Days of chilly and much-needed rain had not dampened spirits, and it was no surprise that there was a special excitement in the air for this month’s closing night of performances from the finalists in this year’s Young Texas Artists Competition. After all, it was the 25th Anniversary of this prestigious three-day showcase for young classical musicians. Under the artistic direction of Vanderbilt University professor, Emelyne Bingham, the annual event was held at Conroe’s exquisite Crighton Theatre. Through the auspices of the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, the contest was skillfully chaired this year by that MCPAS fireball of energy and enthusiasm, Susie Pokorski. The role of Master of Ceremonies fell to talented Chris Johnson, host of radio station, KUHF’s “Afternoon Concert,” and the prestigious judges included Miyoko Lotto and Lucie Robert from the Manhattan School of Music, Andreas Melinat of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Daniel Cataneo from The Julliard School, and Indiana University professor, Dan Stolper, of the Interlochen Arts Academy.
The participants in each of four musical categories, all university-level students, are required to either be Texans themselves, or, if not, then studying at institutions in the state of Texas. In the Strings Division, University of North Texas cellist, Meredith McCook, captured the thousand-dollar Runner-Up Award performing Dvorak’s, “Concerto in B Minor – Allegro.” In a gown of cool black and white, she turned up the heat with a performance of ever-building momentum that was highlighted by lush and vigorous virtuosity one moment, and tender serenity the next. The three thousand-dollar 1st Prize in this category would go New Zealand native, Natalie Lin, for her dazzling performance of one of the evening’s more familiar pieces, Tchaikovsky’s “Concerto in D major,Op.35.” In a striking gown of zebra-like design, Lin brought consummate skill, confident fingering precision, and a smooth and graceful bowing technique to her stately interpretation of the work. The audience was clearly impressed, for before the evening ended she was also voted the thousand-dollar Audience Choice Award.
In the catch-all category of Winds, Brass, Percussion & Harp, saxophonist, Daniel Loudenback, performed the intricate “Concertino da Camera,” of Jacques Ibert. Having just finished his doctorate at the University of Michigan, he was without a challenger in the finals of this category. Loudenback described the piece as “very light, lively, and French,” and the jazzy virtuosity of his performance nicely reflected those elements as his fingers literally danced across the saxophone. While there was no danger that we mere mortals would go home humming the melodies of this complex piece, the musician’s technical skill and craftsmanship were fully on display and deservedly captured him the three-thousand dollar 1st Prize.
In the piano category, Andrew Staupe, a doctoral student at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performed Rachmaninoff’s “Concerto No.1 in f # minor,Op 1.” With thrilling and thunderous attack right out of the starting gate, the artist demonstrated both the dazzling dexterity required in flashes of ferocity, and the skillful handling of moments of embracing warmth and tenderness. He would take home the thousand-dollar Runner-Up Award. Capturing the three thousand-dollar 1st Prize in this category would be Marko Pavlovic from Serbia. A Julliard graduate now studying at SMU, Pavlovic amazed the audience by first removing his formal jacket as he sat down to the keyboard, and then by bringing stunning precision and power to the musical roller-coaster ride of Prokofiev’s “Concerto # 3, Op. 26.” With crisp attack and unrelenting power, his focused concentration was such that he sometimes gave the appearance of looking at the sheet music that was absent from the piano. It was a breathtaking performance.
First up in the Voice category was soprano, Leslie Marks, also from the University of North Texas. Dressed in a lovely Cinderella gown of blue taffeta, she opened the proceedings with a soaring and passionate performance of Musetta‘s aria, “Quando M‘en Vo.,” from Puccini’s “La Bohème.” With a crisp vocal sharpness that was accented by her grace and elegance, Miss Marks would capture the thousand-dollar prize as 2nd Runner-Up in the Vocal category. Another thousand-dollar prize as First Runner-Up in that same category went to baritone, Christian Bester, who brought a great voice (and a great sense of fun to match) to his rendition of “Come Paride vezzoso” from Donizetti‘s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” A South African himself, Bester is yet another UNT student, and his performance skillfully displayed the kind of comic flair and pomposity one might encounter in the characters of Gilbert & Sullivan. Finally, the three-thousand dollar 1st Prize for voice went to lovely soprano, Desiree Alejandro from the University of Houston’s Moores School of Opera. Dressed in a soft and elegant violet gown, she gave a passionate performance of “No Solo Soy Mi Nombre,” from Daniel Catan’s opera, “Florencia en el Amazonas.” With her fine sense of theatre, her commanding range, and her joyful countenance, there were several moments when Alejandro reminded me of a glorious night years ago when my Metropolitan Opera subscription included a wonderful performance from renowned diva, Beverly Sills. Perhaps I was on to something, because Miss Alejandro went on to take the evening’s Grand Prize, yet another three-thousand dollars.
Note: Skilled piano accompanists assisting the performers included Julie Loeb Sacks, Anastasia Markina, and Neal Kurz. Event sponsors included Insurance Associates of Texas, Southwestern Furniture, Streater Smith Honda Nissan, and lead corporate sponsor, Entergy.