VSO concert spotlights 3 Young Artists winners

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"It's been a ride!" exclaimed Valerie Ding, "I've been working on Camille Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto since last summer, and I can't wait to play it with the Vancouver Symphony."

That enthusiasm and high level of artistry are two of the main reasons to hear Ding, who was one of the gold-medal winners of the orchestra's 20th Annual Young Artists Competition. This weekend, she will share the stage with violinist Fumika Mizuno and pianist Hannah Moon, both of whom also won top honors, which includes a solo with the orchestra and a $1,000 scholarship.

If you go

• What: Winners of the Young Artists Competition play Saint-Saëns, Sarasate and Grieg with the Vancouver Symphony.

• When: 3 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.

• Cost: $50 for reserved seats, $35 for general admission, $30 for seniors and $10 for students.

• Information: 360-735-7278 or visit the symphony's website.

Playing piano has been a lifelong passion for Ding, a 17-year-old junior at the Catlin Gabel School in Portland. Her teacher is Kelli Stephens.

"My parents said that when I was really young," recalled Ding, "I was in a toy store that had a miniature piano. I sat down to play it, and I would not get up. I was very strong minded. I don't remember it at all. But I really fell in love with the piano and started lessons when I was 5."

For the Vancouver Symphony concert, Ding will play the first movement of the Saint-Saëns concerto.

"This is a technically demanding piece," explained Ding, "It's in a minor key so it has a sad quality, but it is very beautiful. I like the recordings of Jean-Philippe Collard and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. They offer unique interpretations of this work. I'd like to aim for my own unique perspective, too."

Ding sings alto in the school choir when she doesn't accompany her colleagues on the piano. She loves science research, and intends to keep music in her life. She enjoys hiking and has a keen interest in nature restoration. She has even organized her classmates to restore parts of the Tualatin Wildlife Refuge.

Sharing the top billing on the Vancouver Symphony program is Mizuno, who will perform Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy." Mizuno, 15, is a ninth-grader at Tualatin High School. She started playing the violin with the Suzuki method when she was just 4 years old.

Mizuno has been working on the "Carmen Fantasy" since September. It was recommended to her by Carol Sindell, who teaches at Portland State University. Sarasate's work is based on Georges Bizet's "Carmen," one of the most popular operas ever written. Mizuno hasn't seen the real thing live, but she has watched a performance that was on YouTube.

"I really, really love this piece," said Mizuno of the "Carmen Fantasy." "It's pretty difficult. In the last movement, for example, there are a lot of double stops, and the last passage is extremely fast. It's exciting to play, but can be a little stressful. It has great melodies that you can't get tired of."

Mizuno has grown up in a family in which both of her siblings play instruments and her dad taught himself to play the piano. The Itzhak Perlman recording of the "Carmen Fantasy" is her favorite.

Also in the spotlight at the Vancouver Symphony concert is Moon, who will play the final movement of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto. Moon is 16 years old and has been playing piano for 11 years.

"When I started, my teacher had me sitting on text books so that I could reach the keys," said Moon. "My sister and my mother play piano. I wanted to do it, too. So my mom signed me up for piano lessons."

Moon attends Lincoln High School in Portland and studies piano with Kelli Stephens. She prefers the recordings of the Grieg by Romanian pianist Radu Lupu and Van Cliburn.

"The Grieg is one of my favorite concertos," explained Moon "I have been playing it for the past year and a half. It's a majestic piece with a lot of beautiful parts and a lot of playful parts. I love the melodies. It has a lot of technical challenges, but once you have it down, it's very fun to play."

Besides playing piano, Moon also plays the viola in the Portland Youth Philharmonic. She also loves science and is a member of the robotic club at Lincoln.

Vancouver Symphony music director Salvador Brotons is a big advocate of young musicians.

"For the majority of our young winners," Brotons said, "this is the first experience they get to play with a professional orchestra as soloists. I love their enthusiasm, and sometimes it is surprising to see they have a lot of maturity in their playing. It's wonderful to help them at this early part of their career."

Also featured in this concert are two works by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius: the "Karelia Overture" and his Seventh Symphony. According to Brotons, this will be the first time that he has conducted these works.

"The 'Karelia Overture' is a very early work of Sibelius," said Brotons. "The Seventh Symphony is his last piece. So you will hear a lot of contrast and understand something about his evolution as a composer. The Seventh is an unusual symphony because it has only one movement. It lasts 22 minutes, and it is an incredible monument of unifying elegance."

This performance will feature two high-definition video screens of the orchestra and conductor from cameras situated around the stage and at the rear of the auditorium.