cliburn event in Fort Worth, Tex., in the early 1980s, he saw how piano competitions could turn out winners unprepared for the pressures of the concert stage. "I remember one very bright pianist, Steven De Groote, who won the Van Cliburn many years ago," says Raeburn, a lean man with twinkling eyes who is now Honens artistic director. "He was sent to Carnegie Hall, and was absolutely slammed by The New York Times. It took him several years to recover from that."

The Esther Honens doesn't send its laureates to Carnegie Hall (neither does the Van Cliburn any more), but it does find concert engagements for them, as well as offering a three-month residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

Helping young pianists build their careers was part of Esther Honens's vision when the Calgary philanthropist set aside $5-million of her fortune for the competition. Originally an office manager for jewellers Henry Birks & Sons, Honens became independently wealthy through shrewd investments. "She was a particularly bright and engaging person who used to play the piano herself and had a real love of music," recalls Charles Selby, grandson of real-estate developer Harold Honens, whom a widowed Esther married when he was 81 and she was 72.

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Although 89 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, she lived to see the inaugural event in 1992. "She hung on through the first competition," says Selby, "watching it from a hospital bed in a small room off the concert hall."

Today, her endowment, administered by the Calgary Foundation, bankrolls 25 per cent of the competition's four-year, $4-million budget. The remainder is covered by ticket sales, donations and some government funding.

So far, the young Honens competition hasn't attained the reputation of the Van Cliburn or the world's other big piano competitions -- the Leeds, the Sydney, the Queen Elisabeth in Belgium, the Tchaikovsky in Moscow -- but catching a rising star among pianists could help that.

Raeburn admits 1992's first-prize winner, Shanghai native Yi Wu, "has not gone on to fulfil his promise;" but that year's third laureate, Frenchman Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, has since become a favourite of the great Pierre Boulez. And there's a lot of excitement surrounding Maxim Philippov, the dazzling Russian who took first place in the 1996 competition after making the finals at Leeds. He's back in Calgary to play a recital next Wednesday as part of the festivities.

The Honens organizers have worked hard to make it world-calibre. This year's 25 contestants were culled from 92 hopefuls who performed videotaped auditions in Hamburg, New York, Toronto and Calgary. The eight-member competition jury is made up of such distinguished artists as American composer Lukas Foss, pianists Paul Badura-Skoda of Austria and Angela Cheng of Canada, and Grammy Award-winning soprano Benita Valente. A festival of concerts runs alongside the competition, showcasing a wide range of piano music. It all leads up to a gala concert-cum-awards ceremony on Nov. 25 when the winners are announced.

Along with the Honens, the city's international organ festival, also held every four years, and the Banff Centre's global string quartet competition have turned the Calgary area into a hotbed of classical music. Roberts, the former fine-arts dean of the University of Calgary and a biographer of Glenn Gould, couldn't be more pleased. "I find it terribly exciting," he says, smiling broadly. "It's good to be known for something other than the Stampede."

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The Third Esther Honens Calgary International Piano Competition and Festival runs through Nov. 25 at the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts, University of Calgary and Mount Royal College. Information: (403) 299-0130 or 1-800-249-7574.

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