LSU to Receive National Endowment for the Arts’ Challenge America Grant

January 10, 2023

BATON ROUGE – LSU has been approved by the National Endowment for the Arts, or the NEA, to receive a Challenge America award of $10,000. The grant will support the Collaborative Piano Institute at the LSU School of Music, a three-week annual summer program for up to 100 pianists, singers, composers, string instrumentalists and bassoonists.

This year’s edition will focus specifically on issues of race, underrepresentation and bias in classical music. Eight Black, Indigenous People of Color, or BIPOC, faculty and guest artists will be supported by the NEA to deliver more than 70 lectures, discussions, master classes and live performances from June 4 to 24—as well as private lessons and ensemble coaching sessions for participants who come from all over the world, with preference for people from underserved and underrepresented communities. The live performances will be free and open to the public.

The grant is one of 262 Challenge America awards totaling $2.62 million that were announced by the NEA as part of its first round of fiscal year 2023 grants.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support arts projects in communities nationwide,” said NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson.

“Projects, such as this one with LSU, strengthen arts and cultural ecosystems, provide equitable opportunities for arts participation and practice and contribute to the health of our communities and our economy.”

Maria Rosario Jackson, National Endowment for the Arts chair

BIPOC composers and performers have historically been marginalized in classical music. The Collaborative Piano Institute at LSU describes underrepresentation as “the effect of a cascading set of issues that begin when a child interested in music lives in financial hardship” where time with adults, transportation, music books and instruments are scarce. Even when underserved performers make it to the professional level, they often face “bias and steep competition from privileged peers.”

Ana María Otamendi

Ana María Otamendi, associate professor of collaborative piano and co-director of the Collaborative Piano Institute, is one of the faculty leads on the National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Faculty lead on the LSU award is Ana María Otamendi, associate professor of collaborative piano and co-director of the Collaborative Piano Institute together with LSU Professional-in-Residence Elena Lacheva. Otamendi made her orchestral debut at age 12 in her home country of Venezuela, served as principal keyboardist in the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra and joined the LSU faculty in 2017. Besides her illustrious career in music, recognized with an LSU Rising Faculty Research Award in 2021, Otamendi is a trained geophysical engineer.

“Providing insight into all of the different things you can do as a collaborative pianist was our founding vision for the Collaborative Piano Institute,” Otamendi said. “We really try to keep our tuition as low as possible, and with support from the NEA, we can now give more scholarships to students from diverse backgrounds, especially students who would be unable to afford coming otherwise.”

The Collaborative Piano Institute hosted by LSU got its start in 2017 as the first program nationwide to educate artists on all aspects of the complex musical partnerships required by collaborative pianists, including strong instrumental ensemble skills as well as skills needed for opera rehearsals, ballet repertoire, art song and vocal coaching. To be a collaborative pianist simply means to perform with others, not solo.

The Collaborative Piano Institute 2023 invited artist roster will include Mexican Grammy-award-winning mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, who sings classical, contemporary, mariachi and jazz music; Iranian pianist, conductor and vocal coach Sahar Nouri with Opera Colorado and the San Francisco Opera; African American pianist and vocal coach Howard Watkins with Metropolitan Opera, African American recitalist and opera singer baritone Timothy Jones; the Venezuelan Reverón Piano Trio, comprised of violinist Simón Gollo, cellist Horacio Contreras and pianist Ana María Otamendi, devoted to the relatively unknown Latin American piano trio repertoire; and noted performer, scholar and professor specializing in the concert repertoire of African American composers, African American soprano Louise Toppin.

“I’m Latin American and I’ve been working really hard in the last 10 years to showcase Latin American chamber music repertoire, which is really not played or known, not even in Latin America,” Otamendi said. “Meanwhile, it’s a rich and beautiful repertoire, so the goal of the Reverón trio, for example, is to perform, record, edit, publish and catalogue these works so other people can find them. It’s all about making music more accessible for anyone who wants to play and hear it.”

For the first time, the 2023 program will include composition, led by LSU School of Music faculty Mara Gibson and Brian Nabors. Several other LSU faculty support the program overall, including Sandra Moon, Paul Groves and Loraine Sims for voice; violinist Espen Lilleslatten, violist Kimberly Sparr and cellist Dennis Parker for strings; and bassoonist Nanci Belmont for woodwinds.

The Collaborative Piano Institute offers scholarships to participants based on merit and need. Applications can be made on the Collaborative Piano Institute webpage.