Seventeen-year-old Katherine Liu steps onto the stage of the USC School of Music Recital Hall wearing a long teal dress. As she starts to play the piano, her fingers dance across the keys. She leans in closer as the notes come faster and leans back as the music swells. When the song is finished, the recital hall echoes with Liu’s last note.
Liu, this year's first-place participant, is one of 20 young musicians who came to South Carolina to participate in the Southeastern Piano Festival’s (SEPF) piano competition. The festival brought together performers and music lovers from around the state and country from June 12-19 in a weeklong event celebrating the love of piano and classical music.
“You know, I think they feel the energy of the performances,” Joseph Rackers, the co-founder of the festival, said. “It's a very exciting form of music and we find that when people come to concerts, they end up coming back over and over again.”
Besides the prestigious Arthur Fraser International Piano Competition, the festival hosted a lecture series, master classes and a number of concerts featuring famous pianists. This year, the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Rackers and his wife Marina Lomazov thought of the idea to start the festival over dinner one night when Lomazov first started as an assistant professor at USC. Since then, the festival has hosted performances throughout Columbia and gained national prestige. Rackers said the Columbia community is an important part of the festival’s success.
“It's been the support of the community, the patrons of the festival, the audience members, folks at the university that have really allowed the festival to grow and just to be part of Columbia's arts community for 20 years,” Rackers said. “The community of Columbia embraced the festival and that's what's led to where we are today.”
To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Lomazov and Rackers featured 20 SEPF alumni including accomplished pianists Caleb Borick, Solomon Ge and Susan Zhang.
“The nice thing about being around for a long time is that you really have a chance to see how students from those early years grew and formed significant careers of their own,” Rackers said. “A lot of these alumni feel like family to us and it's great. It's great to have 20 of them here.”
Zhang is not only a SEPF alum, but also a graduate of the USC School of Music and the co-founder of one of the festival’s featured events, the Concert Truck.
Zhang created the Concert Truck in 2016 with Nick Luby, who she met at USC. The 16-foot box truck features lights, a sound system and a piano that travels across Columbia and the country performing in underserved areas.
“We like to think of it as a transformer because it transforms from a truck into a stage within minutes,” Zhang said.
Zhang said that the Concert Truck team was motivated by wanting to find new ways to share their work with their communities.
“I think you want to be able to present music for people where they are. We want to be able to build communities for music. And we wanted to be able to just share it in a way that was more accessible,” Zhang said.
Bringing the Concert Truck to SEPF is more than just another opportunity to perform for Zhang. For three years, Zhang was in Liu's shoes as a participant of the festival before eventually attending USC and training under Lomazov and Rackers. For her, SEPF feels more like a family than a festival.
“We've sort of become a family at this point. And it's something that I've done every single summer of my adult life. So, it's so meaningful to be here,” Zhang said. “It's like a reunion every summer.”
Preparations will start later this summer for the 2023 festival.