Each winter in coastal Carolina, we look forward to hearing the high school and collegiate winners of the annual Richard R. Deas Student Concerto Competition, now in its 29th year, perform with the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra. This year’s top prizes both happened to be awarded to pianists, providing the occasion on February 25 to tune the Steinway and delight the audience with that most popular of genres: the piano concerto.

Prior to the young virtuosos taking the stage of Kenan Auditorium at UNCW, the concert began with Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 3, a work dating from 1938 that firmly secured Harris’ reputation as an American composer of promise. The symphony has five distinct sections couched in one organically developing movement: Tragic; Lyric; Pastoral; Fugue – Dramatic; Dramatic – Tragic. Before the performance commenced, Steven Errante, now in his 20th year as the orchestra’s conductor, took a few moments to offer some brief excerpts from the work to serve as “signposts” during the twenty-minute piece. I perceived this to be a tacit acknowledgement on Errante’s part that many of Wilmington’s patrons might not be eager to embrace 20th-century repertoire, even though Harris’ music is entirely accessible to those whose listening habits are more parochial. Errante’s demonstration was appreciated by the audience and added a personal touch, much in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.

The work begins with the cellos playing a despondent melody. Though successfully drawing in the listener, the opening moments might have benefited from an even more expressive approach to phrasing. The first two sections of the symphony, in fact, seemed a little less “tragic” or “lyric” than expected because, to my ears, a clear distinction among dynamic levels was often lacking. Moreover, a sense of teleological direction was slow to arrive, and it was not until late in the work that the orchestra found its “voice.” This point occurred as the fugal section began, assisted in no small way by the brass players’ coherent approach to every crescendo, and timpanist John Rack’s proof that the kettledrums have uses other than punctuating the tonic and dominant. The closing section, a return to the tragic, was also performed with greater meaning than the first half of the work, and it occurred to me that the members of this orchestra seem to play more intently when they truly enjoy the material on the page. Syllogistic as that might sound, this presents a potential problem, for audience members (I would argue) probably should not be able to identify so clearly when an ensemble finds one part of a work more inspiring than another.

After the Harris symphony, Anh Quyen Mac, winner of the Deas Competition’s high school division, took the stage to perform the slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Born and raised in Germany, Mac has resided in North Carolina for less than a year and is currently studying with Sharynn Edwards at Southeastern Community College. Mac’s work with Edwards, and her previous training in Germany, has clearly nurtured her talent; she performed the Largo with great confidence and sensitivity. While some have probably heard Beethoven’s slow-tempo melodies played with a stronger sense of longing, given Mac’s youth, her interpretation was very mature. It should also be mentioned that the orchestral accompaniment complimented the piano with superb balance; the clarinet solos deserve particular praise. As the main theme evolves into a dance toward the end, Mac began to rush just a bit; however, given that this movement sometimes has a tendency to drag, the accelerando was not too disruptive. Mac plans to enroll at UNCW this fall and will no doubt be a strong favorite to win the competition’s collegiate division at some point in the near future.

This year’s winner in that category was Nancy Jones, who is completing her B.A. in piano performance at UNCW with Barry Salwen. Jones performed the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, which the composer originally conceived in 1841 as a one-movement fantasy for piano and orchestra; he added the second and third movements a few years later. Tackling a concerto this famous shows guts on Jones’ part, and she demonstrated the passion required to pull it off. A few bars here and there – especially anything with octaves – posed challenges just beyond her technique, but Jones’ left-hand arpeggios were quite impressive, and her rubato in the more pensive passages was emotive and artful. In addition to the piano, Jones also studies voice, which likely has enhanced her obvious understanding of how to shape a melodic line. For the orchestra’s part, aside from some unfortunate reed trouble occurring during an oboe solo, the WSO gave the pianist solid support. Yet, the highlight of the performance came as the orchestra went silent for the cadenza, during which Jones produced her boldest playing of the evening.

Each year, the winners of the Deas competition demonstrate the abundant talent of young musicians in the Wilmington area. As the cultural climate continues to develop here, one hopes young performers such as the 2006 concerto winners will have even greater opportunities to establish professional careers in Wilmington, should they so choose. Losing them to other cities would indeed be regrettable.