When the fall season starts to slowly change to winter and you can faintly hear holiday music drifting through Imig, you know it’s time for the annual Bruce Ekstrand Memorial Graduate Student Performance Competition.
This year, flutist Kaleb Chesnic has the honor of calling himself the winner of this unique competition of personal musical expression. Each fall semester, graduate students from the College of Music compete for cash prizes to help advance their professional careers and development. The competition is named after late vice chancellor for academic affairs and psychology professor Bruce Ekstrand, who was an avid music lover and fan of friendly competition, as he believed it brought out the best efforts in everyone.
Applicants compete in preliminary rounds in individual departments, where they are picked to compete in the semi-final round by department heads. This year, Associate Professor of Composition Carter Pann, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Steven Burns, and Associate Director of Choral Studies Elizabeth Swanson picked graduate students Chesnic; duo Mary Evans, violin, and Ryan Pride, marimba; Gyunsun Im, bassoon; and Jonathan Morris, piano as the finalists. The finalists then performed in front of a panel of judges—including violinist Yumi-Hwang Williams, hornist Randy Gardner and tenor William Russel—and public audience this past Sunday, Nov. 11, in Grusin.
Chesnic took the stage with only 15 minutes to convince the judges that he was the true winner of this competition, and it worked.
A first-year DMA candidate, Chesnic found his way back to the CU College of Music two years after completing his graduate degree with Associate Professor of Flute Christina Jennings. Chesnic chose to perform in this year’s competition in order to put himself under a bigger microscope with practicing for a competition versus practicing for a regular performance. “Being hypercritical of your own playing can be healthy and bad at the same time,” says Chesnic, “but practicing for a competition is a nice way to take a step back and look at the way you’re performing and the process you go through to reach that point.”
For the competition, Chesnic performed three pieces for the flute including “Dizzy Fingers” by Edward Elzear “Zez” Confrey, “Vignette” by Eugenie Ricau Rocherolle, and “Sonatine” for flute and piano by Henri Dutilleux. Each piece brought a different vibe and tone, the first two more fun and easy going, while the final piece included a complex meter without sounding uneven or stilted.
“This performance means as much as any other,” says Chesnic. “I truly enjoy cultivating a program that has flow and variety where the audience hears different styles coming out of the flute. I want to be able to present to the best of my ability and help the audience enjoy themselves while listening to great music.”
This paid off for Chesnic as well, as he won the Audience Favorite Prize of $500 alongside the First Prize of $2,000 awarded by the judges.
“Win or lose, I think it’s a good experience to play for such a wide audience, as it’s one of the biggest events within the College of Music. And for me, I’m just trying to enjoy the ride and make music that everyone will love,” says Chesnic.
Each year, the Ekstrand competition showcases some of the best performers within the College of Music, and this year was no exception.
Second Prize went to pianist Jonathan Morris, an Ireland native who is in his final year of pursuing his DMA in piano performance with Professor of Piano Andrew Cooperstock. Since it was his final year, Morris thought it would be time to enter the competition, coming off winning the Honors Competition this past year and playing in CU at Carnegie the Monday before Ekstrand.
“It’s an amazing opportunity just to be playing in the final round, as playing in any of these big events with the College of Music gives you the confidence that you’re on the right path,” says Morris. “No matter where the future takes you, you can always perform at a higher level.”
“The Ekstrand competition truly reflects the high quality of music making within the College of Music,” says Morris.
The Finalist Prizes were awarded to the collaborative duo of Mary Evans, violin, and Ryan Pride, marimba. Evans, a second-year master’s student in violin performance, and Pride, a second-year master’s student in percussion performance, became an unlikely pairing after collaborating in each other's recitals last year.
“How often do violinists and marimba musicians get to play together?” asked Evans.
“We talked about it last year, and discussed it again over the summer,” says Pride. “ I think our main desire to compete was the opportunity to collaborate on cool music and showcase this uncommon pairing of instruments. We knew our program would be unique with the incorporation of electronics as well, but we also have just really enjoyed performing together."
For Evans and Pride, the Ekstrand competition gave them the opportunity to express their musical personality and freedom and increased their personal confidence as they pursue their professional music careers.
“We hope that it inspires more cross-pollination of musicians within the College of Music,” says Evans.
The final competitor of the Ekstrand Competition was Guyungsun Im, a second-year pedagogy DMA student with a performance focus on bassoon from Seoul, South Korea. In preparation for her recital this semester, Im entered the contest to help improve her musical thinking and reach her individual goals. She was surprised to pass the initial rounds of the competition and was thrilled to be competing in the final round.
“I grew up in a very competitive education environment, where someone wins a competition if they play the notes correctly,” says Im. “However, this competition—and the environment at the College of Music as a whole—allows me to express myself and play real music and not just note by note.
“When I’m performing, I become a different person, and that’s why I love it. And I’m so thankful that we’re given that opportunity through the College of Music,” says Im.
Congratulations to all of the competitors and winners!