It’s a chance for professional growth, performance experience and recognition as the winner of the College of Music’s premier graduate student performance competition. And it’s marking a milestone: the Bruce Ekstrand Memorial Graduate Student Performance Competition turns 30 years old this year.
Launched by then Dean Robert Fink at Bruce Ekstrand's suggestion and later renamed to honor the late administrator and psychology professor, the competition yearly awards cash prizes to graduate student performers for professional development. His colleagues say Ekstrand, while being a music lover, was also a fan of friendly competition. Indeed, Dean Emeritus Dan Sher used to introduce the competition with the quip, "Bruce never met a competition he didn't like."
Norma Ekstrand, wife of the late vice chancellor for academic affairs, says he had good reason to bring competition into the everyday. "He felt competition brought out the best effort in everyone," she says.
After preliminaries among individual departments and a semi-final round, five finalists are chosen to compete in the grand finale before a panel of judges and a public audience. This year’s final round is Sunday afternoon, November 15.
With just 15 minutes to perform, musicians have to make just the right impression. For Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, it took a few attempts to find the winning piece. “My third time entering the competition, I finally won,” says Dorman-Phaneuf. When she won the Ekstrand competition in 1997, the cellist played Frédéric Chopin’s Grand Polonaise Brilliante, Op. 22. “It was the perfect fit because it was so challenging. You have to find an impressive piece if you want to stand out.”
Dorman-Phaneuf’s advice will come in handy for grad students competing this year, as the panel of judges is impressive, as well: Music Director of the Boulder Philharmonic Michael Butterman, Music Director of the Colorado College Summer Music Festival Susan Grace and former Eklund Opera Music Director and Professor Emeritus Robert Spillman.
At stake is a $2,000 prize for the overall winner, $1,000 for second place, $500 for each of the remaining finalists and $500 for the audience choice prize. The prizes are intended to encourage and kick-start the careers of these musicians, helping defray the costs of recording, performance and outreach.
And that’s exactly what it did for last year’s winners—College of Music graduate string quartet in residence, the Altius Quartet. “It helped us book a series of concerts outside Austin, Texas, which opened up the door for other concerts,” says founding cellist Zachary Reaves. “It led to really great relationships with other artists, and the sponsors of that series put some money toward recording our first album.
“Everything’s a domino effect. When we got the prize money, we didn’t know it would lead to more opportunities, but you have to take that chance … and in our case, it worked out.”
In a different—yet just as critical—vein, Dorman-Phaneuf says her prize money allowed her to buy her first computer. “That was huge in terms of getting my doctorate finished at the time,” she says.
But the competition also taught her to experiment. “It helped me figure out that, even if I don’t get it right on the first try, I can’t just walk away. I needed to put myself in a position to play better, and present myself in the best light that I could. That’s really helped in my professional career.” Dorman-Phaneuf now plays in a Broadway orchestra in New York—her 14th Broadway show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” starts in November.
Reaves and the other members of the Altius—violinists Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano and violist Andrew Krimm—have gone on to play more competitions together, including their first one overseas in Melbourne, Australia. “Getting to play on an international stage is huge. I hope what we’ve learned at the Ekstrand and other competitions will propel us into a long career together.”
He says the group is grateful for the motivation that comes from competitions like the Ekstrand. “When we’re getting ready for a competition, we don’t let anything slide because we know everything will be picked apart. If you rehearse like that long enough, you won’t know how to prepare any other way. Then your next big concert—like Carnegie Hall—won’t be as intimidating because you understand how to take things to the next level.”
The Bruce Ekstrand Memorial Graduate Student Performance Competition is Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, at 2 p.m. A brief reception will be held during judging and before the presentation of the winners.