Musical Artistry Prevails on Night of YTA Gala and Concert of Finalists

Young Texas Artists Competition Finalists 2017
PHOTO: Dave Clements
DWC Photography

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Jim and Susie Pokorski, founder, and chair and executive director of Young Texas Artists Inc., respectively, with Grand Prize winner violinist Douglas Kwon, who took home Gold in the Strings Division.
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

There was an atmosphere of celebration last weekend here in Texas. As folks looked forward to the end of winter’s dark days and the arrival of Daylight Savings Time, students and families prepared to welcome the holiday respite of this week’s Spring Break. If an Overture for this happy time were required, we certainly had it in last Saturday night’s Concert of Finalists, the culmination of this year’s exciting 33rd Annual YOUNG TEXAS ARTISTS Classical Music Competition. With the endlessly energetic Susie Pokorski once again serving as Chair for the event, there was great support from Co-Chairs, Geraldine & Emmett Kelly, and Mimi & Alan “Barb” Sadler.

Performing Arts columnist, Peggie Miller (second from right) joins fellow revelers at the Gala.

The evening began once more with the popular Bach, Beethoven and Barbecue Dinner Dance Gala, held this year at Conroe’s beautiful Martin’s Hall, where beer, wine and champagne flowed freely, and guests enjoyed a traditional Texas-style barbecue dinner, along with the popular country sounds of Bill Mock & the Highway 105 Band.

Gala guest, Paulie McDade, joins David Dow Bentley to admire the Martin’s Hall mural of Musical Legends.

Emmett Kelly served as Gala Emcee, and guests had the opportunity to bid on assorted gifts, vacation getaways and gourmet dinners, during a live auction conducted by Lady Lyn Howard. That success would raise over six-thousand dollars for YTA. After the formal music competition at the Crighton Theatre across the street, guests would return to the hall to mingle with the contestants while enjoying coffee, dessert, champagne and dancing.

The competition itself was impressive as always, with St. John Flynn serving beautifully as Master of Ceremonies, and Emelyne Bingham again serving as YTA Artistic Director. From around the nation, the esteemed panel of music world luminaries serving as judges included Elizabeth Buccheri, Miyoko Lotto, Maria Schleuning, William Florescu, and Cynthia Estill.

Always a crowd favorite, best-selling author and concert pianist, Jade Simmons, returned to the competition to interview the finalists on stage.
PHOTO: Brad Meyer

Another highlight of the evening would be the revealing on-stage interviews of the contestants by renowned concert pianist and motivational speaker, Jade Simmons. Performing first in the Voice division was soprano, Hanna Lee. Dressed in a soft and flowing charcoal gown topped in shimmering silver, she brought well-controlled and soaring vocal purity to Handel’s “Tornami a vagheggiar” from Alcina. That performance would win her the silver medal 2nd Prize of $1,000. Taking the gold medal 1st Prize of $3,000 in that same division would be mezzo soprano, Brennan Blankenship. Adorned in a rich, cranberry gown with lace shoulders, she connected well with the audience during an amusing and theatrical performance of the pleasantly melodic, “Noble seigneurs, salut!” from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. She skillfully demonstrated both her wide vocal range and her flair for comedy.

Saxophonist, Harrison Clarke, would win the silver medal 2nd Prize of $1000 in the Winds category, for the jazzy elegance and crisp performance of Lars-Erik Larsson’s “Allegro molto moderato,” from the Concerto for Saxophone and String Orchestra. While navigating the many unexpected twists and turns of the perky and playful piece with smooth transitions, Clarke created moments of distinct intimacy and touched on some of the highest notes ever heard from that instrument. Also in the Winds category, flutist, Charles Gibb, beautifully performed Jacques Ibert’s “Pièce pour flute seule.” Opening with the enchantment of a Pied Piper, the calmly focused Gibb captured all the dreamily whimsical, and melodically wistful qualities of the haunting piece, demonstrating great technical skill during fluid runs across the instrument. That skill would win him the gold medal 1st Prize of $3000 in that division.

Contestants in the Piano division would share some impressive honors. Cascading up and down the keys, Lizhen Wu dazzled the audience during the rapturous opening of the third movement (Allegro Scherzo) from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The work may have sounded familiar to fans of the film, “The Seven Year Itch,” wherein Tom Ewell plays the Concerto while hilariously fantasizing about seducing Marilyn Monroe. With his crisp and fluid performance, Mr. Wu wove a delicate musical tapestry of romantic excitement that must have seduced his audience, for he would win not only the silver medal 2nd Prize of $1000 in the Piano division, but also the additional $1000 Audience Choice Award. Not to be outdone, pianist, Kyle Orth, delivered a thunderous and thrilling performance of Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra,” which rippled with prancing excitement, raging passion and violent attack. It would deservedly win him the Piano division’s gold medal 1st Prize of $3000.

In the Strings division, competition was fierce. Violinist, Likai He, brought seductive gypsy flair to Maurice Ravel’s, “Tzigane,” a warmly romantic work that slowly draws us in with increasing intensity. Mr. He’s fine performance captured thrilling frenzy one minute, and quiet delicacy the next, but perhaps it was the galloping passages displaying his mesmerizing skill that brought him the silver medal 2nd Prize of $1000. Meanwhile violinist, Douglas Kwon, bravely tackled Bela Bartok’s “Allegro Molto” from the Violin Concerto No. 2. With savage skill that was immediately apparent, the artist displayed a visibly warm affection for the instrument he plays so well. He brought high-speed virtuosity to a piece that seemed to always turn in unexpected directions before landing Mr. Kwon both the gold medal 1st Prize of $3000 and the evening’s Grand Prize of an additional $3000, capping yet another successful year for YTA.

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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