In New York, for an evening of sheer social and musical excellence, we have the annual Opening Night of the Metropolitan Opera. Here in Montgomery County, not to be out done, we have the annual final competition for the Entergy Young Texas Artist of the Year. And a gala night it was last Saturday evening at Conroe’s very elegant Crighton Theatre, with this highlight of the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society season: the 23rd annual contest. It was the culmination of several days’ competition for $16,000 in prize money by the 70 semi-finalists selected from nearly a hundred university-level applicants who are either Texas residents, or non-residents studying in Texas music schools. The result is an amazing pool of talent, from around the nation and around the world, competing in the four categories: Strings, Voice, Orchestral Instruments, and Piano. Somewhere in the auditorium, modestly on the sidelines, and dressed in stunning royal blue, was Susie Pokorski, the MCPAS Committee Chair for this monumental event. You would have to look long and hard to even find her name in small print on the program, but what she and her army of volunteers have accomplished in the recent years of this ever-expanding competition is nothing short of remarkable. With the encouragement of Senator Robert Nichols, even the Texas State Senate had issued a special “Proclamation,” recognizing YTA as an “Official Texas State Music Competition.”
Once again this year, Houston’s popular radio broadcaster, Bob Stevenson (KUHF- 88.7 FM) presided as the very articulate and musically knowledgeable host for the proceedings. The distinguished judges included Emelyne Bingham (Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University & Assistant Conductor of the Nashville Symphony), Karen Buranskas (Associate Professor of Music at the University of Notre Dame), Alecia Lawyer (Principal oboist with the Houston Symphony, as well as with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, of which she is founder), Miyoko Lotto (Associate Professor of Piano at New York University), and Keith Wolfe (Managing Director/Artistic Administrator of Fort Worth Opera).
The first competitor was Rice University violinist Rachelle Hunt, who performed “Tzigane,” by Maurice Ravel. Her beautiful black satin gown was trimmed in a fiery red that hinted of the gypsy flair in a virtuoso performance that landed her the $1000 prize as 1st Runner-up in the String category. Next was soprano, Laurelle Gowing, who performed “The Jewel Song” from Gounod’s “Faust,” the first opera I ever saw at The Metropolitan Opera’s new Lincoln Center address back in the 1960’s. Miss Gowing, who holds a Masters Degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, seemed a virtual Cinderella in a glittering gown of robin’s egg blue and silver. Her performance was glittering as well, and she treated the audience to a second number, “I Want Magic,” from Andre Previn’s opera of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She radiated musical joy, while demonstrating great poise, with both exceptional range and vocal control. Her reward was the $2000 First Prize for Voice.
A young clarinetist from Lithuania, Sarunas Jankauskas, is also a student at Rice. He skillfully performed Debussy’s “Premier Rhapsodie.” With crisp musical clarity, and moving with the grace of a pied piper, he brought a smooth and seductive delicacy to a composition that slowly draws the listener into its lush whirlpool of sound. Jankauskas would take home the Instrumental First Prize of $2000. Close behind him was the $1000 Instrumental Runner-up, clarinetist, Jonathan Jones. Jones reprised his brilliant 2006 performance of Rossini’s “Introduction, Theme and Variations.” What I wrote of that performance for ThePeoplesCritic.com, still holds true today: “The dazzlingly talented clarinetist performed with such perfection, and such rapid-fire and astounding dexterity, it appeared to be all but humanly impossible.” For the second year in a row, Jones captured the additional $1000 Audience Choice Award.
Winning the $1000 Prize for First Runner-up in Voice was soprano, Maria Thomas, of Baylor University. Attractively dressed in sharply contrasting red and black, she began with a thoughtful and powerful performance of “Io son l’umile ancella” (I Am the Humble Servant), from Francesco Cilea’s opera, “Adriana Lecouvreur.” Then, reaching thrilling vocal heights, she followed with a piercing rendition of “Vissi D’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca.” Meanwhile, in the Strings category, the $2000 First Prize was captured by Rice University cellist, Madeleine Kabat, for her stunning performance of Kabalevsky’s “Concerto No.2, Second Movement.” Adorned in a magnificent crimson gown, and with intense precision and energy flowing from her delicate arms, Kabat had clearly mastered the demands of this very unusual cello work that was structured more like a vigorous piece for violin.
In the talent-laden piano category, even the Honorable Mention winner, David Kim (Moores School of Music – U. of H.), had the intermission opportunity to display his great skill with Rachmaninoff’s “Sonata No.2 in B-Flat Minor,” and the Schuman-Liszt dedication titled, “Widmung.” The top piano finalists included University of Houston student, Peter Steigerwald, who performed Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major.” Written long ago for a soldier who had lost his right arm in battle, this was a fascinating tour-de-force literally using only the left hand to convey its leaping power and often thunderous intensity. Stigerwald was awarded the $1000 Runner-up Prize for Piano.
Taking the top $2000 prize for First Place in Piano was the brilliant University of North Texas student, Russian-born, Anastasia Markina. Dressed in a lush, teal, spaghetti-strap gown, she sat down at the piano, and without a moments hesitation astounded the audience by launching immediately into a stunning performance of Beethoven’s “Rondo a Capriccio” (Rage Over a Lost Penny). She dazzled the audience while skillfully performing the work’s rapid-fire intricacies with speed, accuracy, and artistic sensitivity, all the while seeming to devour the piano with her powerful attack. She was twice rewarded by then being named winner of the $2000 Grand Prize. When I spoke with her afterwards, she expressed her “shock” at how incredibly warmly she and the other contestants had been received by both the MCPAS organization and the Conroe community. She went on to indicate she never worries about winning or losing, and said, “I just want to give the people something beautiful they can take away with them!” Finally she spoke warmly of Mrs. Pokorski and her husband (and longtime YTA supporter), Jim Pokorski. Mr. Pokorski is currently hospitalized, and in a final thoughtful gesture, Miss Markina declared, “I would like to dedicate my performance tonight to Mr. Pokorski’s recovery!”
(The Courier 3.12.07)