Nina Simone Piano Competition Winners

(top left to right) Kayden Kelly, Clayton Stephenson (bottom) Joshua Mhoon


Simone Dinnerstein: Hello, I'm Simone Dinnerstein. Tonight we are featuring three young pianists who are the winners of the inaugural Nina Simone Piano Competition here on the Young Artists Showcase.


Simone Dinnerstein: For over 47 years, the Young Artists Showcase has been generously underwritten by the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. In that time, we've covered many piano competitions and heard their fabulous winners. I'm pleased to introduce a new competition to the showcase and welcome two of the recent winners to the studio tonight. In 2021, the esteemed pianist Awadagin Pratt won a Sphinx Venture Grant that allowed for the planning of the Nina Simone Piano Competition. I had the opportunity to speak with Awadagin. Awadagin, welcome to WQXR. I just wanted to talk a little bit about your own personal journey into creating this competition.

Awadagin Pratt: So we were in the middle of a lockdown, and I became aware of a young pianist who was really fantastic. I thought he was a really unbelievable musician, um, and had no career to speak of, um, which is not necessarily uncommon [chuckles] because it doesn't work for everyone. But, you know, he went to Juilliard, he had a good teacher, but he didn't get guidance and mentorship and, uh, support from the institution. He's somebody that when I looked back at, you know, the people of his generation, there were other people that were recognized and supported by the institution, winning the stuff there that he was excluded from and--

Simone Dinnerstein: And he's-- And just to be clear, he's African American.

Awadagin Pratt: He's African American, yes.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah, okay.

Awadagin Pratt: And so he didn't get a certain kind of guidance that he should have had. And-and I met plenty of other younger or not quite that young pianists that just didn't seem to-- it was hard for them to get a foothold in the- in the- in the business.

Simone Dinnerstein: And thinking about this young person, that's what spurred you on into thinking you needed to have some kind of platform to help.

Awadagin Pratt: Yeah, what actually happened is an interesting sequence because the Sphinx organization has a venture fund that I'd applied to for Art of the Piano, and they didn't support it, and then they sent a list of things that they were looking to support which included a piano competition. And I didn't know what I knew two years ago then. Right, and I said, I'm not sure if that's necessary, you know, there might be, um, there are enough avenues for African American musicians to-to get through and it was only when I met this young man that I realized, okay, there's really a need, because I, you know, I-I was- I was kind of livid that I had never heard of him and his talent was so exceptional.

And so then I applied for the Sphinx Venture Fund, again, to do the piano competition, and they supported it, and so then we were able to get the ball rolling.

Simone Dinnerstein: I think that what you're doing with this competition is-is really fantastic, and I'm very much looking forward to hearing the winners of the Nina Simone Piano Competition in this program and seeing where their futures will take them and looking forward to the next iteration of the competition.

Awadagin Pratt: Thanks, Simone.

Simone Dinnerstein: We are going to start our program with a recorded performance by the first-place winner of the seniors division, 15-year-old Kayden Kelly. He is from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and studies piano with Fabio Bidini and HyeJin Kim through the pre-college program at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. Kayden has been playing piano since he was five and also played violin in the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Program for seven years. Let's listen to Kayden in a performance he gave of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G minor this past year at the Colburn School in LA.

[MUSIC - Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 - Kayden Kelly, piano]


Simone Dinnerstein: That was pianist Kayden Kelly performing Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G minor at the Colburn School. We are lucky to have with us the second-place winner of the Artist Division of the Nina Simone Piano Competition. Joshua Mhoon is currently studying at Juilliard with Emanuel Ax and Julian Martin and has in recent years been mentored by Lang Lang, as well as Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Phil. He has been concertizing around the world and collaborating with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Gil Shaham. Joshua, welcome.

Joshua Mhoon: Hi, thank you, Simone.

Simone Dinnerstein: Your first selection is by the composer Robert Nathaniel Dett, who lived from 1882 to 1943. He was recognized as the leading Black composer of his day and was known for his incorporation of African American folk songs and spirituals into his art music. Tell us about the piece that you're going to play.

Joshua Mhoon: I'm going to be playing the second movement of his Cinnamon Grove suite.

Simone Dinnerstein: Why is it called Cinnamon Grove?

Joshua Mhoon: You know, it's a- it's a cute name. I-I don't know.

Simone Dinnerstein: [laughs].

Joshua Mhoon: But, uh, I'm not complaining about it.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay.

Joshua Mhoon: Um, I think that the second movement is less cinnamony in-in its sweetness.

