It was, indeed, an evening of musical grace and grandeur at last weekend’s 22nd annual Young Texas Artist competition, under the auspices of the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, and with continuing generous support from leading sponsor, Entergy Corporation. Even before the Saturday night contest finals began, the attractive attire and enthusiastic chatter of the sophisticated audience, hinted of a very special occasion. MCPAS and it’s hard-working YTA Committee Chair, Susie Pokorski, (ably assisted by husband Jim), would have every reason to be proud of the program that followed.
Again this year, Bob Stevenson, of KUHF 88.7 FM, Houston Public Radio, served skillfully as host for the concert. Thanks to increasing generosity from Entergy, the final competition featured seven finalists competing for cash prizes totaling $15,000, more than at any time in the history of the competition. Winners can also look forward to opportunities to perform with various symphonies, opera companies and choral groups in Texas. There is also a prestigious opportunity for one winner to perform in recital at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, in the beautiful Zilkha Hall.
A distinguished five-judge panel was charged with selecting the best musicians in categories including Piano, Voice, Orchestral Instruments, and Strings. Judges included Emelyne Bingham, (Music Director and Conductor of the Columbus Ohio Women’s Orchestra), Wesley Cease, PhD., (violinist and conductor), John Ellis, (Director of Graduate Studies in Piano Pedagogy – U. of Michigan), Joseph Mechavich (Principal Conductor/Music Director of Opera Birmingham), and Michael Chadwick (Director of The Living Opera in North Dallas). Chadwick, by the way, graduated from McCullough High School in The Woodlands and worked on community shows there in the late 1980’s.
Seven contest finalists, whose ages ranged from 18 to 30, received awards of $1,000.00 (Division runners-up), and $2,000.00 (Division winners). In the Vocal Division, the judges determined that only one candidate was fully qualified for the final competition, so Susan Draper (M.S. in Vocal Performance- U. of Houston Moores School of Music) was awarded the special Honorable Mention Award for her gay and witty performance (in German) of “Three Lied from Italienischer Liederbuch,” by Hugo Wolf. In the Strings Division, Caroline Slack (Austin Symphony, Austin Lyric Opera Orchestra) was runner-up for her very capable performance of the demanding Brahms “Violin Concerto in D Major.” Double Bassist, John Shiu (Baylor Symphony), won the Strings Division by exploring the instruments possibilities with keen focus and dramatic finger dexterity during his performance of Bottesini’s “Concerto No.2.” In the Orchestral Instruments category there were two amazing performances. Full of enthusiasm, and with joyful countenance, Aubrey Foard (Masters candidate at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music), beautifully performed the playful and spirited John Williams “Tuba Concerto,” ably demonstrating the widely underestimated range of an instrument, which, in this piece, sometimes reminded one of the French horn. Competing with Foard was the dazzlingly talented clarinetist, Jonathan Jones, a sophomore at Southern Methodist University. Jones performed Rossini’s “Introduction, Theme and Variations” with such perfection, and such rapid-fire and astounding dexterity, it appeared to be all but humanly impossible. The audience cheered so wildly that host, Stevenson, humorously suggested Jones might have brought along a fan club. Indeed, the audience would later vote Mr. Jones the $1,000.00 Audience Choice Award. The judges were so impressed with both Foard and Jones, they awarded the two duplicate First-Place Awards in their division.
In the Piano Division, gorgeous scarlet-colored gowns were the order of the evening for both competitors: Jessica Wei Zhu, and Shiue-Lin Day. With arms and hands that moved with the grace of a ballerina, talented Miss Day brought a fluid delicacy and elegant crispness to her brilliant performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No.1.” She was rewarded with the thousand-dollar runner-up award. Miss Zhu would garner $4,000.00 by winning both First Place for Piano, and the Texas Young Artist of 2006 Grand Prize, with her stunning performance of Prokofiev’s “Concerto No. 3.” Not intimidated by the challenging and often violent work, hers was an athletic event by any measure, as slender arms and fingers full of hidden power tackled the keyboard with such skillful ferocity that one would need a slow-motion camera to see what was really happening. It was a dazzling conclusion to a glittering evening of music.