Since 1978 Palm Desert, California has been host to aspiring young pianists from around the world and has launched many into significant musical careers. At the same time, visitors and residents have enjoyed listening to great classical piano free of charge. Started in 1978 as a segment of a piano conference at the College of the Desert, the Competition soon became established as the Joanna Hodges International Piano Competition under the direction of the artist/piano pedagogue of the same name.(Click here for Joanna Hodges Bio.)
In 1999 the Hodges competition was revitalized thanks to the Herculean efforts of Peggy Cravens. In 1999, John Norman, who was still the fine arts division chair from the college [COD], went to Hodges board member Virginia Waring and said, “It’s just a shame that the Joanna Hodges Piano Competition just went away. Would you take on the presidency?” Virginia replied, “John I would love to see it revived, but I’m not a fund-raiser. Let me call my friend Peggy Cravens and, if she’ll do it, we can do it together.” So that’s what happened.
Waring, wife of choral legend Fred Waring and an internationally respected pianist in her own right, hosted some start-up cocktail parties. Then Cravens and her fellow fund-rising leader Dr. Gerald Bentson, went to city councils, philanthropists and the media with a pitch that became the continuing message of the importance of the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition.
“I’d always say, if we can have international tennis tournaments, golf tournaments, film festivals, etc., there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t have an international piano competition as we are an international destination recreation spot,” said Cravens. “That usually caused them to at least listen to what we had to say.”
Ms. Hodges’ original goal was “to provide young pianists through age 32 with performance opportunities.” To this day winners are awarded recital and concerto dates throughout the United States and Europe. Participation now includes three categories: Juniors (age 12 and under); Intermediate (13 through 17) and Seniors (age 18 through 30.)
Contestants participate in both solo and concerto rounds as well as Master Classes in each age category. Winners have earned performance opportunities in Vienna, London, Rome, Carnegie Hall – Weill Hall (NYC), Florida, Denver, Snowmass, CO, San Francisco, as well as Cathedral City, Palm Desert, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage, California.
In 2001 the Competition was reorganized and renamed The Virginia Waring International Piano Competition in honor of a beloved desert resident who enjoyed a long and successful musical career. Virginia (Mrs. Fred) Waring toured extensively as part of the duo-piano team of Morley and Gearhart. Virginia remained actively involved with artistic matters of the competition until her death in 2013. (Click here for bio of Virginia Waring.)
From 2005 to 2013, a special category in the Senior Division was devoted to performances of the music of Ernst Krenek, the Austrian composer who for many years made Palm Springs his home. Sponsored by the Krenek Society and the composer’s widow, Gladys Krenek, the winner in this category performed in Vienna and in Steyr, Austria.
College of the Desert was the Competition’s home through 2005. The McCallum Theatre is a partner in presenting the winners. In 2007, the Competition moved to larger facilities at the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino.
Community support includes a large cadre of volunteers who provide housing for competitors and transportation and other services throughout the competition. An active Board of Directors governs the Competition.(Click here for list of Board of Directors and Executive Committee.).
Major supporters of this major musical event included The Annenberg Foundation, the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation, the McCarthy Family Foundation and from JoAnn McGrath and her Foundation. Additional sponsorship came from The City of Palm Desert, the City of Indian Wells, the City of Rancho Mirage and the City of La Quinta. Additional support comes from the Sirpuhe and John Conte Foundation, the Philibosian Foundation and other philanthropists. Numerous competition awards are underwritten by local patrons and foundations. Steinway was the official competition piano, through local dealer SoCal Pianos of Palm Desert from 2005 through 2013. SoCal Pianos has provided all competition pianos since 2015.
In 2004 Dr. Patricia Taylor Lee was named Artistic Director, and served through the 2015 Competition. (Click here for her bio.) In April of 2015, John Bayless was named Artistic Director. (Click here for his bio). After the 2005 Competition, the competitions moved to the Palm Desert Campus of California State University, San Bernardino (while construction is in progress at College of the Desert.) Currently, the Competition occurs every other year, with age divisions alternating. The Junior and Intermediate Competitions (ages 17 and under) took place in 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. The Senior Competition for ages 18 – 35 took place in 2009, 2013 and in 2017, the age restriction was altered to age 18 – 30. The next Senior Competition will be in 2021.
In addition to performance opportunities, scholarships are given to both solo and concerto winners in each division. In 2006, the Competition began bringing past contestants and winners into local schools for outreach assemblies.
To excite, educate, and engage the community at large with the joy of classical piano by presenting, promoting, and nurturing classical music through live piano performance including international competitions, concerts, and local educational outreach programs for all ages.
Alive and Well in the Contemporary World