Serious classical music listeners can tell you that there is a definite yet indescribable thrill in discovering a new composer or in hearing for the first time a great work that one has somehow overlooked. That same ineffable excitement often comes, too, in hearing new performers, those previously unknown and at the beginning of their careers, who seem to radiate the potential of great things to come.
It is the possibility of such revelations that drives the University of Tennessee School of Music's Concerto Competition, a program to showcase for the public some of the school's most talented students at the onset of their careers. Whittled down by judges from a field of 25 entrants, the winners in four categories—vocal, strings, piano, and instrumental—performed their selection for a concert audience at UT Symphony's Concertos and Classics program on Sunday. The winners were Leah Serr, mezzo-soprano; Xin Gao, saxophone; Helen Yoo, piano; and Marina Frolova and Irina Fatykhova, violins.
Serr is a face and voice that might be familiar to opera and classical music audiences in Knoxville. This season she appeared as Gemma Jones in the UT Opera Theatre production of Street Scene and as Giovanna in Knoxville Opera's production of Rigoletto. Quite the convincing actress as well, Serr performed Marguerite's poignantly beautiful aria "D'amour l'ardente flamme" from Hector Berlioz' opera The Damnation of Faust. It would certainly be a delight to see Serr perform Marguerite on an opera stage in the future.
While the saxophone seems to be a very American instrument, it actually hails from France, patented by Adolphe Sax in 1845. Even though the instrument has found a home in popular and jazz idioms, and among some contemporary composers, classical music has, for the most part, never truly succeeded in seizing the saxophone as one of its own. Yet graduate student saxophonist Xin Gao, hailing from China, has brilliantly seized the instrument as his. He performed two movements from one of the notable vehicles for saxophone, the audaciously virtuosic Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra by the late contemporary French composer Pierre Max Dubois.
The second half of the program opened with pianist Yoo. A native of Seoul, South Korea, she tackled a notable piece in the piano repertoire that challenges the pianist with percussiveness and jousts with the orchestra for position—the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2.
The concert concluded with a work that is nothing if not an unapologetically virtuosic and charming entertainment. Violinists Marina Frolova and Irina Fatykhova performed Pablo de Sarasate's Navarra. While Sarasate was Spanish and Navarra ostensibly of Spanish flavor, the piece is a bit of a chameleon, assuming the personality, and often nationality, of its players. While it would have been amusing, Frolova and Fatykhova did avoid the trap of injecting too much of a Slavic influence into the piece.
To open the concert, Maestro James Fellenbaum turned the baton over to conducting student Rachel Grubb for a performance of Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni. Grubb, who just this year has become music director and conductor of the Oak Ridge Youth Symphony Orchestra, has enjoyed recent conducting opportunities with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra and the Missouri Symphony. This hint of Mozart is a bit of preview for the UT Opera production of Don Giovanni in April during Knoxville Opera's Rossini Festival downtown.
While competitions such as the Concerto Competition reward a few winners—the metaphorical hares—one must not forget the tortoises, either. Time invariably rewards the steady student and the diligent performer in the music world—and orchestral and opera stages all over the world await them.