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Esther Honens had a penchant for the finer things.

The one-time office manager for the venerable Henry Birks jewellery chain quit only to earn a fortune on her own through wise investments and property management. Also an amateur pianist, she saw what the prestigious Van Cliburn Competition did for the Texas city of Fort Worth and dreamed of creating a stage in Calgary for the world's most promising performers, and in the process, create a musical legacy for Canadians.

She gave an endowment of $5-million to the cause, and the inaugural Honens International Piano Competition was held in 1992. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, Honens quietly took in some performances at the Jack Singer Concert Hall that year, but died shortly after the competition ended. She was 89.

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Now in its sixth edition, the competition runs until Nov. 6 at the University of Calgary's Rozsa Centre and other locations and is considered one of the premier events in the classical music world. It is held every three years.

Whittled down from a list of 150 initial applicants aged 20 to 30, jurors will hear 19 pianists hailing from North America and South America as well as Europe and Asia in search of the "complete artist." Performers will share in $100,000 in cash prizes as well as the much more valuable career support and concert bookings, according to Stephen McHolm, the competition's executive director.

"The days of classical-music competitions trying to be like American Idol , trying to launch a huge star, are over. What we're trying to do is help young artists build sustainable careers," he said.

During the quarter-finals, which end Oct. 28, the pianists perform solo and chamber recitals, but also play an eight-minute work titled Leaps of Faith , which was commissioned for the competition by Canadian composer Brian Current. The competition will be pared down to 12 semi-finalists and then to a final five performers who will vie for the top three spots and to be named Honens laureates.

Laureates have gone on to play in some of the most coveted concert halls and the most respected orchestras in the world.

"Even though the artists may not be Canadian, they're waving the Canadian flag wherever they go and they're really putting Calgary and Alberta on the cultural map as a culture centre," McHolm said.

Esther Honens, no doubt, would have been pleased with her investment.

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About the Author
Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More


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