The last time pianist Ning An performed in Salt Lake City, it was with the American West Symphony in the comfortable surroundings of the Assembly Hall.

This time, Ning will perform in Abravanel Hall under the scrutiny of 15 strict judges. Ning is one of 47 competitors at the 12th Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. Fortunately, there will also be an audience of appreciative piano aficionados present, and it is to them that Ning will be addressing his virtuosic talents."If you take it like an audition, then performing at a competition is hard, but I treat it as a performance," Ning says. "I perform to the audience and I don't think about the judges."

A competition is "like an endurance test," he explained. "You have to prepare so many more pieces than for a recital. You need about 2 to 21/2 hours' worth of music, as opposed to about 70 minutes for a recital."

Ning is almost an old hand at competing, having taken part in countless competitions during the past few years. He won third prize at the 1997 Cleveland International Piano Competition and top honors at both the 1993 Kosciusko Chopin Competition and the 1991 Stravinsky International Piano Competition, to name a few.

He views the Bachauer competition as "a chance to gain some international recognition."

Ning was born in China but now calls Cleveland his home. He lived in Utah for a number of years, and as a boy studied piano with Gladys Gladstone.

"My father, who is also a pianist, came here to attend the University of Utah and study with Gladys (Gladstone)," Ning explained. "He brought my mom and me out here later.

"Dad then got a job with a ballet company in Richmond, Virginia, and moved us there. Finally, we moved to Cleveland."

Living in a musical home made it almost certain that Ning would also take up music. "Both my parents brought me up on classical music. I started playing the piano when I was 41/2 years old."

Ning played his first full concerto when he was 14 and gave his first recital a year later, in Cleveland. He has quite an extensive repertoire now that includes a lot of contemporary music, along with Beethoven and Mozart.

His program for the Bachauer competition ranges from Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov to Messiaen.

Ning is enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he's working on his bachelor of music degree under Russell Sherman. The summer months find him at the Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.

"I would like to organize a summer concert series in China," Ning says. "I did some radio broadcast performances there in 1992, and I would like to return there." But that'll have to wait until he can find more time for everything he wants to accomplish.

Ning is an ambitious and determined young man, character traits that are vital to anyone wishing to succeed as a concert pianist.

However, when asked what his long-term goals are, the soft-spoken Ning answered simply and unassumingly: "I want to be the best musician I can be. Everything else will come along with that goal."