DECATUR — One of the defining aspects of Millikin University’s annual concerto/aria competition is its exclusivity and high standards.
The competition can reward up to four students every year as winners in instrumental or vocal performance, but those honors are by no means assured. Four is only the maximum, not the set number. This year, only two awards were given to seniors Chelsea Wright and Adam Blakey, all the more indication of how exemplary they are.
“It’s not just about who is the best in the competition but who is excellent and truly ready to play with a symphony orchestra,” said Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra Director Michael Luxner, who will lead the annual “Young Artists” concert Saturday evening at Kirkland Fine Arts Center. “There could be a year that comes with zero winners. But luckily we have two wonderful, professional players for this year. They are the cream of the crop.”
Saxophonist Blakey is a two-time winner of the competition who will perform the Glazunov “Concerto in E-Flat” in his second appearance. Vocalist Chelsea Wright, on the other hand, is a first-time winner and will be featured on two pieces, Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figar,o” and Saint-Saens’ “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix.” Both were chosen by Wright, who said a personal connection with the music was helpful in bringing out her best performance.
“A lot of the process in selecting arias is just determining which are my favorites,” she said. “You need to have an emotional connection to the piece to sing with the most gusto. The audience is very attuned to that. It makes the performance captivating to watch.”
Arriving early to prepare for their own performances, each competitor is typically able to see some of their fellow students perform. Wright said she was honored to be one of only two chosen after seeing all the other students she was up against.
“I’d say the level of competition is very high,” she said. “It’s a serious opportunity. You get your name out there by winning, which can be important. There were quite a few vocalists participating who I know, so I had to switch out of peer mode into competition mode. It’s a pretty straining experience.”
The vocalist’s two pieces were largely chosen for their dynamic contrasts, which Wright surmised would best present her adaptability and well-rounded skills. Clearly, she was correct.
“The first piece, ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ is a very fun aria and a little bit silly, sort of bouncing around the stage,” she said. “It’s intended to be comic. Then the second is from the story of Samson and Delilah, and it’s a very seductive and intense piece that Delilah sings. There’s a very strong contrast between the two pieces that I wanted to create.”
The concert will conclude with the MDSO’s performance of Bizet’s Symphony No. 1, an unusual symphony that wasn’t performed for the first time until 80 years after it was initially written, and never during Bizet’s lifetime.
“It’s an interesting piece written by the composer when he was only 17,” said Luxner. “If there was ever a truly one of a kind piece in the classical repertoire, it’s this one.”