If it is January and February then it is the season for student music competitions! In the past two weeks two of the major local chamber music competitions took place- The Rembrandt Chamber Music Competition and the Midwest Young Artists- Discover Chamber Music Competition.
After listening to a good portion of the performers in both competitions, I can honestly say that chamber music is alive and well in Chicago. Some of the young performers heard play as well as some of their own teachers and mentors, to be sure. Others still have a long way to go, but it is clear that these young students are all passionate about classical music and are learning the discipline and commitment that is required to master something as difficult as ensemble playing.
In the Rembrandt Competition they have only one large entry pool for all types of ensembles, and it was clear that there was a great deal of variety, which had to make it difficult to choose amongst the different instrumentations. How do you compare a saxophone quartet to a string quartet or a piano trio or a woodwind quintet?
What I am happy to report is that based on what I heard, the prizes awarded were much deserved and the artistry and professionalism of the winning groups was clearly evident. Prizes were awarded to the Vox Quartet, the Precipice Saxophone Quartet, the Quartet Fuoco, and the Amethyst Piano Trio.
Just yesterday, February 9th, The Discover Competition took place, but offered more prizes in different categories. Many of the same ensembles performed at this competition as well. I definitely heard improvements from last week in many of the ensembles. which also demonstrates just how much these groups accomplish each and every week, often practicing 4-6 hours together- not including their solo practicing and other ensemble rehearsals.
The Discover Competition has separate divisions for MYA and for outside groups, largely to avoid conflicts of interest hosting a competition in which their own ensembles compete against others. Within the MYA and Open Divisions there are then two separate categories for strings and piano versus woodwinds, brass, voice and others.
Discover's Overall Winners included once again the Quartet Fuoco ( MYA) and VOX Quartet (Open). Interestingly enough some groups won in this competition that had not be so honored in the previous week, while one or two experience a "reversal of fortune" so to speak.
Noticeably absent from Discover's winners was the Precipice Sax Quartet, but newcomers on the Discover Competition winners' list included Quintaria (MYA) and Tessellation Brass Quintet (Open). Altohugh I was unable to stay to hear the entire competition, based on what I heard, the judging was difficult but ultimately fair- at least as fair as any subjective music competition can be!
What is interesting in this type of ensemble competitions is that any single group is truly only as good as its weakest member, and even if all the players are are the same level of playing, with three, four or five players, it is inevitable that some may have a great day and others may falter within the same group on a given day. Thus, these competitions are truly a team effort, if ever there was such a musical sport! In order to win, all the members of a group must perform at the highest level, and all of them must do so at the same time- not an easy task for musicians so young! But that is what drives these kids to practice harder and come back even stronger after the experience and growth of performing in a competition, under pressure.
The musical groups are judged following a set of criteria including but not limited to: precision of ensemble or togetherness, accuracy to the score, overall tone quality and balance, performance practice or interpretation, intonation, phrasing, dress and stage deportment, as well as overall communicative qualities.
Since the auditions for these competitions are open to the public, I highly recommend that people attend them if they want to hear a wide range of chamber music in one setting, by composers as diverse as Maslanka, Shostakovich and Ligeti to more traditional favorites like Mendelssohn, Brahms and Beethoven.
Next up for many of these ensembles is the intensive work to create video recordings for entry into the prestigious Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, into which it is extremely difficult simply to be accepted! At the same time, many of these performers are also auditioning for entry into some of the country's best conservatories, such as Eastman, Juilliard, Colburn, New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, and Cleveland Institute of Music. It certainly is a busy month for all of them!
Kudos and bravos to all the young music students who participated in these competitions and did such a marvelous job! If only there were prizes for everyone as a testament to their hard work and talents- some in budding phases, others more developed, but all young performers with outstanding potential and musical gifts!