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ART BEAT: Young musicians compete in piano competition

Fourteen young area musicians began a journey Feb. 13, following a path that would take one of them to the winner's podium in the first Gwinnett Symphony Orchestra "Rising Star" Competition.

Each student pianist prepared two movements of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488, and performed before a panel of judges. Now, six finalists will vie for the top prize later this month.

Brandon Hou, Jasmine Kim, John Koh, Eric James, Mai Nojima and Richard Wan have been chosen as the six finalists. Ranging in age from 13 to 17, these young musicians will each perform with the Gwinnett Symphony Orchestra before a panel of judges at Berkmar High School on April 20. Winners will have the opportunity to perform with the GSO during the May 10 concert at the Gwinnett Performing Arts Center in a program that will include the Mozart concerto plus the Mozart "Requiem" and Beethoven's Concerto No. 5, Op. 67.

Huu Mai, co-chairman of the competition, explained how the event was created.

"This competition is really the brainchild of Eriko Ishikawa, a distinguished pianist and teacher, with whom I have volunteered as her co-chair in order to bring this competition to fruition," he said.

The competition is also sponsored by the New School of Music owned by Rick Smith, the GSO choral director, and Robert Trocina, the GSO artistic director.

The competition was open to any piano student of high school age or younger. Judging the event were three outstanding musicians. Sergio Gallo, professor of piano at Georgia State University, performs regularly from Asia to Europe and South America. He is a distinguished Bosendorder Artist and records under the Eroica Label.

Michiko Otaki is director of piano at Clayton State University and especially noted as a chamber musician. She has performed with renowned ensembles such as the Graffe String Quartet and the Warsaw Wind Quartet to name a few. She has toured throughout the United States, Europe and Russia, and has recorded two critically acclaimed CDs.

Professor David Watkins is director of piano at Kennesaw State University and is himself an International Steinway Artist, making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1986. He records under the ACA label and has served as president of the American Matthay Association.

Regardless of who wins the competition, Huu Mai believes the experience itself is worth a great deal to these aspiring young performers.

"The purpose of putting this event together is to offer talented, hard working musicians an opportunity to perform as soloists with an orchestra, an opportunity few musicians, students or professionals, experience. For many pianists, it is a dream come true to perform a concerto with an orchestra," Huu said. "This is our way of giving back to the community, organizing and offering opportunities like this to showcase 'rising stars.'"

Although the finals are not open to the public, music patrons are encouraged to attend the May 10 concert in which the young winners will be showcased. Tickets for this event range from $12 to $18 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 404-249-6400, online at www.ticketmaster.com or by visiting the Gwinnett Center Box Office. For more information about the GSO, visit www.gwinnettsymphony.org.

Holley Calmes is a freelance writer and public relations consultant specializing in the arts. E-mail her at hcalmes@mindspring.com.