Imagine standing on the stage of Symphony Center, soloing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Now imagine doing it as a young teen. This is the dream of the participants in the Crain-Maling Foundation CSO Young Artists Competition.

This year, 38 young string players participated in the preliminary rounds on Jan. 20-21. Four finalists were selected: Esme Arias-Kim (violin), Nicholas Boettcher (double bass), Isabella Brown (violin) and Mia Wimbiscus (cello). The annual competition is presented by the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute and the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

Each finalist performed with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago on March 7. Faced with a difficult decision, the judges ultimately chose Isabella Brown, who played the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. She will perform with the CSO at a Youth Concert during the 2020-2021 season. In addition, all participants were eligible to apply for a scholarship to be used at a program for the audition instrument. This honor is awarded to one or more promising students whom the audition judges feel will benefit most from the experience.

The history of the Young Artists Competition goes back 100 years. Beginning in 1920, young performers appeared as soloists with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and were selected by the CSO’s second music director and founder of the Civic Orchestra, Frederick Stock. In 1967, the Louis Sudler Foundation established annual awards to be given at a competition sponsored by the Women’s Association of the CSOA. In 1975, the competition was divided into two categories: a Senior Division and a Junior Division (15 years and under). The name was changed in 1985 to the Illinois Young Performers Competition. These competitions were televised and sponsored by WTTW and Illinois Bell. After the 1993-’94 season, the competition was discontinued.

Pierre Boulez and Stephanie Jeong in 1999. Jeong is now associate concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Competitions were re-established during the 1998-’99 season and renamed the Youth Auditions; they have been supported by Beatrice Crain and Dr. Michael S. Maling since that time. They were presented by the Women’s Association of the CSOA, which has since been reorganized as the League of the CSOA. In the 2016-’17 season, the Youth Auditions were integrated into the Chicago Youth in Music Festival and renamed the Crain-Maling Foundation CSO Young Artists Competition. The competition continues to be offered annually on a three-year instrumentation cycle of strings, woodwinds/brass/percussion and piano.

When the competition was re-established in 1999, the first winner was was Stephanie Jeong, now the CSO’s associate concertmaster. Although she was very young, she had already been studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for two years. Her memories are more focused on her Youth Concert appearance than with the competition itself. She enjoyed being able to play in front of her parents, who then and now live in the Chicago area. She especially remembers being exhausted by playing Paganini Concerto No. 1 twice in one day.

She met Maestro Pierre Boulez  at the competition, and later played under him as a student at the Lucerne Festival and as a CSO member.

When asked about her advice for contestants, Jeong was reminded of what she was told by her Curtis Institute professor: “Talent will only take you so far. You must also do the work. And don’t ever stop learning, even when no longer formally a student.”

Her experience with the Young Artists Competition confirmed for her that she was on the right path. While her studies on the East Coast had led her to assume that her professional career would be focused there, she finds it incredible and wonderful that the path has led her back to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Last year’s winner, Rosie Wang, played the Fantaisie pour flûte et piano by Georges Hüe in the competition finals. She shared her feelings about the competition: “It was very different from the other competitions I have played in. Firstly, the high level of playing from all the competitors was really inspiring. Everyone who played in both the preliminary round and the final round had phenomenal talent to share, and it was a humbling experience to compete with other such talented musicians. Secondly, performing as a soloist in the Symphony Center, accompanied by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I am very grateful to be one of the few people who were given this opportunity, as it was truly an exhilarating performance.”

Since the competition, she has gone on tour with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra for four concerts in Sweden, Estonia, Finland, and Russia. She also has taken a few public master classes with some of her flute idols, including James Galway and Demarre McGill.

Rosie Wang, eventual winner of the 2019 Young Artists Competition, performs with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago under conductor Andrew Grams. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2019

Currently a sophomore at Adlai E Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, she is continuing to study flute with Hideko Amano. Future plans include playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in four school concerts/family matinees on May 1-2. She also will perform with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra in May at Symphony Center. She also hopes to perform at the Chicago Flute Club Membership Showcase in April, and participate in live broadcast on the WFMT-FM “Introductions” program in June.

Wang offered this advice to the 2020 winner: “My advice would be to really enjoy the experience. Performing at Symphony Center as a soloist is basically a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and from the moment you step on stage to the moment you play the last note of your piece, try your best to enjoy every moment of the performance. Instead of worrying about messing up or not playing well enough, remember that you’ve worked hard and practiced for this, and you won because you put time into this! This is your chance to show your love and passion of music to an audience that is eager to hear you.”

Isabella Brown is just on the threshold of enjoying her experience as the 2020 winner. When told of the advice that past winners Rosie Wang and Stephanie Jeong had to offer, she responded: “I think that this is great advice, and these are perspectives that are very important to keep in mind as a musician. Stephanie is right in saying that one always needs to continue working and learning. I actually approach competitions with this in mind, making sure that my primary goal is improving as a musician. What Rosie said resonates with me a lot, because it’s very important for me to let go of fear and anxiety on stage in order to play my best. I need to trust myself to do well, and trust that the hours of practice I put in will pay off. When I let go of worries, I can relax, and express myself freely through the music.”

Winning the competition has given her confidence that she is moving in the right direction in her violin studies. “Playing with the CSO is something I think all musicians dream about — myself included,” Brown said. “I know that it will be an experience that I won’t forget. This win motivates me to keep working hard so that I can continue learning and growing as a musician.”

As a junior in high school, she is starting the process of selecting reviewing conservatories for future music studies. From a performance standpoint, the next few months will bring a shift from solo performance to chamber-music work. As part of the Dasani String Quartet, she will be performing at the Music Institute of Chicago gala, doing outreach with the Rembrandt Chamber Players, participating in a few competitions and performing live on two radio stations.

And if there is any time remaining, Brown will pursue “normal teenage” activities: hanging out with friends and family, reading, drawing and watching TV.

Next year’s Crain-Maling Young Artists Competition will feature all piano music. It will be great, of course!

TOP: Isabella Brown accepts congratulations after she performs the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the Crain-Maling Foundation CSO Young Artists Competition. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2020