SALT LAKE CITY — In an old AIG insurance commercial, a boy around 6 years old cautiously approaches a diving board ladder and steadily ascends the rungs. When the child reaches the top and takes his first step onto the diving board, the voiceover says, “At AIG, we believe the greatest risk is not taking one.”
The young diver was Mackenzie Melemed, and that AIG commercial ended up playing a surprisingly important role in his blossoming piano career.
“I was sick that day,” Melemed recalled. “And I think I made enough money to buy my first upright piano because (the commercial) was aired during the Oscars.”
The upright piano was a significant step up from the keyboard his grandfather bought for $1 at a yard sale, but that keyboard played an essential part in Melemed's piano history — it was the one on which Melemed began practicing at age 4 when his stepfather signed him up for lessons he’d read about in a newspaper ad.
Now 23 years old, Melemed, who graduated with a master’s degree from the Juilliard School last month, has come a long way from that $1 keyboard. And his next piano adventure begins when he lands in Utah Saturday evening to compete in the prestigious 42nd annual Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, which runs June 10-23 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and Abravanel Hall.
Melemed, a Massachusetts native, is one of 40 pianists from locations spanning 17 countries participating in this year’s competition. Including first-ever participants from Algeria and Croatia, these pianists, who range in age from 19-32, represent the most diverse group ever assembled for a Bachauer competition, according to a news release. While about one-fourth of the competitors are representing the United States, none this year come from Utah. But in many ways, the Beehive State has become a second home for Melemed since his first visit six years ago.
A second home
The pianist was 17 years old when he first came to Utah to compete in Bachauer’s Young Artists Piano Competition in 2012. Melemed said while he was here, he practiced significantly less than his competitors — somewhere between two and four hours a day — leaving him with ample time to sightsee with his host family, John and Betsy Nagel, of Holladay. He went on a tour of Utah Olympic Park, drove through the canyons of Heber Valley, stayed in the Nagels’ family cabin near Park City and discovered one of the best burgers of his life at Hi-Mountain, an eatery nestled inside a Kamas drugstore. He also managed to place fifth in the Young Artists Competition — the highest-ranked U.S. pianist that year.
“The Bachauer was one of my first big travel experiences, and I really loved Utah,” Melemed said. “… (The Nagels) were just a really big support and they’ve sort of become part of the family and the fan club (for me) out there.”
Betsy Nagel is grateful she and her husband chose to be a host family in 2012 — although initially, it wasn't something she was looking forward to doing. The Nagels had recently returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Houston and weren't yet settled in their Utah home. They even tried coming up with excuses to get out of being a host family, but in the end, Betsy Nagel couldn't say no to her friend who worked for the Bachauer Piano Foundation — which ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“It just turned out to be a wonderful matchup and the beginning of a great friendship for us," she said. "(Melemed) fell in love with Utah. We ended up looking at Park City real estate, and he said, 'If I get rich, I’m going to live here.' … We just had a delightful time and after he left, it was like he was now (our) grandchild.”
Following that 2012 competition, Melemed stayed in touch with the Nagels and has even flown out a few times since to visit them. And thanks to Betsy Nagel’s friendship with Tabernacle organist Linda Margetts, Melemed got a chance to play the organ at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square during his trip last summer.
"I don’t know if every host family ends up feeling like this, but I know a lot of them do," Betsy Nagel said. “It’s been a really fun relationship and we’re happy to have him come again. It’ll be a nice two weeks.”
Launching an international career
In addition to giving him lifelong friends, Melemed’s participation in the Bachauer Young Artists Competition also helped him gain an international following. As the highest-ranking U.S. participant from 2012, Melemed has performed several concerts in the Czech Republic. A layover in Helsinki on his way to the Czech Republic got Melemed, a self-prescribed "language buff," interested in learning Finnish. He ended up studying the language for three years at Columbia University during his studies at the Juilliard School and won first prize last year in Finland’s prominent Maj Lind Piano Competition.
Melemed added that placing in the 2012 Bachauer competition gave him much needed encouragement and confidence that he could actually make a successful career out of piano performance.
“I just heard really good things about (the Bachauer competition). When you asked people, everyone seemed to come to this consensus that Bachauer had a good reputation,” he said. “… It’s more of a family experience than one that makes you feel isolated and divided as a participant or contestant. The environment is just really great and supportive.”
Melemed also has a lot of people cheering him on this time around. He looks forward to staying with the Nagels once again, but he also relies on the unwavering support from his 91-year-old patron, Diana Glimm, who has supported him since she first heard him perform as a 12-year-old in Massachusetts. She was so impressed with him at the time that she helped fund his education, and the two have remained close ever since.
If Melemed makes it to the top 12 in the semifinal round of the upcoming Bachauer competition, Glimm will fly to Salt Lake City to watch him compete.
“She’s been everywhere with me,” Melemed said. “She’s sort of like my adopted grandmother and I’m her adopted grandson and we travel, even though we have no relation.”
What Melemed gets to do in Utah this time around depends on his performance in the competition — but he's definitely returning to Hi-Mountain in Kamas to get that long-anticipated burger. After the first week of competing, judges narrow the 40 participants down to 12 semifinalists. Three pianists are then chosen to perform in the final round, each performing twice with the Utah Symphony in two evenings of concerto performances.
“My guess is that he’ll be in the final 12," Betsy Nagel said. "He’s won every competition that he’s been in.”1 comment on this story
For Melemed, success in this competition could be crucial to gaining an even broader international fan base and performing throughout the world.
"I’m really trying to have the performance career that I always thought was impossible," he said. "Now that I’m getting kind of close, I really want to do it as much as I can for as long as I can and just hope that doing these competitions will give me a little bit more (edge). I’m just anxious to get back. Not only for the competition but to see my friends.”