Henry Kramer didn’t begin playing the piano until he was 11 years old, a relative late-comer to classical music. Thursday night, the gifted musician from Cape Elizabeth won an Avery Fisher Career Grant, a top prize in his field.

Administered by Lincoln Center in New York, the award recognizes musicians poised for exceptional solo careers and comes with a $25,000 award.

“It’s one of those things that all young musicians dream of and hope to get. And if you actually do, it’s great – it’s just great. I don’t know what else to say,” Kramer said by phone on Friday.

Kramer, 32, teaches piano at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. He graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School in 2005, received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Juilliard School and his doctoral degree from Yale School of Music.

His father said Kramer became interested in classical music because of the movies. He never touched a piano and knew nothing about classical music until a friend who was taking lessons played the theme song from the movie “Titanic” on the family piano. “The next morning, I wake up and I hear the ‘Titanic’ theme song coming from downstairs. I walk down, and Henry is playing it note by note,” Asher Kramer said. “A month later, he’s playing Mozart.”

Kramer studied with Liz Manduca in Portland and quickly flourished.

“I didn’t know classical music existed until that point,” he said on Thursday from the stage at the Greene Space at WNYC/WQXR, which hosted the awards ceremony. Winning the award, he told the audience, “makes you feel like you are being invited to do this for your life.”

Henry Kramer says the Avery Fisher Career Grant means more to him than the prestige. “What it means is encouragement to be as excellent as I can.” Vanessa Briceno

Since 1976, when the awards began, 153 musicians have won. They are nominated by a committee of their peers without their knowledge and selected by an executive committee under the auspices of Lincoln Center, the New York arts center and performance venue that administers the awards. The committee operates in secrecy, said Melissa Reardon, artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, which has featured Kramer several times, along with many other Avery Fisher Career Grant winners.

“The prize is something that is very coveted, and no one knows how they make the decision. It’s a mysterious process,” she said. “A lot of people who receive this prize are very talented and are doing well in their careers. It’s a sign of the potential to come and where they have already arrived in their careers thus far. It’s a very special thing to be chosen for this prize.”

The prize is intended to offer professional assistance and recognition to instrumentalists with the “great potential for solo careers,” according to the website of Lincoln Center. Other winners were the Jack Quartet, violinist Angelo Xiang Yu and the piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton.

The Avery Fisher Career Grant is a stepping stone to the Avery Fisher Prize, which comes with a $100,000 award and recognizes musicians who have reached the potential of their careers. Career grant winners who became Avery Prize winners include Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Richard Stoltzman, Pamela Frank, Gil Shaham and Sarah Chang.

The Avery Fisher grant is the latest of many honors for Kramer. In 2015, he won the William Petschek Recital Debut Award from The Juilliard School and took second place in the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition. He also earned top prizes in the 2015 Honens International Piano Competition, the 2011 Montreal International Music Competition, and the China Shanghai International Piano Competition, among others.

In addition to being a fine musician, Kramer also is a stand-up guy, said Jennifer Elowitch, a Portland native and former artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival. “Henry is one of the finest pianists I have had the opportunity to work with, and he is the antithesis of the moody, dark pianist people might imagine,” Elowitch wrote in a Facebook message on Friday afternoon. “In fact, I can honestly say I’ve never had more fun playing with someone. He once did a handstand mid-rehearsal. He is also supremely expressive and his technique is flawless.”

Kramer returns to Maine often, and his next trip is coming right up. He performs April 5 at the Franco Center in Lewiston. He will return in June to play at the Bach Virtuosi Festival.

Winning the award means more prestige, more attention and more expectations, he said. “For me personally, what it means is encouragement to be as excellent as I can and try to keep pushing myself to do new projects and play the best I can and further develop my talent,” he said. “Professionally, this will help open doors. When people know you have won this award, there is a certain expectation about what your playing will be like.”

For Kramer, winning the award also means he can finally talk about it. He’s known since December, but was sworn to secrecy until Thursday’s announcement.

“It was exciting to finally let the secret out,” he said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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