Music News & Reviews

Rich Copley: Concerto victors beat the field and their nerves

Horn player Melanie Erena, cellist Leah Hagel and oboist Julie Collins won the UK Symphony's concerto competition.
Horn player Melanie Erena, cellist Leah Hagel and oboist Julie Collins won the UK Symphony's concerto competition. Lexington Herald-Leader

None of the University of Kentucky students who will be center stage with the UK Symphony on Thursday night imagined that they would be there.

When they auditioned, the trio of winners in the orchestra's annual concerto competition were bundles of nerves with music and, in the case of two of them, instruments that don't often make it in front of an orchestra.

"No matter where you are or what you're doing, it's hard to play in front of an orchestra," says cellist Leah Hagel, whose instrument is featured regularly in symphony concerts although her piece, Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei, isn't. "That's just not something that happens every day."

It really isn't if you play an oboe or horn.

Horn player Melanie Erena, 21, a Lafayette High School graduate, says she has played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major, K. 447 since she was in middle school.

"I started working on it again this summer at a music festival," she said, "and I thought that if I really cleaned it up, I might have a chance to really compete with it in the concerto competition. I did prepare harder than I would have if I was just playing it for fun, and it won, which was a surprise because it's a horn concerto."

Oboist Julie Collins, 24, was just looking for some fun pieces to play for her recital when her teacher, UK oboe professor Nancy Clauter, sat Jean Françaix's L'Horloge de flore (The Flower Clock) in front of her.

"I just fell in love with it and played it for my recital, and then I kept playing it and said, 'Oh, this might be good to play for the concerto competition,'" Collins says.

For all of the women, auditioning meant facing down some longstanding performance anxieties.

"I really wanted to push myself to see how well I could prepare the piece," Erena says. "For me to overcome the nerves and perform the piece well to my satisfaction was really what I was getting at.

"I was really happy with how I played in the audition, because I wasn't worried about what are they thinking now. I was just focused on playing the music."

After her audition, Collins, who also was battling nerves, texted her teacher to say, "I made some mistakes, but I think the character came through, and I really felt confident, so I would call it a success, even if I don't win.' She said, 'That's good; perfection is overrated.'"

Hagel's instrument, the cello, gets in front of orchestras more, which could create more competition for those coveted solo cello gigs.

"Regardless of the repertoire and regardless of the instrument, if you can make enough music, then that's going to set yourself apart," she says.

The week before Thanksgiving, the trio's biggest worries were finding gowns for Thursday's concert. They all have found that formal events connected to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games have wiped out supplies of gowns at local retailers.

But after they've acquired their couture, there is the matter of playing the concert.

"I try not to think about it," Collins says. "I just want to make sure I know whose hand to shake" at the end of the concert.

Hagel says, "Oh yeah, I forgot to be nervous about that."

Erena says, "I try to think about myself playing the piece well and succeeding at it because that's supposed to be a mental technique that if you imagine yourself doing well, it will boost your chances for success."

At this point, success shouldn't be hard for any of the winners to imagine.