For South Korean pianist Su Yeon Kim, the music of Frederic Chopin is a way of life and competing in the world's most prestigious event bearing the French-Polish composer's name is a dream come true.
She says the first piece by the 19th-century composer and piano virtuoso -- who was born in 1810 and died in 1849 -- that she learned to play as a child was his Minute Waltz, AFP reported.
"Coming here was my dream because Chopin is my favorite composer. I never tire" of his music, the 27-year-old told AFP in Warsaw where she is hoping to secure a spot in the finals of the 18th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition later this month.
Held every five years since 1927, the Chopin competition would normally have been held last year, but was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic -- a first since World War II.
"It was challenging to get all the competitors into Poland," says Artur Szklener, director of the National Institute of Frederic Chopin.
Running from October 2 to 23, the event has drawn 87 pianists from across the globe, including 22 from China, 16 from Poland and 14 from Japan.
Competitors must be aged between 16 and 30.
"It's the most prestigious competition that can open the doors to a great career," says fellow competitor Eva Gevorgyan, a 17-year-old Russian-Armenian.
Previous winners include some of the greatest names in classical music, such as Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman.
- 'Not loud enough' -
Unlike Kim, Gevorgyan hails from a family of musicians.
"I used to take Eva to all my rehearsals and that made her want to play," says her mother, Ksenia Cherenkova, who studied viola at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.
"When she was three years old, she was given a violin. She broke it because the sound wasn't loud enough for her. That's when we thought of the piano," Cherenkova chuckles.
But she admits to having had misgivings about her daughter becoming a musician: "I know how difficult it can be."
The two young pianists have trodden similar paths: music school with four to eight hours of practice every day that left little time for sports or reading.
Kim now studies at the Mozarteum University Salzburg in Austria, while Gevorgyan is finishing high school and hopes to enter the Moscow Conservatory.
Both are already making their mark in the music world.
Kim won first prize at this year's Montreal International Music Competition.
Gevorgyan has already won prizes in more than 40 international competitions.
This week, both qualified for the third stage of the Chopin competition alongside 21 other candidates. Ten of them will go on to perform in the October 18-20 final.
- 'Surpassing ourselves' -
One of the 17 jury members, Argentinian concert pianist Nelson Goerner, believes that pandemic-related lockdowns have helped raise the level of this year's competition.
Faced with an unusually rich pool of talent, the jury bent the rules to admit seven more competitors than the 80 normally allowed.
"I was on the jury for the previous edition, but the level this year is remarkable," Goerner told AFP.
"The pianists have had more time to prepare and I think the pandemic has awakened in all of us a desire to go further, to surpass ourselves," he said.
"You can hear it in how these young pianists are playing."
Broadcast live on YouTube and via the Chopin Competition mobile app, the contest has attracted record online interest, the organizers say.
Some 45,000 people logged on the internet to listen to the second stage held this week at the Warsaw Philharmonic.
The jury will announce a winner on October 20 and finalists will perform in gala concerts until October 23.
"When I'm on stage, I don't think about winning. I want to perform and connect with the audience. That's my greatest pleasure," says Kim.