Talent may be “shy and struggling” or “robust,” but one thing is certain: “Talent does need help to flower,” as London-based conductor Geoffrey Simon informed the capacity audience at last Saturday’s Fourth Annual Playhouse Project benefit concert in East Hampton.
Providing such help was one aim of the evening’s program. Three local high school students—winners of this year’s Elizabeth Brockman Awards in Classical Music—were given the opportunity to perform in concert with two internationally famous soloists, the American pianist Awadagin Pratt and the Croation guitarist Robert Belinic.
The setting—the grand salon of the Elizabethan-style Playhouse on Huntting Lane once owned by Mrs. Lorenzo Woodhouse—added stained-glass, wood-paneled elegance. It was a glamorous launch indeed for the young musicians sought out and nurtured by Playhouse Project founders Richard Brockman and his wife Mirra Bank via free annual master classes conducted by Mr. Simon. Some 50 students, age 9 to 19, from all over the South Fork participated this year.
“Empowerment” and “enrichment” are primary goals, Mr. Brockman said as he introduced the evening’s performance and four “Merit Award” winners who also attend local high schools. “The real, core work has been done in the master classes … tonight’s concert celebrates people who love what they do, ” Mr. Brockman said.
The concert opened with the award winner for “promise.” Luis Murillo, baritone, is a sophomore at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, and an example of someone who loves his art. Mr. Murillo sang an aria from W.A. Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” in a strong yet well-modulated voice with excellent Italian diction. His poised stage presence engaged the audience, and ought to help this Costa Rican-born young artist on his ambitious quest to “someday sing all 22 Mozart operas at the Met.”
The next winner, Nell Shaw Cohen, received a special award for composition, the first ever presented by the Playhouse Project. Ms. Cohen is also the first home-schooled student to participate in the master classes. This fall, she will enter the New England Conservatory, where she has been awarded the maximum merit scholarship in composition.
Ms. Shaw presented two selections, both recorded. “Time Lapse,” for English horn, clarinet, viola, and cello; and selected movements from “Memory,” written for vocal ensemble, are both melodious and thoughtfully constructed works that impressed with their maturity.
Guest artist Robert Belinic is the first guitarist to have won the prestigious Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York, in 2002. He has performed widely throughout the United States and Europe and is a founding member of the Croatian Guitar Quartet. Charming and articulate, Mr. Belinic gave brief verbal program notes before performing his selections.
J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat Major, BWV 98, is thought to have been composed for a “lute-harpsichord,” an instrument Bach is known to have owned. Mr. Belinic played the work in his own transcription, with expressive intensity. He continued with Introduction, Theme and Variations on “Die Zauberflöte” by Fernando Sor, a fanciful reincarnation of Mozart’s lovable melodies. Mr. Belinic’s lively rendition gave glimpses of an impish sense of humor—a bonus gift for the audience.
“There is no philosophy behind these pieces … they are just beautiful,” he said of his final selection, Three Venezuelan Folk Dances by the 20th century composer Antonio Lauro. And so they were, performed with verve and obvious enjoyment of their rhythmic complexity by Mr. Belinic, who was called back for extra bows by the enthusiastic audience.
After an intermission, the winner of the award for excellence, violist Julia Pucci, was introduced. Ms. Pucci, a junior at Southampton High School, is a pupil of Chris Shaughnessy, and has also studied at the Juilliard Pre-college program. Ms. Pucci performed a selection from Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, with Ellen Johansen at the piano.
Though she was considered an important British composer during the years between World Wars I and II, Ms. Clarke’s work was largely forgotten until the 1970s (she died in 1979) and is currently being rediscovered. Ms. Pucci mastered the difficult, expressionistic music with skill and unflustered concentration.
Like her teenage colleagues, Ms. Pucci politely acknowledged well-deserved applause. But all three are still in that endearing stage of development where getting out of the spotlight seemed more desirable than taking repeat bows.
Awadagin Pratt does not have to play a note to be a star. Even before he was visible at the back of the hall, excited applause accompanied his entrance. From the time he won the Naumburg International Piano Competition and participated in Pianofest in the early 1990s, the Pittsburgh-born virtuoso has captivated audiences with his extraordinary gifts, and the media with his unconventional style. Mr. Pratt made history by graduating from the Peabody Conservatory of Music with diplomas in piano, violin, and conducting. He is ceaselessly active worldwide as a piano soloist, chamber player, teacher, and conductor.