Schubert Club student competition winners play at MPR

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
April 25, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — Every spring for the past 86 years, Saint Paul's Schubert Club has held a student competition that seeks out the most talented musicians in the region.

The competition is named in memory of the long-time executive director of The Schubert Club, Bruce P. Carlson and like its namesake, is generous not only in spirit but in prize money, awarding close to $50,000 each year to help young musicians further their musical aspirations.

This year, over 200 students competed. Fifty judges in fourteen divisions chose winners in five categories and age groups from junior high through graduate school.

In addition to the prize money, the winners also receive performance opportunities including a public recital this coming Friday at 7:30 in Hamline University's Sundin Music Hall.

At Classical MPR, we're proud to make it a tradition to gear up for the event by inviting a winner-a-day to play some music and talk a bit about their fledgling careers and their hopes and dreams.

Beginning Monday, a 17-year-old Buddy Holly look-alike Leo Wexler-Mann plays Liszt.

Leo likes to say he was "unschooled" before he began studying piano in earnest with Dr. Paul Wirth. He has since been snagging top prizes in many competitions including the MMTA Senior Young Artist Competition, the National American Protege Competition and first prize in the Senior High School Piano category at the Schubert Club.

Last March Leo carried a stuffed animal with him on the stage of Orchestra Hall, setting it aside long enough to play several movements from Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" with the Minnesota Orchestra.

When he's not practicing, Leo told us he takes in horror movies and loves browsing through thrift stores.

Austin Wall is a 17-year-old guitarist and plays on Tuesday.

One might say Austin is the "complete guitarist." He plays classical at a high level, but also jazz, rock, and bluegrass -- most recently winning first in the youth division at the Minnesota State Bluegrass Flat-picking competition.

Austin has studied with Alan Johnston at MacPhail for a dozen years, a relationship so successful and nourishing that Austin's dad decided to pick up guitar a couple years back and study with Johnston as well.

In addition to guitar, Austin plays French horn in the Blake School band. His solo on Classical MPR -- Carlo Domeniconi's "Snow in Istanbul" - is rich and atmospheric, but sadly rarely performed, so it's an extra special treat to hear.

On Wednesday, 16-year-old homeschooler Karen Baumgartner plays a haunting impressionistic work by American composer Charles Griffes.

She explains that she doesn't really remember what attracted her to the flute, but that she always wanted to play and credits her teacher Minnesota Opera Principal Flute Michele Frisch with helping her develop a rich palette of tone colors.

Karen plays in the Minnesota Youth Symphonies and hopes to emulate her teacher and become a professional orchestral musician. Her accompanist in Griffes' "Poem" is Susan Garrelts.

Fifteen-year-old John Belk plays an incredibly difficult show-piece on Thursday based on Paganini's 24th Caprice by Hans Bottermund, arranged by Janos Starker.

John's teacher - Kirsten Whitson -- was a student of Starker and has helped young John with the incredibly thorny passages including one that is played entirely on the finger-board.

Ms. Whitson has also challenged John to a practice schedule that has kept him practicing for 2000 days straight.

John is a member of the Malik String Quartet which won the "Audience Prize" at the recent Saint Paul String Quartet Competition. In addition, he plays in summer festivals, camps, youth orchestras and masterclasses and admits texting his many musical friends takes up a good deal of his time.

John's played at MPR on an instrument he's trying out and one he's had for only three days.

Friday, it's Chinese soprano Wei Zheng singing an aria from Donizetti's "Don Pasquale."

Wei has a scintillatingly beautiful lyric voice that she developed as a student in Beijing, Boston and now at the University of Minnesota.

Her English is excellent, but she admits the other required languages of an opera singer -- French, German and Italian -- are rusty. She is eager to improve over the next few years in her doctoral program as she gives five required recitals in four languages.

She will also write a dissertation, most likely on teaching Chinese folk music to American students.

Ms. Zheng has performed several roles including Cinderella in Massenet's opera Cinderella and partial roles in Lakme, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. She won second place in the NATS competition, and first prize in the Schubert Club graduate vocal category. Her accompanist is Jenya Trubnikava.

The Competition Winners Concert is this Friday at 7:30 at Hamline University's Sundin Hall.

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