It was a Conroe Saturday night to remember with dreamlike mild weather, an approaching full moon, and best of all, the 24th annual final competition for the Entergy Young Texas Artist of the Year, held in the beautiful Crighton Theatre as a highlight of the Montgomery County Performing Arts Societyseason with the 24th annual contest. MCPAS powerhouse, Susie Pokorski (ably aided by husband Jim) chaired the YTA committee, while Vanderbilt University professor, Emelyne Bingham, served as Artistic Director. Saturday night was the culmination of several days’ competition for $15,000 in prize money by the many semi-finalists selected from nearly a hundred university-level applicants who are either Texas residents, or non-residents studying in Texas music schools. With cheerful KUHF-FM radio personality, Chris Johnson, serving as emcee, the dozen finalists selected competed in one of four categories: Strings, Voice, Orchestral Instruments, and Piano, while a distinguished 5-member panel from across the nation sat in judgment from the balcony front row.
In the Orchestral Instruments category, the $1000 Second Prize was awarded to student, Matthew Rush, for his dazzling performance of Emmanuel Sejourne’s “Concerto for Marimba & Strings.” With a pair of mallets in each hand, his was an astonishing command of the huge and handsome instrument over which his arms and hands seemed to dance with flawless musical accuracy, while capturing beautifully the atmosphere of intriguing mystery in the piece. The $2000 First Place prize in this category went to SMU student, Jonathan Jones, for his impressive performance of Carl Nielsen’s “Concerto for Clarinet, Op.57.” With body language as fluid as the talented fingers that seemed to fly across the instrument, it was a passionate interpretation.
In the String category, Mary Price, a student at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, won her $1000 Second Prize with a haunting and seductive rendition of Karol Szymanowski’s “Concerto No.2 Op.61.” Dressed in a soft and fiery, floor-length crimson gown, she brought equal fire and powerful dexterity to the great variations of the complex piece. Meanwhile, the $2000 First Prize was awarded to Julliard student, Jing Wang, for his sensitive and show-stopping performance of the first movement of Brahms’ “Violin Concerto Op.77.” The audience would not stop applauding until he returned for another bow, and rewarded him further by voting him the $1000 Audience Choice Award.
In the Piano category, the $1000 Second Prize went to TCU student, Zhaolie Xei, in recognition of his awesome artistry in performance of Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No.1.” Alternating the work’s required thunderous attack on the Steinway Grand with an exquisite lightness of touch in the tender transitions, his was a memorable performance. Next, the $2000 First Prize went to University of Houston doctoral candidate, Matthew Loudermilk, who wowed the crowd doubly, first with a fiercely focused performance of Samuel Barber’s “Piano Sonata Op.26,” and then with a sensational performance of Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No.2” that was further confirmation of his artistic brilliance.
Finally, in the Voice category, the $1000 Second Prize went to a beaming and beautiful Kimberly Dowda for her joyous performance of the “Sempre Libera” aria from Verdi’s “La Traviata.” One of the greatest privileges I have had as a critic was being assigned by my editors to review renowned soprano, Renee Fleming’s Opening Night in Houston Grand Opera’s 2002 production of “La Traviata.” Even with that stunning evening as a comparison, I found Miss Dowda’s performance as glittering as the copper-colored Cinderella ball gown she wore. But the $2000 First Prize for voice would go to University of Houston’s Ashlyn Rust for her two fine selections. With blonde hair falling gently to her shoulders, and wearing a sleek blue gown of polished satin, Rust performed Richard Strauss’ “Presentation of the Rose” with great skill. But perhaps, in addition to her vocal prowess, it may have been her theatrical comic flair that won over the judges during her coy and playful performance of Poulenc’s “Non Monsieur Mon Marie.” They rewarded her not only with First Prize, but also with the evening’s $2000 Grand Prize. As for the audience, we were all winners for having been there for a night of truly glorious music.