Young Oregon musicians: New horizons

Emily Wu and Rachel Graves

Most Oregonians recognize what a strong classical music scene exists here,but to a kid growing up in the upper left corner, the Northwest can seem distant from the centers of classical music: conservatories like Juilliard, Peabody, Curtis, Oberlin; venues such as Carnegie and Disney halls, the Met, Boston’s Symphony Hall.

So it’s always a treat to hear about young Oregon musicians who are finding opportunities to advance their  careers by gaining recognition beyond the Cascades and Siskiyous.

Almost 2000 miles from the Willamette Valley, Northern Michigan’s forest holds one of the world’s most prestigious arts training centers. Founded in 1928 as the National High School Orchestra Camp, the Interlochen Center for the Arts brings students  from around the world each summer to study music, dance, film, theater, visual arts and more with an international roster of faculty members.  Two of the nine Portlanders studying there this summer, violinists Emily Wu and Rachel Graves, were named Emerson Scholars and  awarded full scholarships for their tuition. And both so excelled in their work at the institute that they were chosen to share the crucial concertmaster’s role, leading the violin section in the World Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Graves and Wu honed their skills in one of the state’s great educational institutions, Portland Youth Philharmonic. The nation’s oldest youth symphony, PYP regularly performs classical and even contemporary music at a remarkably high level; their concerts can be fully as enjoyable musically as many community and even professional orchestras.

“Through their dedication, they have both become leaders in our first violin section,” says PYP conductor David Hattner, who attended Interlochen himself in the 1980s and returned as guest conductor in 2010. “Along with their outstanding violin playing, each of them exhibits an intensity to music making that inspires their colleagues. I could not be more pleased to hear of their accomplishments at Interlochen Arts Camp. It is a special place that inspired me when I was a student. And I am happy that Interlochen is able to offer full scholarships to deserving musicians from PYP.”

Both students’ parents praised Hattner for preparing the girls so assiduously and introducing them to the opportunity.  Their private teacher, Clarisse Atcherson, also studied at the Michigan institution.

The World Youth Symphony Orchestra
performs at this summer’s Interlochen arts camp.

Along with working with the orchestra, Wu and Graves were able to participate in master classes and a student string quartet, with the same personnel over six weeks, which gave them time to bond both musically and personally. But as much as Graves (who has participated in other summer music camps) appreciated those rare opportunities, she was even more impressed by a special treat.

“The chance to play in Garrison Keillor’s show was a unique opportunity,” she recalls. “My quartet  played in an octet with Interlochen faculty in a piece by Spohr, and accompanied Mr. Keillor and other artists. It was kind of a showbiz opportunity!”

Although she’s only just returned from “one of the most memorable summers of my life,” Rachel already recognizes the tremendous effects of the intensive coaching, performances and other experiences.

“As a violinist, I feel stronger technically and know how to work and improve faster on my own,” she says. “I made many friendships I never would have made otherwise. I now have friends that live all the way across the country, not just on the West Coast.” They’re staying in touch via texts, Facebook and email.

As she begins the 10th grade at Mountain View high school, Graves is already looking ahead to a possible career in music. “Now that I’ve been through the six weeks of this intensive experience, I can see myself majoring in music, and working intensely on music in college.”

Wu also gained valuable experience that transcends technical tips.

“I’ve come back with new leadership skills, thanks to being in WYSO for six weeks and being concertmaster/principal for four weeks,” she wrote in an email. “This has taught me how to help and look out for others, and listen carefully to the music that’s being made around me.”

Graves’s and Wu’s success doesn’t just benefit them; it also reminds the rest of the musical world of the talent and resources that resonate from the Pacific Northwest.

“They’re obviously well trained from both a private teacher and orchestra point of view,” says WYSO conductor Jung-Ho Pak. “There is something happening in Portland that needs to be heralded and relished. I know David Hattner’s work with the Portland Youth Philharmonic and it is exceptional. I hope Interlochen has inspired Emily and Rachel to bring back their unique experience to their colleagues at home.”

Yo-Yo Ma works with Eunice Kim. Photo courtesy of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis.

A Different Kind of Competition

 California pianist Lara Downes, who’s performed several times in Portland  and heard some local students over the last year or so, is impressed by the region’s classical music scene.

“My impression so far is that it’s a warm, interconnected community without the intense competitive edge you find in major urban music centers,” she says. “At the same time, for all of us who trained off that beaten path, including myself in San Francisco, there’s a feeling of great distance from where you are and where you want to end up. For a young person who is heading to New York or Curtis or Juilliard, coming out of a place that’s nurturing and smaller, it’s a shock and a trade off but a good one. There’s a good support system.”

Through the Young Artists Competition, held annually at the University of California at Davis’s Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, Downes is trying to bring those opportunities closer to aspiring young West Coast musicians, while avoiding the excesses of the traditional competition process, which some admire for motivating teachers to push young players to hone their skills, while others worry that they inculcate a competitive atmosphere that’s antithetical to art and that they bear little relationship to ultimate success.

At the Mondavi Center, the selected students take master classes and workshops, and not just in music, including sessions with visiting artists such as Yo Yo Ma and Leon Fleisher. The program also offers courses in the business of music and other practical aspects of music careers. And there’s a composer residency that provides pianists the opportunity to work with a living composer (this year Gabriel Kahane) to learn and perform a new work.

The opportunities don’t stop when the winners are selected. The young pianists also come back three to four years later to perform in residencies in Sacramento area schools and perform with the UC Davis orchestra. “It’s built on a long term plan to really see these kids ahead and nurture and support them for the long future rather than just handing them prize and then leaving them to go onto the next thing,” she explains.

Downes, who has recorded several discs of music old and new (including last year’s splendid  13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg — Bach Reimagined), started the series seven years ago because she experienced the anxieties of many competitions:

“You go into a room with these scary people, and I thought, ‘they want to see me fail. They’re waiting for that one wrong note and then I’m out of here.’ Then later you realize they want you in this room because they want you to be great. That part is somehow not communicated in many situations, so all this anxiety and negativity can enter in. That awareness has made me cognizant of trying to transmit that we’re in this room because we want you to succeed.”

The Mondavi competition does this by creating a nurturing atmosphere that includes suggestions so that the audition turns into a “mini-lesson,” Downes explains.

This  year, along with its usual audition at the Center’s Davis headquarters, the Mondavi competition is for the first time hosting regional auditions in New York City, Los Angeles, and Portland. Applications are due at the end of August, and selected applicants will be invited to audition.

This year’s competition sports two sections: a Young Artists Division for Pianists and Instrumentalists ages 10–16, and a Founders Division for Vocalists ages 17–21. Top prizes in each division include a cash award with the grand prize winner of the Founder’s Division receiving $6,000. Another top award is the $5,000 Bouchaine Young Artists Scholarship from the Napa Valley Festival del Sole. The eight winners will perform at a concert at the center next March and at the 2013 Napa Valley Festival del Sole and at the 2013 InConcert Sierra in Nevada City, California.

Jurors include Sheri Greenawald of the San Francisco Opera Center, Cindy Hwang of Concert Artists Guild, and Charles Letourneau of IMG Artists, along with Mondavi Center leaders Christian Baldini and Downes.


The Mondavi Young Artists Competition application deadline is August 31, 2012.

The Portland regional audition is September 29, 2012, at Sherman Clay,  131 Northwest 13th Ave.,  Portland.

More info on the competition is available on the competition’s Facebook page.


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