Concerto Aria winners share journey to the BCPA

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By Mary Nicholas, News Editor

The winners of this year’s Concerto-Aria Competition performed with the Illinois Wesleyan Civic Orchestra at the Bloomington Center for Performing Arts last Friday, Feb. 10. But the road to this performance began years before that evening.

Choosing and commanding a lengthy solo piece is one of the many challenges presented by Concerto-Aria, but the musicians of Presser Hall still often choose to devote months of practice to the prestigious competition. Winners perform a solo with full orchestral accompaniment and possess a striking resume addition.

“I thought the idea of memorizing twenty minutes of music was out of the question, but I still ultimately accepted the task,” said junior music performance major Samuel Sterbenc who has studied euphonium since high school. “I had to memorize each passage in small increments until each was solid underneath my fingers,” he said of his piece “Symphonic Variants” by James Curnow.

Senior saxophone performance major Brad Campbell has played his instrument since age 10 and fondly remembers his journey with “Concerto for Alto Saxophone” by Alexander Glazunov.

“You dabble around with it, fall in love, and then the fun begins,” Campbell said. “It gets really tough after the basics are out of the way, but then eventually you start to master it and it becomes part of who you are.”

“I decided to delve in, regardless of how much work it would take,” said senior cello performance major Michael Grittani of his process with “Concerto in b minor for Violoncello” by Antonín Dvořák. “I tried putting in four hours each day, the majority of which I spent on this concerto.”

Grittani, who has studied cello since the age of nine, attributed part of his motivation to practice to his fellow winner and “wonderful girlfriend,” senior piano performance major Rachel Ann West.

“It was easier to keep ourselves motivated to work when we hit the practice rooms at the same time since we were striving toward the same goal,” Grittani said.

West, a student of piano since age five, said her piece, “Piano Concerto no. 2 in c minor” by Sergei Rachmaninoff, had been “very special to me for many years.”

All of the Concerto-Aria winners cite the professors who teach their private lessons as invaluable to excelling in the competition. But Sterbenc revealed several secrets to surviving the rigorous audition process.

“I think I owe my success to keeping a positive mindset for the auditions and eating two bananas before each round,” Sterbenc said. “Turns out bananas work miracles when it comes to calming down your nerves and make you more impervious to stage-fright.”

Assistant Professor of Music History Adriana Ponce, past judge of the preliminary audition rounds, agrees winners cannot afford nerves under such close scrutiny.

“I tend to look for a good level of technical command and the ability to produce a variety of colors/sonorities for expressive purposes,” she said.

“The first is, naturally, a pre-requisite for any successful performance. The second is not the only way to achieve expressiveness in a performance but it is very important.”

After Campbell, Grittani, Sterbenc, and West passed their initial auditions, they were required to compete once more in a final evaluation.

“This round had a stigma of formality and strict procedure due to the fact that it was judged by musicians outside of the Illinois Wesleyan staff,” Grittani said.

The School of Music brings in a judge specializing in each instrumental department to ensure an objective selection of the victors.

“After working diligently for months and pouring my emotions into it for years, seeing my name on the list of Concerto-Aria winners was completely surreal and I didn’t believe my eyes,” West said.

Sterbenc’s victory was a first for euphonium players at Illinois Wesleyan and also a personal honor.

“Knowing that I also won in the name of my Uncle Tony filled me with a kind of joy that I cannot describe in words,” Sterbenc said of his ill relative who passed away shortly after he won the competition and to whom he dedicated his performance.

“I have never been so happy to perform a piece in my life. I hope that one day, I will be given this kind of opportunity again,” Sterbenc said.

The only description of the concert Campbell could offer was, “transcendental.”

“I felt a lot of pressure since the concert is fairly built-up in the School of Music,” said West. “But despite my nerves, I tried to enjoy every second while I was on stage.”

West received one last surprise from the competition when Grittani came back onstage and presented her with flowers after she took her bow. “She helped me realize my passion for music,” he said.