Concerto showcases the best and brightest of emerging U of C talent

By Greg Weinstein

On Saturday, May 1, the University Symphony Orchestra will present a star-studded Concerto Showcase concert, featuring three winners of the Department of Music’s biannual Concerto Competition. The audience will hear a trio of musicians with backgrounds as diverse as the pieces they will perform: Leann Sechrest (who will sing two arias by Donizetti), Miguel Ramirez (performing an oboe fantasia by Pasculli), and Lisa Buda (playing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto).

Each of these fine student musicians has taken a drastically different path to the Mandel Hall stage. Sechrest is an Environmental Studies major in her fourth year in the College. She is extremely active in the school’s musical life, singing in Motet Choir, musically directing the a cappella ensemble Men in Drag, and appearing in several University productions (including the recent performance of Hansel and Gretel with the University Symphony Orchestra and University Theater’s upcoming staging of The Medium). Remarkably, this is the first competition in which Sechrest has participated. Like most vocalists, she did not begin formal training until high school, when she entered a studio at Millikin University in Decatur.

Winning the concerto competition was the culmination of a college career in which Sechrest’s abilities as a singer have flourished; she was encouraged to enter by her teacher Tambra Black, a former winner. Sechrest has noted that the hardest part of the competition was choosing appropriate repertoire. Though instrumentalists have a wealth of tailor-made concertos readily available, vocalists have the more difficult challenge of choosing among concert arias. Sechrest wanted to select music that was both appealing to the listeners and well suited to her own talents. The two sparkling arias she will be performing are of contrasting nature, and she clearly delights in both: the aria from the opera buffa (or comic opera) Don Pasquale is humorous, sung by a woman explaining the ways in which she can attract a lover, while the one from the opera semiserio Linda di Chamounix is an impressive coloratura showpiece, displaying Sechrest’s range and facility. Amazingly, Sechrest’s talent as a singer has in no way taken a back seat to the pressures of school, which she finds “both challenging and overwhelming.” After graduation, she plans to go to graduate school at the University of Illinois to study singing, with the ultimate goal of performing and training younger singers.

Ramirez is a third-year graduate student studying musicology. His modest demeanor belies the wealth of experience and talent he possesses as an oboist. Though he began playing the oboe relatively late—when he entered the University of Costa Rica to study architecture—he achieved astounding success almost immediately. He earned an undergraduate degree in performance, received an Artist Diploma from the Hochschule für Musik Frankfurt, and was awarded a Doctor of Musical Arts from Boston University. He spent several years as principal oboist of the Costa Rican National Symphony and as a teacher at the University of Costa Rica.

Ramirez was musically inclined from childhood, acquiring a love of classical music from his father’s recordings of opera and chamber music. In fact, he humorously recalls loving the oboe before he even knew what it was. Following his career as a professional oboist, he came to the University of Chicago to pursue his long-standing dream of studying musicology. The rigors of our program forced him to virtually quit playing for three years; however, personally dissatisfied, he decided to challenge himself by returning to the instrument and auditioning in the concerto competition—and on one of the most virtuosic pieces in the repertory. Known as the “Paganini of the oboe,” Pasculli found nothing sufficiently challenging in the repertoire. Therefore he set about composing his own works, pieces that fully exploited his extraordinary capacity and still presented a challenge for oboists of the future.

Pasculli’s fantasia on themes from Donizetti’s opera La Favorita is one of many such stunning creations. Ramirez commented with awe that, although the technical and musical challenges of the work are highly idiomatic for the oboe, it must have been extraordinarily difficult for Pasculli on his oboe, given the myriad technological advances made in musical instruments since. The modern oboe has many more keys and a more homogeneous sound than the 19th century oboe, to name but a few improvements.

A couple years ago, Buda’s piano teacher told her not to even purchase the music for Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.  Although she had played piano since she was 10, she began to study the instrument seriously in high school, and her teacher believed the work would be far too complex for her. Certainly there is no shame in this—upon the concerto’s completion in 1874 it was declared “unplayable” by Tchaikovsky’s friend, the famous Russian composer Nikolai Rubinstein; it has provided a daunting challenge to pianists ever since. Undeterred, Buda bought the score anyway during a summer in Paris, immediately wrote the date on the solo part, and set herself the goal of performing the piece with an orchestra. Now a first-year in the College, Buda is realizing what has been her primary dream for several years.

Both Buda’s mother and grandmother inspired her interest in music as a child. She made frequent trips to the Lyric Opera with her mother, and recalls that when returning from each opera they would blast Vladimir Horowitz’s renowned performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto in the car with the top down. The concerto has a storied history, particularly since the charismatic Texan Van Cliburn became the first Western musician to win the international Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, effectively lodging himself—and the concerto—in the hearts of Americans everywhere. Asked how she approaches a work such as the legendary Tchaikovsky concerto, Buda replied simply that she does not think in those terms; rather, she brings to it her own passions and experiences. The performance is a “give and take—the piece I am playing makes me feel a certain way and that feeds back into the piece, shaping the way I am playing it.”

Enjoy this wide range of University talent on Saturday, May 1 at 8 p.m. in Mandel Hall.  The concert will be a stellar event…don’t miss it!