Campus News: Cao and Li Take Top Piano Festival Awards

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Cao and Li Take Top Piano Festival Awards
- 7/12/2019

Cao and Li Take Top Piano Festival Awards


Baron Cao, collegiate division, and Charlie Li, pre-collegiate division, won first prizes in the 15th annual Lee University piano competition. The award ceremony concluded the International Piano Festival and Competition held June 23-29 on Lee's campus. A total of 29 students participated, marking the third year in a row of record participation in the festival.


"This year the piano festival celebrated 15 years, with another record number of applications and number of participants that we could accommodate," said Dr. Cahill Smith, piano professor and artistic director of the festival. "We also welcomed two of our youngest participants in the history of the event, who made the cut at just 10 years old."


For the collegiate division, Cao was awarded $3,000 for First Prize, while Chad Miller received Second Prize and $1,000. In the pre-collegiate division, Li won the First Prize of $3,000 and the Audience Award, Malvyn Lai received the Second Prize and $1,000, and Luke Turner was awarded $500 for Third Prize.


Finalists Amy Bao and Ewan Manalo received honorable mentions and $300 each, while an honorable mention and $250 went to semi-finalist performer Kimiko Darcy.


Finalists were chosen from a field of 18 outstanding young pianists, all of whom also participated in the week-long festival. The festival's participants enjoyed performances by world-renowned guest artists Natalya Antonova, Heather Conner, and Henry Wong Doe. Participants also worked closely with Lee University School of Music faculty members Jonathan Jung, ChoEun Lee, Smith, and Phillip Thomas.


"Our faculty and guest artists made a lasting impact on the students in the festival through their teaching and artistry," said Smith.


Throughout the week, participants engaged with the guest artists and Lee faculty in group lessons and master classes, as well as additional classes in vocal collaboration, chamber music with strings, career skills, harpsichord, and historical performance.


"The most inspiring part of the festival is always the musical performances of these astounding young pianists," said Smith. "What they have accomplished at such an early age at the piano is a testament to their perseverance, their teachers and parents, and the power of music."


Bao, 16, studies piano with Annamarie and John McCarthy in San Francisco. She has been enrolled in the Pre-College Division at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and has attended the International Institute for Young Musicians and the Southeastern Piano Festival. Most recently, Bao has been a top prizewinner in the 2019 Ross McKee Piano Competition and the 2019 Steinway Junior Piano Competition, among others.


Cao, from State College, Pennsylvania, recently claimed Third Prize at the 2018 New York Piano Competition and Festival and has been nationally recognized twice as an award winner of the National YoungArts Foundation. He has also been awarded first prizes at the Eastern Division Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Finals, the Pennsylvania MTNA Finals, and Williamsport Symphony Concerto Competition.


Darcy, 14, attends the Latin School of Chicago. Her piano competition awards include first place in the Emilio Del Rosario Concerto Competition elementary division, first place in the Society of American Musicians junior division and intermediate division, first place at the Baltimore International Piano Competition, and winner of the Walgreens' National Concerto Competition.


Lai, 14, is from San Diego, California. He started learning piano at age five and currently pursues music studies under the tutelage of Ning An. His recent competition accomplishments include first place in the 2019 Parness Young Artist Competition and top prizes and best audience award in 2018 International William Knabe International Piano, Los Angeles International Piano, and International Keyboard Oyssiad Festival competitions.


Li, age 16, is a rising junior at Lakeside High School in Evans, Georgia. He started playing piano at the age of five and studies with Dr. Elena Cholakova. He made his orchestral debut with the Augusta Symphony after winning its concerto competition. He was a prize winner of the 2019 Emory University Young Artist Piano Competition and was a winner of the Atlanta Romantic and Impressionistic Piano Competition in 2018.


Manalo, 13, arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2016 and started studying under Smith at Lee University that fall. The year prior to that, he had begun piano studies with Keiko Sekino at East Carolina University. In 2018, he was selected as first runner up for MTNA and the following year was awarded honorable mention.


Miller, of Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, won first prizes at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Piano Arts Competition, Tennessee Tech University Young Artist Piano Competition, and the Young Musician's Competition at the University of Memphis Piano Festival. He currently studies at Lee University with Smith as a recipient of a Young Musician's Award.


Turner, 15, from Birmingham, Alabama, is a Myra Jackson Blair Scholar at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University, where he studies with Conner. Turner won the Curb Concerto Competition and performed the first movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Nashville Symphony. He won the 2018 Curb Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition and was Alternate at the 2018 Alabama MTNA Senior Piano competition.


For information on the annual Lee University International Piano Festival and Competition, contact Lee's School of Music at (423) 614-8264 or visit the Piano Festival's website at

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