The result of a competition is usually an award – a prize that distinguishes the winner’s work from the equally driven contributions of their peers.
What comes at the end of the annual Concerto Competition held in the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra is a different kind of award. In essence, the prize is a spotlight. The winner of this year’s competition will perform as featured soloist at the orchestra’s Friday concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
“The players often have a chance to show their stuff when they have solos in one of the symphonic works we perform,” said UK Symphony music director and conductor John Nardolillo. “But it’s something extra special for them to walk out as the featured soloist of the evening.”
This year’s competition commenced in January with a field of orchestra contestants facing a panel of judges made up of regional artists that included Robert Trevino, associate conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
“The judges were looking for the overall quality of the presentation,” Nardolillo said. “In other words, have they mastered their instrument technically? Were they exquisitely well prepared on this piece of music? Have they thought through what the artistic ideas were in the piece? Did they make a compelling and interesting musical argument to their audience? So it was not just a question of ‘Did they play all the right notes?’ but ‘Did they have something to say within the music?’
Competition winner Rui Li, a doctorate student/trumpeter from Inner Mongolia, viewed the competition in almost narrative terms.
“The most important thing for me was to choose a piece that had a story to tell,” said Li, whose competition piece, Richard Peaslee’s Nightsongs, will be part of tonight’s program along with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 in D Minor, Op.47 and Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide.
“Everyone deserves to play with the orchestra. So to win, it comes down who has a story that they are ready to share. Of course, every day you have to devote a lot of time to work on fundamentals and practice. For the concerto competition, you have to know the piece really well, know the composer and know some of his other pieces and discover a really, really strong story behind it.”
Having already has earned degrees in economics and international politics in China, Li also made himself visible outside the orchestra – and outside of classical repertoire – over the winter by performing at an Outside the Spotlight concert alongside New York free jazz trumpeter Peter Evans. So how does jazz that borders on the avant garde find common ground with concertos and symphonies?
“In Inner Mongolia, the music is all in an aural tradition,” Li said. “To play written music, especially orchestra music, the composer and conductor have a certain expectation of what is the perfect orchestra sound. You may be playing in different halls for different audiences, but still there is a goal.”
While the Concerto Competition often awards only one winner, the judging panel sometimes awards a second prize if they feel there is another deserving winner and if the UK Orchestra’s concert program can accommodate another soloist. This year, there is a bonus. The second winner is a duo that teamed to perform a double concerto.
Leigh Dixon, a senior in music performance from Louisville on viola, and Chase Miller, a senior from Stanford in music education on clarinet, have been playing together for two years. They began practicing and studying their competition selection, Max Bruch’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola in E Minor, Op.88, in August. It will also be featured in tonight’s concert.
“When we started working on it, we had weekly coachings,” Dixon said. “Then outside of that, we practiced all the time with each other.”
“The fact that we’ve been playing together for so long means we know each other’s playing inside and out,” Miller added. “So we weren’t really looking at this as a competition as much another performance together. Besides that, I’m pretty sure this is the first double concerto that has ever won the competition.”
“All three are fantastic players,” Nardolillo said of the winners. “They are all playing on a professional level. They are all beautifully prepared. They are all presenting an artist’s interpretation, not a student interpretation. And they have all been longtime members of the orchestra and tremendous contributors. So I’m thrilled they are going to be soloists for us.”
The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. March 29
at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Admission is free. Call (859) 257-4929.