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Young musicians spar for competition’s 25th year

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Who ever said that music critics had to be experts? It wasn’t the lay musicians and passionate music-lovers in Yellow Springs who started the Chamber Music Yellow Springs concert series that has thrived for 27 years. That attitude served the group well when its founders initiated a chamber music competition as the finale for each season and would end up not only critiquing but serving as the first-round judges for the professional musicians from around the world who vie to win a contest in a hamlet in the middle of an Ohio cornfield.

The CMYS competition celebrates its 25th anniversary this Sunday, May 2, with its season-finale competition, featuring two string groups, the Vinca String Quartet and the Terzetto Piano Trio, who will each play half a program and wait for three professional judges to decide which group out-performed the other. The event includes the elements of competition and immediacy, and it’s the closest that music will ever get to a sporting event. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. A pre-concert symposium with the judges begins at 6:45.

When CMYS cofounder George Rike came up with the idea for the competition, he got a little resistance. According to cofounder and current president Jeff Huntington, the late pianist Sarah McCullough voiced her concern that practitioners did not possess the authority to evaluate professionals performing in the field with any credibility. But others in the group, including Rike’s son, Mark, a violinist with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, felt differently.

First of all, the group knew it would be hard to find anyone who was better technically than any of these players to judge them. Secondly, the point was not to correct their technique but rather to help good musicians who weren’t getting attention to get noticed.

According to current competition chairperson Mary White, “There’s a lot of luck involved in sticking yourself in the paths that get other people’s attention, and there’s only so much room at the top.”

So the CMYS competition, which limits its applicants to groups under 30 years of age, aims to help young talent stand out from the weeds and start climbing.

The Yellow Springs event is recognized as one of the country’s top five chamber competitions that accept any combination of instruments, including strings, brass, woodwinds and voice, Huntington said. And it further stands out as one of two competitions, the other being the Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition, that are performed in front of a live audience. And it’s a knowledgeable audience that often catches musicians off guard.

Stefan Mendl, violinist for the Vienna Piano Trio, asked Huntington after their first performance in town, “This is weird — what’s wrong, was my fly unzipped? Everyone was so quiet and then they stood up in a flurry of applause!” Huntington smiled, knowing that Yellow Springs is unusual in that it can pack a house full of people who both know and care deeply about the music.

Yellow Springs has apparently so charmed its past performers that this year’s entire concert series was stacked with none other than past CMYS competition winners. And those winners typically go on to win other national competitions and awards, according to White, who cited the Amstel Saxophone Quartet, which won the 2008 competition, as a stand-out group that has become quite well-known around the country.

Each year CMYS receives anywhere from 15 to 40 recorded submissions from groups around the world. The five or six first-round judges listen for attributes that go beyond technical competency and into the realm of artistic expression, White said. Submissions by groups whose music is “a chore” to listen to and whose only dynamics are loud and soft; fast and slow, are a definite “no.” The judges look instead for groups whose music is “irresistable…compelling” and makes “you want to hear more, you want to hear them LIVE, you want to hear them play all kinds of things to hear what they would do…”

Again, the Amstel hit that kind of chord with the judges.

“I was astonished at the quality of their playing and their inventiveness,” White said of their all-contemporary program. “They made extraordinary sounds, both as soloists and as an ensemble.”

The final round of judging occurs between the two finalists at the end of the concert by a panel of professional judges. One of this year’s judges is former Antioch College faculty member Roland Vamos. He and his wife, Almita Vamos, who will both participate in the pre-concert symposium, teach at Northwestern University and coach professional musicians in Chicago. The second judge, Dick Waller, is the father of chamber music in America, according to White. He managed two chamber music series in Cincinnati and helped start the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. Sandra Rivers, who has performed at Kelly Hall, is a concert pianist and chair of the College-Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati.

The judges and audience will hear from the Vinca Quartet Haydn’s Quartet in F Major “The Dream” (1787) and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 4 (1936). From the Terzetto they will hear Franz Schubert’s Trio in E flat, Opus 100 (1827) and the allegro vivace movement from Leon Kirchner’s Trio No. 1 (1954).

Tickets for the concert are $18 ($6 for students) and can be reserved by calling 937-374-8800. Reservations are required for the post-concert dinner and reception. The pre-concert symposium features the judges and is open to the public.

Though the audience may have to wait a few minutes after the concert to hear it, the judges will announce the winner before they leave the hall for the night. The ensembles will share the $6,500 prize money, but the winner will get the bigger share.

The competition, according to White, “is the coolest thing we do.” And the confidence to initiate something of that scale is “one of the things I love about Yellow Springs,” she said.

“The audacity of putting on a national competition in this tiny town overrun by white-tailed deer,” she said. “The competition is extraordinary.”

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