Rising Kiwi piano star Sylvia Jiang will soon be the toast of New York - but not before she wows Kerikeri.

The 18-year-old Aucklander is one of only a handful of New Zealand undergraduate students ever accepted into the world-famous Juilliard School of dance, drama and music in the Big Apple.

Jiang starts at Juilliard in August. But this week she competes against 15 elite musicians at the Kerikeri International Piano Competition.

With a population of just 6500, the remote Northland town - with the marketing slogan of "so good they named it twice" - may seem an unlikely venue for a top-flight classical music contest.


Jiang said competitors from as far afield as China, Russia and the United States have contacted her asking about local nightclubs and malls.

"Some seem to think they are coming to a place the size of Brisbane," Jiang said. "I have been quizzed about the nightlife and shopping centres but the closest they will get to that in Kerikeri is a visit to a farmers' market.

"I have stressed, however, it will probably be the most beautiful place they will ever perform at."

The biennial piano competition is staged at Kerikeri's Turner Centre. It started out in 1987 as a low-key, homegrown affair but attracted an audience of 1200 and competitors from 15 countries in 2012.

The four-day event, which starts on Thursday, is run by a charitable trust headed by a group of enthusiastic and mainly retired music fans. It is funded by corporate and private financial donors, and has a $30,000 prize pot.

"The pianists love coming to Kerikeri because it is different from anything they have experienced," organiser John Jackets said. "Instead of staying in flash city hotels like they are used to, they are billeted with local families.

14 Jun, 2014 9:00am
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"Kerikeri might not be up there with New York or Moscow as an international destination but our piano competition is now regarded as being among the world's best."

Jiang, whose family shifted to New Zealand from China when she was 5, will prepare to move to New York after Kerikeri.

The Juilliard School has produced numerous movie stars such as Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, plus acclaimed musicians Henry Mancini and Barry Manilow. Jiang said she was determined not to be overawed.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming.

"I have heard of kids so nervous at just at being at Juilliard that they can't even perform. That is something I will need to avoid."