This Sunday, 23 musicians will each take the stage of Markel Auditorium, all vying for the opportunity to perform a solo accompanied by the orchestra in their March and May concerts. But only a few will strike a chord with the judges.
“It’s one of the few things we do in the music department that is at a competitive level,” Music Department Chair James Holleman said. “This is one of the few just flat-out competitions.”
The annual concerto competition started in the early 2000s as a way to honor selected seniors, but evolved into a competition as the music department grew. The competition is open to any non-freshmen registered for private music lessons at the school. Even students who are not music majors have a chance at winning, something which Holleman said is unique.
The competition brings in outside judges, chosen by their area of expertise, based on the competitors that year.
This year the judges come from the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, and the Interlochen Arts Academy.
“If I know we’re going to have a large number of vocalists for a given year, I want to make sure we have a vocalist as a judge,” Holleman said. “It varies from year to year just on who we can get to come in, who we approach in a given year.”
Having outside judges allows music professionals to see what is happening in the music department of Hillsdale College.
“That’s been a great way for us to get the word out that there’s positive things going on here at Hillsdale College in the music department,” Holleman said.
Outside judges also eliminate the chance of bias. Although Holleman listens to the discussion between the judges, he does not participate in choosing the winners.
How many winners are chosen each year also varies by judges.
“If any given year they agree unanimously on four students, but can’t agree on the fifth, well, then we pick four,” Holleman said.
The number of choices must fit with the rest of the concert programming, however.
“But that also has to be in balance with how much space we have in the concerts for the pieces they’re playing, how difficult the accompaniments are for us to learn, what other repertoire are we playing on those concerts,” said Holleman.
Still, even just participating is beneficial for students.
“It’s been a really positive thing, a real motivating factor for our students. It’s been a motivating factor for our faculty,” Holleman said. “It’s been a great way to bring in outside people to see the quality of the students and the quality of the teaching that’s going on in our music department.”
Results from the competition will be announced early next week.
SOPRANO VOCALIST: Sydney Orndorff
Sydney Orndorff is a sophomore majoring in English with a minor in music. She started singing around age 12, after an interest in the art prompted her parents to enroll in her lessons.
Orndorff will sing “So Anch’io la Virtù Magica” by Donizetti and “Addio del Passato” by Giuseppe Verdi. The two pieces contrast, she said, describing one as an “upbeat, flirty piece,” while the other is about a young woman’s death.
Orndorff said she’s concerned about her voice acting up.
“The voice is such a fragile instrument and you have to do so much to keep it in the right state,” she said. “Especially this time of year, I don’t know, I could get sick between now and Sunday.”
Regardless, she looks forward to competing.
“I’m nervous,” Orndorff said. “At this point, I’m going in to have a good time and a good experience of competing. I’ve only competed in a high-caliber voice competition once before, so it’s really good to have the performing experience and to get up there and have a good time on the stage.”
SOPRANO VOCALIST: Susena Finegan
Susena Finegan is a junior majoring in music and minoring in Christian studies. She is performing as a vocalist.
Finegan began singing as a young girl and started competing in eighth grade.
“I haven’t won a concerto yet, but I’m hoping to win this one,” she said.
Finegan is performing “Tornami a Vasseshiar” by Handel and “Recitativo e Ruggiero” by Bellini.
Finegan doesn’t struggle to convey the meaning of the songs, even when she has to sing them in a different language.
“I love to act,” she said. “I just pretend that I am Italian, that I am that character.”
Despite her long career, she is still nervous about the competition.
“I’m also very excited,” she said. “This is my passion and I want to portray it in a way that [the judges] know it’s my passion, but also that I’m doing my absolute best and giving them what they came to hear.”
TIMPANIST: John Russell
John Russell is a senior majoring in biochemistry. He plays the timpani, an instrument similar to a kettle drum, which he started learning in his sophomore year of college.
“It’s my last chance to compete in the competition, and I won’t have this particular kind of experience again.”
He is playing Timpani Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra by Lee Actor.
Russell says competing is more about the experience, not the win.
“If I can play the concerto well, I will feel like it’s been good,” he said.
Still, having such a unique instrument would set a precedent, he said.
“Hopefully there will be more [timpanists] that will compete,” Russell said.
“It would be kind of fun to have a solo timpani player for an orchestra concert. Whether it is me or not, we will have to see.”