“Sonata City” may not be as catchy as “Dunk City,” but thanks to four Florida Gulf Coast University pianists, it is just as fitting.
This summer, 19-year-old FGCU senior Priscila Navarro brought home her third international award, from the 15th Biennial International Beethoven Sonata Competition in Memphis, Tennessee. Navarro was the youngest of 12 pianists invited to the competition, which invites musicians up to age 36. According to Dr. Michael Baron, head of keyboard studies at the Bower School of Music, most of the other competitors were at the Ph.D. level.
The competition requires each competitor to play two Beethoven sonatas for the judges. Baron said of the pieces Navarro played, “One of the two sonatas was brand new, she had just learned it, so I was a little worried….”
But Navarro, despite her youth and the recent familiarity of the sonata, won the entire competition.
Baron, a recent addition to the roster of Steinway Artists, plays concerts internationally each year and often offers to teach “master classes” at the country he is visiting. He said it was at one of these master classes that a friend of Baron’s handed him a DVD of Priscila Navarro performing.
“I heard it and recognized that she was a great talent … she is recognized as one of the best pianists of her generation,” Baron said.
He said Navarro and her teachers at the conservatory felt she needed to leave Peru to get more training. So, Dr. Baron offered to bring her to FGCU.
Baron described his student as a very intelligent woman. Before she began taking piano lessons, Navarro won second place at a national math competition in Peru – at age 9. She was accepted into an elite school for pre-engineering students before she decided to pursue music, and graduated as valedictorian of her high school at age of 15. This year, Navarro will continue to play international concerts and competitions, including the Liszt International Competition in Baltimore, MD. this October.
But Priscila Navarro is not FGCU’s only sensational pianist. Sophomores Manuel Molina and Pedro Che Sanchez, also from Peru, recently placed first in the Byrd Memorial Piano Duo Competition. This particular competition is held by the Florida Music Teachers Association, and is open to all undergraduate pianists in the state. Molina and Che Sanchez’s win makes them the reigning best piano duo in the state of Florida undergraduate system.
The win was even more impressive, considering that Molina and Che Sanchez had never performed together before preparing for the Byrd Memorial Competition.
Of the match, Baron said, “They didn’t know each other before they came here, so it’s nice that they meshed together.”
Che Sanchez said she was also happy with the partnership: “I really liked to play with Manuel. We had a nice connection playing together and since we are from the same place and we have the same culture, we can say things directly … he worked as hard as I did to do as best as we could.”
The youngest pianist of this elite group of four is freshman Jason Gomez from El Salvador. Gomez recently won the Gray Perry Piano Competition, also held by the Florida Music Teachers Association. This competition is open to freshmen and sophomores in the state, making Gomez the best underclassman pianist in Florida.
The future for these performers will involve a lot of hard work, including a lot of working together. This semester, Jason Gomez and Pedro Che Sanchez will be practicing a piece together, to, as Che Sanchez put it, “… try something new.”
These four remarkable students are all led by Baron, a professor who has been at FGCU since before the school of music even existed.
“It was seven years ago,” he said, “I auditioned in 12 different universities.” Baron was given the choice to walk into schools with an already-established music tradition. “I’d step into it, and we’d do it the same way as it’d been done for the last 150 years.” Photo courtesy of Michael Baron.
Then he auditioned at FGCU. “It was an unlikely choice,” he said. “There was no building, no school of music, there was nothing.”
But there was a chance for Baron at FGCU that was lacking at the other schools he had auditioned at — a chance to create a music program from the bottom up. “I could have my handprint significantly on the future of the school.”
Baron said he is pleased with his award- winning pianists, and added, “I’m just proud of the growth of the school of music both in terms of quality and quantity … they have allowed this school of music to grow at a phenomenal rate.”