One of the most pleasurable experiences this reviewer has is to be asked to observe the finals of the instrumental scholarship competition sponsored annually by the Stamford Symphony. The contestants must be high school seniors and planning to major in music performance in college. The winner receives $10,000 and the second-place prize is $3,500.
This year, there were six semifinalists and ultimately four finalists. The judges were Ron Arron, who played viola for many years with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra; Jeewon Park, a pianist; and clarinetist Shari Hoffman -- all outstanding musicians.
The judges had an unenviable, very tough job because all of these young musicians are truly good, technically, of course, but also serious-minded, intelligent, thoughtful and obviously in love with music. These days, when classical music is frequently not uppermost in the minds of this age group, it was refreshing to listen to some often-phenomenal playing.
This year, there were, in addition to three violinists and a pianist, an alto saxophone player and a classical guitarist.
Players was given 15 minutes, and the judges wanted to hear something of their choice. We first heard Ryo Usami, who played with brio the final movement of Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy," an unaccompanied Bach piece and Beethoven's "Spring" sonata.
The second artist was Sarah McDonald, also a violinist, who played pieces by Tschaikowsky, Bach and Paganini. Interestingly, in the Tschaikowsky, she was asked to jump to the cadenza, a florid solo section at the end of D, a movement that really shows what the player can do.
The pianist was Christine Xu, who had a wonderful time with Ravel's intricate "Jets d'Eaux" (Fountains,) a Mozart sonata and Chopin.
She was followed by Alexander Yokokawa, who began with part of the romantic Dvorak Violin Concerto, and also chose Bach and Paganini. Paganini's music is a demanding tour-de-force for violinists on any given day, and it's impressive to see the fingers flying over the strings, especially so given the age of these players.
The alto saxophonist was Harrison (Harry) Kliewe. The only composer he played that I was familiar with was Glazounov, but he played a sonata by Lunde, a third piece by Eccles. He had a beautiful instrument with a mellow, sweet tone. Not too many people this age play classical guitar, but Tristan Speed does and he offered Bach, a short piece by FranciscoTarraga, an interesting piece by Fernando Sor, Variations on a Theme by Mozart.
Then, it was decision time. Your heart wants everyone to win, but that's not possible.
These young musicians likely have to go through quite a few more competitions, and they're never easy. I was impressed by the personalities and particularly the near-professional poise of all of them.
The preparation any musician has to do to be ready for competition can be daunting, and how well they're prepared is crucial. It takes countless hours of practice and, as one artist once said, very healthy nerves.
Four finalists were announced. Those who didn't make it (this time) had an opportunity to speak with the judges, always a good thing. The finalists were all heard once again, and at the end of the day, the first prize scholarship went to Alexander Yokokawa. His playing was warm and thoughtful, lovely to hear.
He is concert master of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra and first violin with the Spectrum Quartet. As a 14-year-old, he has also served as concert master for the Connecticut Western Regionals. His repertoire includes both early music and contemporary works, from Bach to Bloch. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, but has called Connecticut home since age 4.
He studies the violin with Asya Meshberg, first violinist of the Lumina String Quartet, and a senior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School.
Alexander will play during the Saturday, Feb. 16, concert of the Stamford Symphony at the Palace in Stamford, which will begin at 8 p.m.
In a departure this year, the second scholarship was split between Christine Xu and Ryo Usami, with Tristan Speed receiving an honorable mention.
For ticket information, visit www.stamfordsymphony.org.
Arden Anderson-Broecking, professional singer and musician, is a music critic and feature writer living in Fairfield County.