Simone Dinnerstein: Mm-hmm.

Joshua Mhoon: And it's more about devotion.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay.

Joshua Mhoon: And-and there's-- he was a big fan of poetry. His mom made sure that he was aware of poets, made him read all the great poets of before his time.

Simone Dinnerstein: Hmm.

Joshua Mhoon: Um, so a lot of his pieces start off with the poem and every movement of this suite starts off with the poem. And I can't remember the entire poem, but I remember that the ending talks about crime because of the deep love and admiration that is for him.

Simone Dinnerstein: Hmm.

Joshua Mhoon: Which is just, you know, a higher power.

Simone Dinnerstein: Hmm.

Joshua Mhoon: Um, so I think this is the least Cinnamon-like movement of the piece, but it's still beautiful. So I hope you and the listeners can enjoy.

Simone Dinnerstein: I'm looking forward to hearing it.

[MUSIC - Dett: Cinnamon Grove, II. Adagio cantabile - Joshua Mhoon, piano]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was Pianist Joshua Mhoon playing the second movement of R. Nathaniel Dett's, Cinnamon Grove suite here in WQXR Studio. So I know that you brought-- for the next part of your program, you brought a big piece to play-

Joshua Mhoon: Mm-hmm.

Simone Dinnerstein: -the second and third movements of Rachmaninoff's second sonata. Um, is this a piece you've been playing for a while now?

Joshua Mhoon: I actually started it in the summer of 2022.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay.

Joshua Mhoon: And I was in Cincinnati with, uh, Dr. Pratt at his, uh, music festival, Art of the Piano.

Simone Dinnerstein: Oh.

Joshua Mhoon: And, um, you know, Rachmaninoff is just a-a composer that really I love, like-

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah

Joshua Mhoon: -you know, his harmonies are just like beautiful, dense, but, um, there's always, you know, it's an endless melody. He can just write for days and it's-

Simone Dinnerstein: Mm-hmm.

Joshua Mhoon: -just the most gorgeous stuff. And he's also just, for a pianist, it's, you know, it's a dream to play his stuff.

Simone Dinnerstein: Wonderful. Okay, so let's listen to some Rachmaninoff now.

[MUSIC - Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36, II. Non allegro - Lento & III. Allegro molto- Joshua Mhoon, piano]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was our guest, Joshua Mhoon, performing the second and third movements of Rachmaninoff's second piano sonata here in the studio at WQXR. Joshua, that was wonderful.

Joshua Mhoon: Thank you.

Simone Dinnerstein: Um, with-- Did you perform this in the Nina Simone competition?

Joshua Mhoon: I did perform it in the semi-final round.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay, wonderful. So the next piece that you're going to end with is Gershwin.

Joshua Mhoon: Mm-hmm.

Simone Dinnerstein: Embraceable You.

Joshua Mhoon: Yeah.

Simone Dinnerstein: But arranged by the great classical pianist Earl Wilde who is a total virtuoso.

Joshua Mhoon: Sure.

Simone Dinnerstein: So can't wait to hear you play it.

Joshua Mhoon: Of course.

[MUSIC - Gershwin (Arr. Wilde): Embraceable You- Joshua Mhoon, piano]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was George Gershwin's Embraceable You arranged by Earl Wilde and played here at WQXR studios by Joshua Mhoon, our guest. It's time for a quick break now, then I'll be back with more performances by these young stars here on the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase. Welcome back. Tonight we are listening to the winners of the inaugural Nina Simone Piano Competition. New Yorker Clayton Stephenson started piano lessons at age seven and was accepted into the Juilliard Outreach Music Advancement Program for underprivileged children the next year.

Since then, his journey has led him to great heights, including becoming a US presidential scholar in the arts, the first Black finalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and a Gilmore Young Artist, and most recently, he was awarded the Grand Prize of the Nina Simone Piano Competition. He now studies in the Harvard NEC dual degree program pursuing a bachelor's degree in economics at Harvard and a master's degree in piano performance at the New England Conservatory under Wha Kyung Byun. Clayton, it's so great to have you here in WQXR studio.

Clayton Stephenson: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Simone Dinnerstein: Well, um, we're gonna just start by hearing you play one of the most beautiful Bach arrangements by Myra Hess of Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring.

[MUSIC - Bach (Arr. hess): Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring BWV 147- Clayton Stephenson, piano]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was a very beautiful and personal performance of Myra Hess's arrangement of Bach, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, played by our guest, Clayton Stephenson. So the next piece that you're gonna play is a sonata by Scriabin, his fourth sonata and F-sharp Major, and um, Scriabin experienced or had this condition called synesthesia. Um, do you wanna tell our listeners more about that?

