Seventeen years ago, Hampton Bays resident Liliane Questel attended a concert presented by Pianofest in the Hamptons at Avram Theater at the Stony Brook Southampton campus (back when it was still Long Island University’s Southampton College). Pianofest is the annual summer program founded more than three decades ago by pianist Paul Schenly, and each year, it brings stellar young pianists from around the world, many of whom are college students, to the East End for month long residencies where they learn, perform and build on their skills in a supportive setting surrounded by peers.
When Questel pulled into the Avram parking lot to attend that Pianofest concert all those summers ago, one thing immediately struck her.
“I saw there were so many cars,” she said. “I know half of them must be from people who are here year round.”
That observation led Questel, who is, herself, a pianist and a graduate of the Brussels Conservatory and Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, to create the Rising Stars Piano Series at the Southampton Cultural Center (SCC), where she is a board member.
Founded in 2003, the much lauded series has been going strong ever since. The mission of the Rising Stars Piano Series is a simple one — to provide performance opportunities primarily for participants and alumni of Pianofest of the Hamptons. Though truth be told, at this point many of these musicians are no longer “rising stars” but successful pianists in their own right and highly celebrated performers with stellar careers.
Which is why Questel feels Rising Stars is so special.
With concerts held each fall and spring at the Southampton Cultural Center’s Levitas Center for the Arts, Questel explains that her goal in creating Rising Stars was to provide off-season residents with the same high quality performances that summer audiences enjoy with Pianofest. Helping to make the series a success and select likely candidates for the concert line-up is pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski, an artist-in-residence at Pianofest and the managing director of Rising Stars.
The 2019/2020 season of the Rising Stars Piano Series kicks off on Saturday, September 7, with a performance by Soyeon Kate Lee, a returning Pianofest participant. Lee, who took first prize in the 2010 Naumburg International Piano Competition and the 2004 Concert Artist Guild International Competition, will perform works by Debussy, Chopin and Granados at SCC. The Korean-American pianist has been lauded by both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
While Rising Stars has a dedicated and loyal following, Questel is now actively looking to spread the word and build a larger audience for the series.
“We have people, but we don’t have enough. This hall is the most beautiful hall in the area and it’s designed for music,” she said. “My series is for those who live here in fall and spring who don’t have this kind of music. The pianists are coming back, but it’s very difficult to fill the hall, and this hall is smaller than Avram theater.
“I have people who are happy to come. We’re bringing music here when there is none …”
Those who do frequent the Rising Stars series are well aware that the music they are hearing is made by an international group of pianists who represent countries around the world.
“It’s not always strictly classical either,” said Questel. “We’ve had someone do jazz and improvisation.”
Sometimes, a pianist will even bring a unique spin on the music, as was literally the case with Vincent Ip, who is also an accomplished and passionate figure skater.
“He played his pieces on roller skates,” remarked Questel.
Seeing dynamic and talented pianists is not only entertaining, it can also be inspirational, particularly for young students of the instrument. For that reason, Questel is particularly interested in reaching out to schools for help in encouraging budding pianists to come see the rising (and often risen) stars of Rising Stars. Last August, Rising Stars offered a special summer concert featuring Hampton Bays native and Julliard graduate Matthew Maimone, someone who could serve as a strong inspiration for other local piano students.
“Parents will spend a lot of money for lessons, but often do nothing else for the student,” she said. “At our concerts, which are free for students, you can listen for an hour and then go to dinner.”
And who knows, perhaps over dinner, talk will turn to who might be the next local rising piano star.
Soyeon Kate Lee performs at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 7, at Southampton Cultural Center’s Levitas Center for the Arts, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $ 20 if in advance at scc-arts.org or $25 at the door (students under 21 free). The fall Rising Stars Piano Series will continue with Robin Giesbrecht on September 28 and Kara Huber on November 9.