One of the high points of the Eastern Music Festival season is the yearly concert that features the Young Artist Concerto Competition Winners, which took place Thursday night in Dana Auditorium on the Guilford College campus. This year, seven soloists aged 19-21 were chosen, playing five compositions from the 20th century and two from the 19th, written by composers both known and less well known. All the winners were backed by the two Young Artists Orchestras.

I should start by complimenting the playing of both ensembles, made up of the 280+ students of the festival, who hail from 35 states and territories as well as 15 foreign countries. Their playing was strong throughout, and many individual solos were exquisitely played by members of the orchestras, which speaks to the incredible talents of the seven winners, all playing by memory.

Resident conductor and New Zealander Grant Cooper led one of the two Young Artist Orchestras for the first four winners. As a trumpet player, he has performed in Carnegie Hall and at Tanglewood. As a conductor, he has worked with many orchestras, including the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. He now serves as artistic director of the Bach and Beyond Festival, and has been with EMF since 2013. His close attention to detail and focused conducting aided both soloist and orchestra in these challenging works.

First on the program was Robert Burleson from Charleston, SC; he is a student at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM). He performed the 1927 Oboe Concerto, op. 45 by Eugene Goossens (England, 1867-1958). This single movement work is multi-sectional and “evokes the pastoral style with sweeping melodic lines, a variety of articulation styles, and virtuosic flourishes.” I heard some orchestration reminiscent of Debussy with some quirky and gruff licks. Burleson’s playing was solid throughout, and his cadenza (accompanied by tam-tam and bass drum) was expressive and facile.

Gina Gravagne, from Waco, TX, studies at Baylor University. She played the opening movement, Andante comodo, from the 1929 Viola Concerto by William Walton (England, 1902-83). This is a somewhat nostalgic work, and Gravagne caught the mood with great expression. Later in the movement the tempo picks up and becomes more animated with pizzicatos from the orchestra, but ultimately ends in the same mood as it opened. The soloist was called upon to perform a number of double stops through the course of the movement, executed with great proficiency.

One standout among the stars was trombonist Kimberly Nelson, from Bedford, TX and currently a student at the Juilliard School. She played the first two movements of the 1924 Trombone Concerto by Launy Grøndahl (Denmark,1886-1960), “one of the most popular” in a limited repertoire. The declamatory opening theme in the Moderato was sturdily presented by Nelson, with more expressive passages, lovingly played as well. The second movement, Quasi una Leggenda: Andante grave (“like a legend, moderately slow and solemn”) makes use of the trombone’s ability to play warm, lyric melodies. Nelson’s wonderful playing of this beautiful movement was a delight.

Up next was a spicy presentation of the first movement (Allegro non troppo) of the 1874 Symphonie espagnole (“Spanish symphony”), op. 21 by Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo (France, 1823–1892); the soloist was violinist Isabel Rushall from Flagstaff, AZ who is getting ready to enter the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. The commanding opening motive dominates much of the movement. Rushall immediately grabbed hold of the arresting theme, making it her own. Virtuosic flights are the norm, and the violinist handled these in fine style. Some fun Spanish-influenced themes enliven the score, and the more melodic material displayed the violinist’s gleaming timbre. The fireworks that ended the movement were thrilling.

After intermission, the baton was passed to Spanish-born José-Luis Novo, who conducted the other Young Artist Orchestra. He is the current music director and conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra in Maryland; he has been on the faculty at EMF since 1999. Novo is a bit more animated in his gestures than Cooper, which also worked well with the young musicians.

The second half of the concert began with flutist Angelina Lim from Ellicott City, MD playing the 1926 Flute Concerto by Carl Nielsen (Denmark, 1865-1931). Lim is currently a student at the Eastman School of Music. Her wonderful performance was marked by her upbeat, energetic approach to the music, which contains idiomatic writing for the instrument, perky and light. Slower sections contrast, and many conversations between flute and solo instruments in the orchestra, especially between trombone and flute, were distinctive. Lim’s playing of the first cadenza was languid and sensitive, while the second was more virtuosic. Her body movements helped express the various moods of the music.

The first movement of the 1880 Scottish Fantasy, op. 46 by Max Bruch (1838-1920) was played by violinist Gabrielle Gans, who attends Shenandoah University. The dark opening features stern brass and orchestral passages that are pitted against free and expressive violin solos, gorgeously played by Gans with terrific intonation. Eventually the Scottish folk melody, “Auld Robb Morris,” appears in the sumptuously orchestrated final section in which Gans’ emotional playing of the radiant and warm melody, which included many double stops, was breath-taking.

The concert concluded with Joshua So playing the last two movements of the 1955 Oboe Concerto, H. 353, by Bohuslav Jan Martinů (Czech, 1890-1959); So, who hails from Syracuse, NY, attends the Eastman School of Music. A slow, rich orchestral introduction opened the movement before So’s oboe was heard: his entreating playing caught the unhurried, emotional mood perfectly. In one standout section, for all practical purposes a cadenza, the communicative soloist is mostly accompanied by a shimmering piano part. The finale is a different story: brimming with energy and syncopation, the movement provided a perfect backdrop for So’s peppy playing. In the two cadenzas, the oboist was able to demonstrate his impressive technique in fine style. The lickety-split coda ended the concert with panache.

This concert highlighted the intense dedication, commitment, and talent the students at EMF display. In a world that is fractured by strife and division, the concert was cathartic proof there is hope for the future. One only needs to attend artistic events such as the concert Thursday night to rest assured of the quality of the upcoming generation.