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Classical artists audition for recognition and a chance to perform

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 17, 2009 - It's down to nine. Nine talented musical finalists will audition on April 25 for the chance to win a cash prize and a public performance opportunity. Their auditions will not be televised live nationally. Audience members will not get a vote. If there is a Simon Cowell among the three judges, he will not be dishing out any rude criticisms. And to avoid bias, the jury will not even know the identities of the candidates. (Winners at the end of this post.)

The Artist Presentation Society is no American Idol. But it has launched the careers of dozens of classical musicians from the St. Louis area over the past 62 years. Among the past winners of the coveted APS Award are such internationally known performers as pianist Ingrid Jacoby (1976), cellist Leslie Parnas (1951) and the late pianist Malcolm Frager, who was 12 years old when he was in the first group of winners in 1947.

"Winning the 'Artist Pre' was one of the turning points of my life," says Barbara Liberman (1961), recently retired St. Louis Symphony Orchestra principal keyboardist. "It determined that I could be a professional. Until then, I was a student, even though I went to Juilliard and I was studying at Washington University. But still, meeting that standard -- that was my chance at proving I could do it."

The Artist Presentation Society encourages and promotes exceptional young musicians by giving them each a $1,000 cash award and a public performance. APS also aims to develop supportive, knowledgable and enthusiastic audiences for its own concerts and to collaborate with other cultural institutions to make classical music more accessible to the community and younger generations.

Candidates must

  • be 35 years old or younger,
  • reside or study within a 250-mile radius of St. Louis,
  • have performed at least two different full-length programs before an audience.

Performance categories include most solo instruments, voice and chamber ensembles.
Applicants are selected to audition based on a submitted CD or DVD. The repertoire requirements are strict and demanding: each candidate must be ready to perform 75 minutes of music, including works from each of the four major style periods (baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary). Singers must include repertoire in four languages. All works by instrumental soloists and singers must be memorized.

A committee of APS board members narrows the field to finalists who will play before the jury in the auditions. The audition judges will choose selections from each candidate's prepared repertoire, stopping and starting the pieces at will.

After the 20-minute audition, judges will take about five minutes to confer and write comments to be included in a written critique to each candidate.

This year's judges are George Silfies, retired SLSO principal clarinetist; Peter Henderson, assistant music professor at Maryville University, an SLSO keyboardist and a 2003 APS winner; and A. Dennis Sparger, music director of the Bach Society of St. Louis.

Judges must decide unanimously on winners, but may choose any number of winners, even none. The largest number of winners to date is six, chosen in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1954. In 1979, no candidate was found to be ready for a performance career. The winners are presented in solo recitals during the next concert season.

"In itself, it's a very wonderful opportunity to perform for a St. Louis audience in a good venue," says Jacoby, who was in high school when she won her APS award. "If they give a few hundred dollars to a music student who doesn't have much financial support, it could be a good thing." Jacoby now enjoys a busy performing and recording career and is an artist-in-residence at the University of Buckingham near London, where she has lived for 20 years. She is preparing to record with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra this summer.

One of Jacoby's teachers was the late Jane Allen, a 1958 winner who turned out so many winning students that Steinway Piano Gallery named its Maryland Heights recital hall after her.

Among the 174 winners are several successful local musicians such as jazz pianist Herb Drury (1949); versatile piano accompanist Vera Parkin (1984), now on Webster University's Music Department faculty; piano teachers Patricia Cho (1985) and Mary Anderson (1975); and Webster University vocal studies director Carole Godwin Gaspar (1963).

A few family acts fill the APS winners roster, including flutist Marie Garritson (1982), whose daughters, pianists Laura and Lindsay Garritson won in 2002 and 2003 respectively. Siblings Melanie and Paul Hadley, both pianists, won in 1994 and 1998, respectively. Parnas' pianist brother, Jerome, won in 1954.

It's not too soon to gauge the effect of the 2008 APS award on the career of soprano Joy Boland, who gave her recital March 15.

"It's such a nice bullet point on my resume," says Boland, who already has performing commitments for later in the year, including a fall appearance with the Tulsa Opera. A 10-year veteran with Union Avenue Opera Theatre, Boland is trying to book reprises of her APS recital with other concert series.

"They take it for granted that the recital is good and ready and well presented," she says. "It was such a labor of love, I just wanted to do it again."

The 2009 winners are all pianists.

Zsolt Bognar,  a performing artist from Urbana, Ill., who has  bachelor's and master's degrees from the prestigious Cleveland Instititute of Music. His principal instructor is Sergei Babayan, one of the leading piano teachers in the country.

Graciella Kowalczyk, a doctoral candidate in Piano Pereformance at the University of Kansas. Her doctoral instructor is Jack Winerock, who is well known to the St. Louis music community. She was also a student of Stanislav Ioudenitch, a former gold medalist at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth, TX.

Andrew Sheffield, a master's degree student at the Universioty of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. His piano instructor is Robert Weirich, some of whose students have been former winners in these auditions.

Eileen P. Duggan is a freelance writer. 

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