This year’s Concerto Competition Winners gave nothing short of thrilling performances on February 8 at Mills Concert Hall. The process of selection started last summer as these five artists, plus one composer, started preparations for the October Concerto Competition preliminary events. All their hard work not only earned them the accolade of being among the finest performers at UW-Madison, but gave the public a taste of how well inspired students can cultivate their passion.
The concert opened with the Russian Easter Overture by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, conducted by graduate Kyle Knox, assistant to conductor James Smith. This energetic piece with the occasional clash of cymbals fully captured the audience’s attention and set the stage for the virtuosos’ performance. The five winners, flutist Mi-Li Chang, violinist Madlen Breckbill, pianists Sung Ho Yang and Seungwha Baek, and clarinetist Kai-Ju Ho performed pieces from the late 19th and early 20th century from names like Aaron Copland, Sergei Profokiev, and Samuel Barber.
Following the Russian Easter Overture was violinist and senior at UW-Madison Madlen Breckbill playing a concerto by Samuel Barber. This well-rounded, passionate piece had its fair share of tension executed by conductor James Smith’s clenched fists, and then their release to signify a musical catharsis. Her empathy for this diverse, contemporary piece was portrayed through dynamic execution of each note where it was due.
There was one piece from this century that stood out: Daria Mikhailovna Tennikova’s winning saxophone piece, “Poema,” was performed by saxophone soloist Erika Anderson and conducted by graduate Kyle Knox. “Poema” was written recently, in 2013, as Tennikova was moved by Anderson’s performance, then worked together on this piece. It was an unusual but refreshing deviation from the more classical instruments in the majority of the concert, having a mellow and flowing tune as the xylophone and cellos conversed with the saxophone.
SeungWha Baek, on piano, performed Sergei Profokiev’s Concerto for Piano impeccably. All elements onstage seemed to be in perfect focus as her arms crossed over one another and her fingers danced rapidly across all 88 keys. This is no surpise as Baek is studying in the doctoral program in collaborative piano at UW-Madison. The other piano virtuoso, Sung-Ho Yang, performed Franz Liszt’s “Concerto for Piano” with perfect transitions to the piece’s ever-changing dynamics between tranquility and drama. Yang has performed and won awards all over the world, from Italy to Slovakia to Madison.
Flutist Mi-Li Chang, a doctoral student in flute performance, played a “Concerto for Flute” by Jacque Ibert—a swaying, slow melody requiring patience and rhythm, contrasting with the next movement of the piece. Its melody was bouncy and lively with other instruments reflecting the flute’s tune, but not a challenge for Chang.
In addition to dressing impeccably, for example, in blue velvet and coral chiffon, the riveting passion put into each note by these artists was effectively received by the audience. Of course, the orchestra will not be forgotten—the virtuoso and other players must always work together to make sure their dynamics work well together, which was the case on Saturday night. These young people aren’t just students at UW-Madison; they’re passionate and inspiring artists whose collaboration on Saturday night was a show of pure passion and inspiration of their life’s work.