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There are those rare occasions in life when it seems the stars are fully in alignment. Such was the case on Saturday night last weekend in Conroe, Texas, when after a soaking week of much needed rain, the heavens shone forth with blue skies and perfect weather as guests arrived for the 32nd annual Young Texas Artists Music Competition with its gala barbeque dinner dance, auction, and Crighton Theatre performances of the finalists in this ultimate contest for the state’s finest young classical musicians. YTA Founder, Jim Pokorski, had every right to be beaming with pride throughout the night, along with his lovely wife, Susie, YTA Committee Chair and Executive Director of the important work throughout the year that makes this yearly event possible. Shana & Tim Arthur once again served as Co-Chairs for the gala, and The Honorable Guy Martin, and his late brother, The Honorable J. Ross Martin III, were the night’s honorees, recognizing their outstanding work in the community and long-time support of the arts. The entire evening, under the auspices of The Montgomery County Performing Arts Society, would prove to be as delightful as the weather, while at the same time serving as the major fund-raiser for YTA’s many wonderful programs.
As it does each year, the gala celebration began under a specially constructed catering tent set up across the entire street in front of the Crighton Theatre. As beer, wine and champagne flowed freely, guests enjoyed the now traditional Texas-style barbecue dinner, along with the fabulous country sounds of Bill Mock & the Highway 105 Band. Emmett Kelly served as Gala Emcee, and during the feast guests had the opportunity to bid on exciting gifts, vacation getaways and gourmet dinners, while Lady Lyn Howard conducted a live auction that raised over six-thousand dollars for YTA. Following the formal competition, guests would return to the tent for coffee, champagne, dessert, dancing to the fine band, and mingling with the contestants; but first it was on to the main event of the Competition of Finalists in the adjoining Crighton Theatre.
Hosting again this year as Master of Ceremonies was St. John Flynn, of Houston Public Media’s KUHA Classical 91.7 FM. He would be ably assisted once more by acclaimed concert pianist, recording artist and author, Jade Simmons, who would delightfully interview the contestants on stage during the judges’ deliberations. Judges included Kay Stern (San Francisco Opera Orchestra), William Wellborn (San Francisco Conservatory), Erik Finley (Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra), Richard Giangiulio (Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra), and Eric Mitchko (North Carolina Opera). By evening’s end they would award a total of $19,000 to the seven university-age young finalists in the four contest categories (Strings; Voice; Piano; and Winds, Brass, Percussion). There would be $1000 prizes for Silver Medalists, $3000 prizes for Gold Medalists, an additional $3000 Grand Prize, and finally a $1000 Audience Choice Prize awarded by a vote of the audience.
In the Strings Division, double bass player, Peng Wang, was awarded the Silver Medal for a warm, rhapsodic performance of the Allegro from Koussevitsky’s “Concerto in F-Sharp minor,” that was characterized by the musician’s clearly loving embrace of the instrument he played so well. The Gold Medal would be awarded to cellist, Katherine Audas. Dressed in a regal scarlet gown, she exhibited intense focus and extraordinary dexterity as her slender and delicate arms extended to flying fingertips that were mesmerizing during a courtly and joyful performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme for Violoncello and Orchestra Op.33,” that was full of romantic longing and would capture the additional Audience Choice Award.
Adorned in a sparkling and ruby-colored gown, soprano Lisa Borik would capture the Silver Medal in the Voice Division with her passionate and soaring sampling of Puccini (“Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La Rondine), and Bizet ( as she took flight with vocal power and intensity for “Je dis que rien ne m’epouvante,” from Carmen). Next, wearing an elegant and glittering charcoal gown, mezzo soprano, Stephanie Sanchez, would capture that division’s Gold Medal weaving first a theatrical magic spell with coy and easy grace performing Bizet’s haunting and seductive, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” from Carmen, and then moving on to a playful, animated and tongue twisting performance of Rossini’s “Cruda sorte!” from L’italiana in Algeri.
Winning the Gold Medal in the night’s uncontested Winds, Brass & Percussion Division would be the brilliant performance of harpist, Rachel Knight. Dressed in a soft peach colored gown that gleamed like her glistening necklace, she offered what seemed a full tour of the harp’s sound variations during Alberto Ginastera’s elaborate and thrilling Harp Concerto, Op. 25. Whether plucking, stroking, or gently brushing the strings, her impressive skill, and evident delight and excitement while performing were clearly a winning combination.
Meanwhile, the Piano Division would provide an excitement of its own. With considerable dramatic flair, thunderous power, dazzling speed and technical excellence, Robert Levinger would win the Silver Medal as he moved freely through the dreamy passages, and on to the thrilling excitement and intensity of the closing portions of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 10.
The Gold Medal in this category would then go to Xuesha Hu for her astonishing performance of the Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15. She was clearly a star in a stunning rose and pink gown that appeared to be woven from the very stars in the heavens. The prancing delicacy of her crisp, elegant attack, her physically fluid motion and superb transitions from moments of musical power to those of a mere whisper suggesting the gentlest lapping of a wave against the shore, all of these elements combined to make her the clear choice for the evening’s Grand Prize. It was a memorable night from beginning to end, and one suspects that the concert halls of the world will be eager to welcome many of these artists with open arms.