A gentle, introspective expression passed over Evren Ozel’s face as he began playing the melody of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11.
The 21-year-old Minneapolis native had played Chopin hundreds — if not thousands — of times before, but this time the stakes were higher.
Ozel’s performance Feb. 29 at the National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami earned him the second-place prize. He walked away with $30,000 and a spot in next fall’s International Chopin Competition in Poland — one of the world’s most prestigious piano contests.
A lot of hard work has led to this moment, starting with his first lessons at age 3.
“It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time,” he said.
Minnesota’s Frederic Chopin Society will host Ozel in concert sometime in September — a final Minnesota send-off before he leaps onto the world stage in Warsaw.
It won’t be the first time he’s wowed hometown audiences. Ozel has won nearly every top prize for young musicians in the state. He has performed with the Minnesota Orchestra. He’s even gotten a taste of international acclaim, taking first prize at the Boston Symphony Concerto Competition in 2016 and second at the 2018 Dublin International Piano Competition.
Now he’s on the path to becoming a world-class concert pianist.
In May he will make his Paris debut at the Salle Cortot, the historic Art Deco concert hall that’s been graced by such greats as Nadia Boulanger, Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich. He’ll also be featured soon on programs in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.
Through it all, the music of Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin has been a constant.
Chopin in the blood
Ozel’s father, also a pianist, is the founding artistic director of the Chopin Society. For three decades, it has presented some of the most influential piano powerhouses in modern music, including Simone Dinnerstein, Stephen Hough and Daniil Trifonov.
“Since I was probably 5 years old I went to the Chopin Society concerts,” said Ozel. “Just being able to see live piano music, five times per year for many years … that had a tremendous influence on me.”
His father, Tadeusz Majewski, said he knew his son was destined for great things when he discovered the boy had perfect pitch.
Ozel started at MacPhail Center for Music’s Suzuki Program, then began studying with Prof. Paul Wirth at age 8.
“All of us in Minnesota are just on cloud nine about this,” said Wirth, who taught Ozel for seven years.
The pianist is now in his junior year at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he studies with Wha Kyung Byun, his teacher since 2014.
“She’s been such a huge inspiration,” Ozel said.
Over the years, he’s nurtured a special gift for Chopin.
At the New England Conservatory, he won the Honors Piano Competition in 2018 with a performance of Chopin’s Impromptu No. 2. He has received scholarships from the Chopin Foundation. At the 2018 Dublin International Competition, Ozel won a special prize for a performance of Chopin repertoire.
‘A turning point’
If the Miami contest was a test run, the international competition will be the real thing. Pianists from around the world will flock to Warsaw in October to vie for the top prize won by superstar forebears like Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich.
“It’s a turning point in his life,” said Majewski. “He dreamt about the Chopin competition 10 years ago, and now he’s there, and winning.”
Both competitions are held only once every five years, and Ozel is on the younger end of the applicant pool, making his success all the more impressive.
It took four rounds to reach the finals in Miami. Starting in earnest last August, Ozel prepared 13 pieces to play from Chopin’s expansive repertoire for piano. He solidified his win with the E minor concerto, but was also awarded special prizes for his performances of Chopin Mazurkas and Polonaises.
In true Minnesota Nice fashion, Ozel was humble and just happy for the opportunity.
“The biggest reward you can ask for is being able to perform everything you’ve prepared and to share it with the audience and the jury,” he said.
Liv Martin (email@example.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.