Local composer and conductor James Prigmore remembers hearing pianist Gina Bachauer perform in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

"Her performance of the Greig piano concerto, one of the standard `war horses' of the concerto repertoire, was refreshingly spontaneous, colorful and imaginative - so much so, that many of my more conservative musical friends were taken aback by it."Ardean Watts, associate conductor of the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel, remembers Bachauer as a "dignified, powerful presence" and as "the world's best woman pianist." He says she was also instrumental in putting the Utah Symphony on the international map.

"She was so shocked by the quality of the orchestra when she came to solo with us, that she immediately proposed that Abravanel bring the orchestra to Europe." Watts remembers another highlight of Bachauer's association with the Utah Symphony, when she played the Mozart two-piano concerto with the crown princess of Greece.

Given her international stature and connection to Utah music, it seems only natural that Utah's most important piano event should bear Bachauer's name. And that name is becoming more and more famous thanks to the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition's growth.

From the 15th through the 27th of June, 53 of the world's best pianists will compete for a $10,000 grand prize, a Steinway Piano, a CD recording date from Counterpoint Studios and concerto and recital engagements in cities throughout the world.

The competitors can choose what pieces they'll play in the preliminary rounds and have a list of 25 concertos from which to choose in the finals. For the quarterfinals, they must choose one Brahms and one Schubert piece showcasing both the depth and polish of each contestant.

Tickets for the entire contest can be purchased through ArtTix (355-ARTS) or at the Capitol Theatre box office.

Leafing through the 150-page brochure for the 1998 Gina Bachauer competition gives the impression that pianists, not skiers, will be Salt Lake City's most important international visitors.

Among the critical essays, welcomes from President Clinton and Gov. Leavitt and artists' personality profiles are articles by BYU piano professor Paul Pollei, the competition's Founder and Artistic director.

In one, Pollei recounts the event's beginnings as part of the BYU Summer Piano Festival in 1976. Two years later, newly christened "Gina Bachauer," the competition held its final round in Abravanel Hall with the Utah Symphony.

In 1983, it was admitted to the World Federation of International Music Competitions. Three years later, the Gina Bachauer Foundation, a nonprofit organization, began an annual recital series with the Temple Square Concert Series. And soon after, the foundation sponsored a jazz series, a junior competition and a National Symposium on the State of the Piano.

While the Bachauer Foundation has grown since the competition's inception 22 years ago, the "national state of the piano" is waning. Pollei President Woodrow Wilson called a meeting with 100 piano manufacturers and made a concerted effort to make the piano "the symbol of middle-class America." "Now it's not the same," laments Pollei. "Where there were 100 piano manufacturing companies in America, there are now only three. Movies are the main source of entertainment in this country."

One place where classical musicians have a great deal of influence is China, home of 1988 Bachauer winner Xiang-Dong Kong. "In China, he has bodyguards so he won't be mobbed," Pollei said of his former student.

He remembers going into a busy restaurant in China with Xiang-Dong. "Little girls tee-heed as we entered and people asked for autographs. He's a Michael Jackson figure there." Xiang-Dong now resides in Los Angeles; Pollei helped bring him to the United States.

Another country where classical piano has developed a strong following is Japan, which is sending six pianists to this year's competition. One of them is Harunsuke Morinaga, who has been studying with Pollei.

Mourinaga's connection to Pollei shouldn't help him with the international panel of 15 judges, however - there are no favorites going in.

Part of what makes the Bachauer such fun is the element of the unexpected. It's also a treat for music lovers to hear so many artists of this calibre in such a short time.

According to noted pianist and critic Dean Elder, "Piano criticism is not totally subjective." After Gail Niwa's transcendent winning performance of Rachmoninoff's Variations on a Theme By Paganini in the 1991 Bachauer finals, his statement seems validated. The atmosphere was electric as she sauntered onstage after her third curtain call.

It's not always this obvious. When the jury does pick a winner, sometime around midnight on June 27th, what will matter most is the level of artistry and enthusiasm this contest brings to Salt Lake City.