TAYLOR KERN, Staff Writer — This past Monday Denison celebrated one of its newest and most promising traditions: The Concerto/Aria Competition.

This competition is the first of its kind for Denison’s music department and for each interested student it entails weeks to months of preparation. In order to apply, the musicians filled out a sheet about a month in advance with the piece he or she intended to play and obtained consent from his or her private teacher. Instrumentalists chose a movement from a concerto: a piece composed for an instrument accompanied by the orchestra, usually on a large scale. Singers chose an aria: a long accompanied song for solo voice, typically found in an opera or oratorio.

Nicole Harris ‘20, 2019 Concerto/Aria Competition winner performing for the judge. PC: Taylor Kern

On the day of the competition, each student played his or her piece with an accompanist for Dr. Philip Rudd, the director of orchestras at Denison University, and a guest judge, who this year was Dr. Chelsea Gallo, the assistant conductor at the Detroit Symphony. The winner (this year two winners) received the honor of playing their pieces with Denison’s symphony orchestra on the spring final concert. Nicole Harris (‘20) and Shengbo Shi (‘20) tied for first place on viola and on piano respectively. Bebe Blumenthal (‘20) was awarded an honorable mention and will be performing her piece with the orchestra on their tour. Clem Pearson (‘20) is a very active member of the music department; he is a department fellow studying composition and conducting, and he competed Monday on the violin. He provided much information on the application and competition process and gave meaningful feedback on his experience as a competitor.

Kern: How do you think this experience has influenced you or helped you grow as a musician?

Pearson: This kind of thing is a great way to get experience playing in a high-stakes setting. Everyone gets nervous, but the more you do it, the less nervous you get. I certainly feel a lot more prepared for auditions and other competitions in the future after doing this.

Clem Pearson ‘20, competitor and Music Department Fellow. PC: Taylor Kern

Kern: Do you have any further commentary?

Pearson: I think everyone who played did really well. The winners were fantastic and absolutely deserved it, but seeing the overall quality of the performances also just makes me really optimistic about the future of the music program here.

The Denisonian also got a chance to speak with Dr. Philip Rudd of the Music Department about the competition.

The Denisonian: How did this competition come about and what has been your role in it?

Rudd: Performing with featured soloists is an important part of the orchestra experience. I wanted to give my students more opportunities to perform with excellent soloists, and I also wanted to create an opportunity to showcase some of our most talented and accomplished music students. The student concerto-aria competition is an institutional tradition in most university music departments, and so this was a priority for me when I came to Denison. We held our inaugural competition in 2018, and we will anticipate holding this event annually. Students are nominated by the faculty, and perform in a public audition, which is adjudicated by an outside expert. This year’s competition was judged by Dr. Chelsea Gallo, assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony. 

The Denisonian: How do you see it contributing to the development of the music department? 

Rudd: Most of our musical activities are focused on collaboration, teamwork, and collective effort- and rightly so! The concerto-aria competition is one of the few examples of individual recognition that we have in our department, and provides an important benchmark experience for many students who are working towards graduate studies and careers in classical music. At the same time, I am proud of the way that our atmosphere of collegiality and positivity has been shown in this event- even though it is a competition, the student musicians have been incredible in their support and encouragement of one another. This year’s competition performances were at an extremely high level, and this is a powerful recognition of the great teaching and learning that is happening in our department.  

The Denisonian: How does it help student musicians?

Rudd: Since the competition is offered every year, it gives students a concrete goal to aim for, and a focal point for their efforts in the practice room and in lessons. Students really are inspired by seeing the wonderful work that their peers are doing, and for the winners, performing with the Denison Symphony Orchestra is a memory that will last a lifetime. 

This year’s winners are Nicole Harris ’20, viola, Shengbo Shi ’21, piano, and Bebe Blumenthal ’20, violin. Nicole and Chengbo will be featured on the Denison Symphony and Combined Choirs concert, which will be in Swasey Chapel on April 25, 2020. Bebe will perform during the Orchestra’s April 2020 regional performance tour. We look forward to these wonderful performances, and anticipate another excellent competition next year!

Fans of the Denison Symphony can also see the orchestra perform next Thursday as part of the Vail Series+ performance, featuring world-class cello soloist Matt Haimovitz. This spectacular concert will be at 7:00 PM on Thursday, November 21, in Sharon Martin Hall in the Eisner Center. Tickets are required but are free of charge.