Those of us who played instruments in grade school, middle school, and/or high school remember the pleasure and the torture of daily practice. On days when you were enthusiastic and sounded good, it was exciting to think, “Gee, it’s me making those lovely sounds!” Other days, when you knew your friends were all out playing ball, it was excruciating to have to struggle through boredom in your practice room. So it was with admiration for their persistent dedication that we listened to Mira Hu, Sevastyan Swan and Alexander Canicosa-Miles, 16, 11, and 15 years old, winners of this year’s Madeline Schatz-Harris Youth Concerto Competition. Yes, they are all exceptionally talented. But without hard work and stick-to-it-ness — and the support of parents and teachers who go through the daily pleasure and torture as well – they would not be the wonderful musicians they are.
Each of them chose their own winning numbers. Mira Hu has loved Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto No. 1 since she first heard it. The piece is a showcase for the different sounds a cello can produce, from the lush richness of lyrical passages, to sharp pizzicato plucks of the strings, to rapid octave runs. Playing the cello is easier with longer hands and fingers, but that didn’t pose any obstacle to not-yet-full -grown Mira.
Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is one of the best-loved pieces in the violin concerto repertoire, and Sebastyan Swan’s winning number was the first movement of the Spring concerto. As the familiar melodies filled the hall, we felt we were sitting beside a flowing brook with birds chirping cheerfully above us and a glass of wine on our blanket. There is a fast section in the middle, and Sebastyan dispatched it with aplomb, playing the 16th notes evenly and in perfect time. He said he had struggled to master it, and master it he did!
Alexander Canicosa-Miles, winning the competition for the second time in four years, chose the first two movements of Edward Elgar’s Concerto in E Minor for Cello. The expressive Adagio begins with a quiet and mournful theme, and then swells dramatically before subsiding back to the original mood. The rapid Allegro molto movement begins with an agitated pizzicato motif; we were taken on an emotional roller coaster ride with Alexander’s skillful execution of this difficult piece.
The concert was rounded out with two pieces from the Kamuela Philharmonic. They were not at their best. They began with the Overture to Beethoven’s Fidelio, and the very first notes from the strings and horns were out of tune. In spite of various glitches, the orchestra played with energy and good spirit, and we listened to our community orchestra with affection.
The final piece after the intermission, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 1, known as Winter Daydreams, was not a good choice. After the delightful Concerto Contest winners which is the main event of the program, something shorter and more cheerful or playful to go along with the theme of “innocent beginnings” would have been in order. The Symphony has four long movements; with sub-titles like “Land of Gloom” and “Lugubrious Andante;” you can guess that the piece makes you want to have a few shots of vodka like the Russians in the dead of winter. Innocence lost! That said, there are some lovely passages that pre-figure Tchaikovsky’s later works, for example, you can hear similarities to “Waltz of the Flowers” in the first movement, and the Scherzo is lively and witty. There were sparkling moments and excellent players: the second slow movement string introduction was enchanting, followed by a smooth and lovely oboe melody with the flute giving contrasting commentary. The bassoons carry the folk melody in the final movement, the always precise percussion kept the piece on track, and the viola shone. Many composers use the device of the false ending, but Tchaikovsky takes it to the heights. There are about ten times in the final two minutes where you think this must be the end – and then there is another build-up and then another and another. It’s majestic – and a relief – when it finally comes to the real end! The orchestra members seemed relieved and tired at the end of this strenuous piece.
With the young musicians, the orchestra was fantastic, doing all they could to complement the soloists, never overpowering them and helping them shine. What makes practicing difficult sometimes is that your instrument sounds much better with other instruments accompanying you. For the most part, maybe your teacher will accompany you on the piano or you may play in an ensemble. But to play with the backing of a full orchestra? That is the thrill of a lifetime! These young musicians must now be motivated to make sure this is just the first of many such opportunities. It is wonderful that the Kam Phil gives them support and encouragement, which will keep these budding artists happy to spend time every day in their practice rooms.
Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.
Photos: Steve Roby