Primary tabs

Young Artists Spotlighted by Mondavi Center Competition

August 29, 2012

Young Artists Competition At the start, all fledgling classical music competitions are like open books. Questions abound: Will enough artists apply? Will the focus be one instrument, or many? And what will be done with winners after awards are tendered?

These are some of the questions that faced the Mondavi Center for the Arts’ Young Artists Competition when it called for its first round of applicants in 2007. At the time, the focus was a local one, and the competition drew 20 applicants.

In 2009 the competition expanded its reach by holding auditions in San Francisco and Los Angeles. That year’s call yielded 120 applicants, with only 25 percent of the 120 applying originating from the Greater Sacramento area.

This year the festival has evolved into a national one, with the competition set to hold auditions in Portland, New York City, and Los Angeles. It has also entered into partnerships with the Concert Artist Guild, Steinway Artists, and IMG Artists, said Lara Downes, director of YAC and pianist in residence at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis.

The feeling at Mondavi was that it wanted to be more than just local talent. “We’ve been committed to discovering extraordinary talent since the competition’s inception, and that talent can come from anywhere,” said Downes.

Despite the broadening of the festival’s scope, musicians from the Sacramento region have been well represented among the winners, as evidenced by 15-year-old pianist Kevin Sun, a 10th-grader at Sacramento’s Mira Loma High School, who dazzled judges with his performance of Bach’s Prelude from his English Suite No. 6. Sun took first prize in the senior division in 2009.

Most of the winners of the competition have been California natives, many of whom are doing their schooling out of state. But that is sure to change with the expansion of the competition’s focus.

This year’s competition is structured in two divisions: a Young Artists Division for pianists and instrumentalists ages 10 to 16, and a Founders Division for vocalists ages 17 to 21. Winners in each division win a cash award, with the grand prize winner of the Founder’s Division receiving $6,000. The competition offers a $5,000 Bouchaine Young Artists Scholarship from the Napa Valley summer festival Festival del Sole. Also included this year for winners will be career consultation services from Concert Artists Guild.

Huang said she and her teacher use such competitions as targets for instrumental development. … “There was no end goal beside just playing.”

To keep pace with its expanded focus, the competition now has a endowment seeded by three of its original donors. “We’re trying to restructure the budget so that we can offer bigger prizes and have more resources available for outreach,” Downes said. “For me, expanding the reach of the competition is really about furthering the larger mission of the Mondavi Center as a training ground and laboratory for young talent.”

Winning Strategy

Lara DownesThe festival started as one that offered little at the back end to winners once they left the stage, though that paradigm has changed. “What we have been doing is introducing artists to the stage and also creating a cycle, where three or four years after a win we invite that winner back to perform on a Mondavi concert series,” said Downes. The expectation, she said, is that winners will have developed enough that they can be included as a main stage artists at Mondavi a few years after that.

One partnership that Downes sees as key is its collaboration with the New York–based Concert Artists Guild, a 61-year-old organization that has built a reputation for discovering, nurturing, and promoting young musicians. “We are looking into whether we can feed into their competition,” Downes remarked.

The CAG’s competition is held every year, with winners afforded a debut recital at Carnegie Hall as well as career development, said Cindy Hwang, West Coast and Asia Pacific agent for Concert Artists Guild. “We feel that there can be a good synergy between the Young Artists Competition and us,” she said.

Unlike the winners of YAC, most who compete at Concert Artists Guild have finished their conservatory schooling and are ready to start their careers.

“This partnership will let younger artists know what CAG is and that it is an option for them to pursue at some point,” Hwang noted. The CAG’s willingness to be more than just a future option for Mondavi competition winners, along with its commitment to offer winners career development, will be an invaluable resource.

So far, being a winner at the YAC competition has proved a key to the development of musicians. One of those is violinist Alina Kobialka, who won last year with performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s Five Melodies, Nos. 1, 2, and 3, and Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie.

“In Sacramento, we’re not cocooned in a tradition of study and performance, and that can produce very independent voices and unfettered talent,” Downes said.

“I have gotten more opportunities to perform,” said Kobialka, who is also co-concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. The win at Mondavi was followed by her performing at the 2012 Beijing Menuhin International Violin Competition as well as her playing Carmen Fantasie on the NPR radio show From the Top.

Bay Area Youth Well Represented

Hilda HuangMany of the winners have been musicians from the Bay Area, like Palo Alto pianists Hilda Huang and Kenric Tam. Tam won the grand prize in 2007. He already had an impressive resume before competing, including performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Tam, who returned to perform a recital at Mondavi in 2011, has said winning the Mondavi competition helped him gain more competition experience. Following his YAC win, Tam won the first place award in the Schimmel International Piano Competition and second place in the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition.

Huang won the grand prize in the junior division in 2010, at the age of 13. At the time, she had already competed in at least 20 competitions. “I do a lot of competitions, so this was just another one for me,” said Huang. “The biggest part of the competition for me was not winning.”

Huang said she and her teacher use such competitions as targets for instrumental development, given that the competition did not come with a contract to perform with an orchestra or other ensemble. “There was no end goal beside just playing,” Huang said.

However, Downes changed that by bringing together Huang and violinist Alexi Kenney — who won the grand prize in the senior division in 2010 — for a duo concert at Mondavi this year. That performance made a big difference in Huang’s musical development. “It was an important thing to me as a musician, because I really had not done much chamber music,” she said. “That experience opened my eyes a little. We taught each other a lot about rehearsing and what decisions needed to be made as chamber musicians.”

Despite the broadening of the competition to a nationwide status, Downes feels the competition will see West Coast–based musicians showing off their skills, especially ones who are toiling far from urban centers. The result may be musicians competing and winning who have a decidedly different approach or musical sensibility.

“In Sacramento, we’re not cocooned in a tradition of study and performance, and that can produce very independent voices and unfettered talent,” Downes said. “Artists who develop ‘off the beaten path’ often build their creativity on a foundation of independent thinking and unbiased personal voice.”

The application deadline for both divisions of the Young Artists Competition is Aug. 31. Information is available at

Edward Ortiz is an arts and science writer who has written for The Sacramento Bee, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal. He is also a contributor to Symphony Magazine and