The Final Forte: Any time of year is the time for a quartet of real winners

It kind of made sense for the final round of the Bolz Young Artist Competition to be dubbed the “Final Forte” when it was held in mid-March, the month of college basketball’s “March madness,” which of course concludes with the “Final Four.” But Friday night’s event, the 10th annual such go-round, proved that you could plunk this event pretty much anywhere on the calendar and end up with four teenaged artists who are all winners before they played a single note. After all, they had emerged from two previous rounds of about two dozen total competitors statewide to realize an opportunity few artist their age experience: a concerto movement (or two) accompanied by an orchestra as fine as the Madison Symphony, and a director as engaged as John DeMain. As seen in the photo above by James Gill, the qualifying quartet included Audrianna Wu, Liam Mayo, Tabby Rhee and Robert Rockman.

It was the first live experience for yours truly, a result in part from the fact that, as always, the event was broadcast live on Wisconsin Public Radio, and was filmed for telecast on Wisconsin Public Television. Overture Hall was about 60% full (tickets are free but needed to be reserved), with the lower level and orchestra circle both filled. Needless to say, what the hall lacked in numbers was more than made up for in an audience largely consisting of family and friends.

The event was given some added luster in being co-hosted by WPR’s Lori Skelton and NPR’s Christopher O’Riley—a pianist of international renown who has gone to host “From the Top,” a weekly radio program that features performers much like the ones that took the stage on Friday (in fact, there have been a couple of Final Forte participants who have been on O’Riley’s NPR show).

One of the differences in being part of the live audience is that we don’t see the two-minute video intros for each performer, although we can hear the audio. This proved instructive more than once, as you shall see.

But the real problem emerged even before Audrianna Wu opened the festivities: How does one begin to judge the artistic differences between two prodigious pianists, a violinist…and a marimba player? It may seem akin to judging between two apples, an orange and a kumquat. But more to the point: What does “winning” mean in this context? Happily, no one would go home empty-handed. Each of two honorable mention winners would also receive $1,000, the runner-up, designated the Steenbock Award and the top choice, the Bolz Award winner, each receive $2,000.

Wu was one of two local area entrants, from Madison. In her intro she mentioned that in the finale of the Grieg Piano Concerto she particularly liked the middle section, and indeed, this was the strength of her performance. This is Grieg at his most moonlit Chopinesque lyricism, and Wu wonderfully captured the translucent , passage.

Violinist Tabby Rhee followed, and no one could be blamed for tabbing her a favorite to win. If she did, she would follow in her brother Julian’s footsteps who won last year. His traversal of the Brahms Violin Concerto caught DeMain’s attention even before last year’s Final Forte, and Julian Rhee went on to win the WCO award and play the opening Brahms movement again with WCO in the Concerts on the Square opener last June. Sister Tabby, a senior at Brookfield East HS, was if anything raising the stakes, by competing with the opening movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. As impressive as her technique is, what really caught our notice was the way she was unafraid to play ultra-soft when the dynamics called for it, and to maintain tension even in the silences. Not surprisingly she is a talent to be as closely watched with interest as her brother.

Then we had Robert Rockman, a home-schooled lad from Sun Prairie, and as it turns out, one of triplets. No word as to whether his brothers play marimba as well. Any choice of work for marimba and orchestra would be unusual (come on, how many marimba concertos can you name?), but Rockman’s vehicle was particularly arresting, the Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints of Alan Hovhaness. Again, in the opening minutes of the work, one’s mind turned to those questions of equitable judging: How does one begin to compare the sheer dazzle and undeniable ??? of Sibelius with the exotic sound worlds of marimba and Hovhaness? But it only took a few minutes before one was completely absorbed into the music itself, and young Rockman enjoyed a most enthusiastic ovation.

The final performer was Liam Mayo of Green Bay, and it was great to hear him say in his intro that it wasn’t about the competition per se at all. To him it was a performance, and he was going to enjoy to the fullest the chance to play this music with the MSO. His selection was the first and third movements of Mendelsshon’s Piano Concerto No. 1, neatly elided with a brief musical link. He described the music as “a hurricane, but with all the raindrops turned into flames, and all swirling at about 300 miles per hour.” He may have a career as a writer if the piano thing doesn’t work out… But whether the keyboard career is fully launched or not, it was clear in his performance that it was full of joy in the moment. His technique isn’t too shabby, either…

And for the record, it was Wu and Mayo who received the honorable mentions, Rhee the runner-up slot, and Rockman, against all odds, the winner. The panel four judges did include a percussionist, but it was still something of a surprise to see Rockman get the top nod. Watch for yourself Tuesday at 8 p.m., or Sunday February 7 at noon, on WPT. You’ll enjoy them all so much that you’ll be glad you’re not a judge—and thrilled to know that there are so many young people pursuing excellence in the arts in our state. Bravi to one and all.

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