Pablo de Sarasate’s composition “Zigeunerweisen Op. 20,” or “Gypsy Airs,” is a show stopper — a piece of music that is unabashedly written to impress and show-off, according to Pasquale Laurino, artistic director and conductor of the Racine Symphony Orchestra. And violinist Alex Zhu did just that when he performed the Spanish composer’s work for the RSO’s 2015 Young Artists Competition “with a secure technique, sound and poise,” Laurino said.
Zhu, a high school sophomore at Wisconsin’s Brookfield Academy, won first place in the competition, which was held at Racine’s First Presbyterian Church in February. By doing so, he also earned the opportunity to perform “Gypsy Airs” again — this time as a soloist with the Racine Symphony at its season finale concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at the Racine Theatre Guild, 2519 Northwestern Ave.
It is an experience that Zhu — who will turn 16 in May and has been playing violin since the second grade — said he is very thankful to have. It is also one he feels will help him increase his skills and enhance his appreciation for music.
“Not many people my age get to play with a symphony orchestra,” said Zhu, a student of RSO concertmaster Alexander Mandl. Zhu’s previous orchestral experiences include performing with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, the WSMA (Wisconsin School Music Association) High School State Honors Orchestra, and with the American High School Honors Orchestra at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. He is also a three time winner of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Bach Double Violin Competition for students.
The young violinist said he excited to be able to perform Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” for the audience here, noting that the emotions expressed in the work are ones he thinks many people can relate to. In the piece’s earlier sections, for example, Zhu said he feels the composer is trying to show the hardships of the gypsies, while its allegro is more like a dance, expressing their livelihood.
Enrich, educate and entertain
Giving area youth the chance to share such experiences with professional musicians is an important part of the Racine Symphony’s mission “to enrich, educate and entertain our communities through the power of music.” And Saturday’s concert will not only provide that for Zhu, but for other area high school musicians who will perform with the RSO as part of its Side-by-Side Youth Invitational program, which pairs music students with orchestra members as mentors.
The orchestra has offered its competition program for young musicians for more than 30 years. “There is no question that we have seen a higher level of skill being exhibited each year,” Laurino said. “As a result of the sponsorship of this competition, I am more optimistic for our communities’ artistic future.”
The overall theme of Saturday’s masterworks concert is “A Composition in Time,” which will also be celebrated with the music of Italian composer Luigi Cherubini and German composer Johannes Brahms. The orchestra will perform Cherubini’s “Symphony in D,” and Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Haydn.”
Laurino said he couldn’t resist giving the RSO a rare chance to perform “Symphony in D,” which he described as “a gem, mostly neglected in our time.” While Cherubini was a widely respected composer who Beethoven considered to be his finest contemporary, he wrote just one symphony (the “Symphony in D”) and it is “a composition that, in my opinion, is unjustly forgotten,” Laurino said. Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Haydn,” on the other hand, is a masterpiece that is played often, throughout the world, according to the conductor.
The evening’s program will also feature a collaborative composition written by Racine area students titled “Opus One.” It is a series of themes, written under the tutelage of the RSO’s artist-in-residence, Jim Stephenson, Laurino said.
“I hope to illuminate how these initial inspirations can be developed by a master,” he said.
As it celebrates the end of its 83rd season with this masterworks concert, the RSO will also announce its plans for 2015/16 that evening. Tickets for “A Composition in Time” cost $23 in advance and $25 at the door. Students, ages 20 and younger, are admitted free of charge.
The symphony will also offer two Summer Pops concerts at Racine’s Festival Hall in June and August (see sidebar for details). For more information about all RSO events, go to www.racinesymphony.org or call 262-636-9285.