For a few days each year, a Hilton Head Island church becomes a venue for a handful of international pianists vying for recognition and cash prizes.
For the first time this year, they also have a shot at a much larger stage.
The Hilton Head International Piano Competition will offer its winner a studio recording on the Steinway & Sons record label. Although the performers beginning competition Monday have experience on national stages, the award is an opportunity to reach their largest audience yet, competition director Mona Huff said.
"Obviously as a performer, the thing you want most is to be heard," Huff said. "And young adults are at the threshold of their career, so any boost up like this is huge."
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The prize package, valued at $40,000, will also include global marketing and distribution of the record, Huff said.
But first, the 20 performers ages 18 to 30 -- some from as far away as Korea, Algeria and Chile -- must tackle three rounds of competition. Each pianist will have 55 minutes of playing time between Monday and Thursday at Hilton Head Island High School's Seahawk Cultural Center.
A new venue for the competition, the center's stadium-style seating should offer audiences better views of the artists, Huff said.
But when crowds grow for the semifinals March 15, the top six performers will return to the First Presbyterian Church. Three finalists will also compete there at 7 p.m. March 17, performing a concerto with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
Although only one pianist will leave with the prestige of first place, the competition features another new honor, this one for a musician who does not make it to the final round.
The $1,000 Sascha Gorodnitzki Memorial Prize, endowed by the Gorodnitzki Foundation, honors the premier pianist who taught at The Juilliard School until his death in 1986.
The winner of that prize is left to the judges' discretion, Huff said.
"All of these artists coming to compete are all truly world-class musicians already, so it's a matter of acknowledging their promise."
Six competitors who do not advance to the semifinals also take master classes with the judges. All of them have opportunities to perform across southern Beaufort County, both through concerts for churches, retirement communities and clubs, and as ambassadors at local schools.
"Some of these children have never been to a live concert, so it's really an experience for them," Huff said. "The outreach with this is immense."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.