Clayton Stephenson: Um, for him, he just thought about different keys as different colors. And so, for him, F-sharp Major was a type of lavender, uh, a little bit lighter purple.

Simone Dinnerstein: Mm-hmm.

Clayton Stephenson: Uh, and so hopefully you get to hear that color shade, uh, while I play this piece.

Simone Dinnerstein: [laughs] Wonderful. Well, let's listen to it.

[MUSIC - Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30- Clayton Stephenson, piano]

[MUSIC - Clayton Stevenson: Scriabin: Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp major for Piano, Opus 30]

Simone Dinnerstein: Wonderful. That was our guest, Clayton Stevenson, performing Scriabin's Sonata Number 4 in F-sharp major, Opus 30. I'm curious to know more about your-your love for piano, where-where did it originate from?

Clayton Stevenson: Well, my mom was a single parent growing up, and she said I was a big troublemaker as a kid, always running around and getting into trouble, and so she was looking for, you know, some time off from me. So she was looking for a babysitter.

Simone Dinnerstein: Ah.

Clayton Stevenson: And she said, "You know, I'm looking through these papers, babysitters are $25 an hour, and there's a piano teacher ad, and it was $30 an hour."

Simone Dinnerstein: Ah.

Clayton Stevenson: So for this extra $5, you know, I'm learning a craft and also, I wouldn't be practicing alone.

Simone Dinnerstein: Okay.

Clayton Stevenson: And so she said, "Why not?" And so she threw me into this, uh, basement, uh, music school, uh, right here in downtown Chinatown. And I think I was really blessed because the first teacher I had there was so special, she taught me really to-to love the music, uh, before, you know, all the technical nitty-gritty things.

Simone Dinnerstein: Mm.

Clayton Stevenson: So I didn't do A2s, I didn't do scales, but played pieces that I loved and I developed a connection with the music and I think that's where my love, um, started growing.

Simone Dinnerstein: Well, um, the next piece you're gonna play is Art Tatum's arrangement of Tea For Two.

Clayton Stevenson: Yes, the 1933 version.

Simone Dinnerstein: All right. Well, I can't wait to hear it.

[MUSIC - Clayton Stevenson: Art Tatum's Tea for Two]

Simone Dinnerstein: Fantastic. That was Clayton Stevenson playing Art Tatum's arrangement of Tea For Two. Wonderful. [laughs]

Clayton Stevenson: It's a great piece, and I-

Simone Dinnerstein: It is great.

Clayton Stevenson: -I love it since, uh, since I saw him playing this very version, and it was one of my goals to be able to play this.

Simone Dinnerstein: Yeah.

Clayton Stevenson: And so I'm so happy I could finally perform it.

Simone Dinnerstein: It was beautiful.

Clayton Stephenson: Thank you.

Simone Dinnerstein: And you play with a very light touch, which is great. Yeah.

Clayton Stephenson: I try.


Simone Dinnerstein: It's been wonderful having you here on the show, and we're gonna conclude by hearing you play Liszt's fiery Hungarian Rhapsody Number 6.

[MUSIC - Clayton Stephenson: Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, Piano]

Simone Dinnerstein: A grand finale to Clayton Stephenson's performance here at WQXR Studios. That was, um, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody Number 6. You've been listening to the winners of the Nina Simone Piano Competition. Thank you to Kayden Kelly out in New Mexico and thank you to Joshua Mhoon and Clayton Stephenson for being here in the WQXR Studio. To close out the night, let's listen to Kayden Kelly play Liszt's Transcendental Étude Number 7, "Eroica," recorded live at the Colburn School.

[MUSIC - Kayden Kelly: Liszt: Transcendental Étude No. 7 in E-flat major, "Eroica," Piano]

Simone Dinnerstein: That was Kayden Kelly performing Liszt's Transcendental Étude Number 7, "Eroica," recorded live at the Colburn School. That completes this week's edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase, which is generously underwritten on WQXR by the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation. Here's Terry McGraw with more.

Terry McGraw: Good evening, everyone. It's great to be with you, and it's always great being with the Young Artists Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gifts with us every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on the showcase, and I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through its well over four decades on WQXR. And there's so much more to come.

Simone Dinnerstein: Thank you, Terry. Special thanks to our WQXR program producers, Laura Boyman and Max Fine. Our session engineer is George Wellington, and our generous program underwriter is the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation. I'm Simone Dinnerstein. Good night.

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