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From the Top

Christopher O’Riley, host of NPR’s From the Top, will be recording the show at this year’s Stulberg competition.
Stulberg youth string competition captures national attention

Every May Kalamazoo hosts the Olympics of the string music world, but many local folks don’t even know it.

“Every year we fight the battle of being the best-kept secret in Kalamazoo,” says Margaret Hamilton, executive director of the Stulberg International String Competition, an annual competition for young string musicians. Hamilton has been involved with the coordinating of the competition for 13 years, so if anyone knows the struggle,
she does.

“It’s ironic that we aren’t recognized in town because we’re known as a place where a young talent can take the first step towards greatness,” she says.

Well, someone is paying attention.

Christopher O’Riley, the host of National Public Radio’s From the Top, is coming to little ol’ Kalamazoo to produce a segment on the Stulberg competition on May 18. From the Top is a radio show that highlights budding classical musicians and will feature both the semifinal and final performances of the Stulberg competition. While the judges are deliberating, O’Riley will interview participants.

“Stulberg attracts some of the very best pre-collegiate musicians in the country,” says David Balsom, tour producer for From the Top, in an email to Encore. It “provides an environment that is nurturing and encouraging.”

For 42 years, the Stulberg has been an international competition for young string musicians about to enter their college years, meaning musicians 19 years old or younger as of Jan. 1. Students aiming to qualify for the competition submit video pieces for consideration, and a jury prunes the entrants down to 12 finalists. Those 12 then venture to Kalamazoo to compete to be among the six finalists, who then vie for the first-place prize, the Burdick-Thorne Gold Medal, which comes with a $6,000 award and the opportunity to perform with either the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra or the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra.

The Stulberg competition grew out of the late Julius Stulberg’s legacy as a shaper of budding musical minds, says Hamilton. Stulberg, who was a Western Michigan University violin professor, conducted the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra for 31 years and the University Symphony for 28 years.

This year’s competition drew 170 applicants, according to Hamilton.

While those who become finalists are all highly proficient at their craft, says former competition judge Rachel Barton Pine, a three-time Stulberg contender and a world-class concert violinist who debuted with the Chicago Symphony at just 10 years old, it is a musician’s spirit and personality that win medals.

“These days everyone can play fast and in tune,” says Pine, one of the Stulberg judges in 2012. The Stulberg competition is like the Olympics, in that the technical level of performers increases every year, she says.

“As a judge, I can think critically about the technicality of a piece, but ultimately I come back to who I would want to hear again — the person who grabs you and whose artistry you remember. That’s what’s important in competition and in life.”

Anthony Ross, a cellist for 48 years who grew up in Kalamazoo, was the 1979 Stulberg Competition winner and is returning to Kalamazoo to be a judge at this year’s competition. Ross, who has led the cello section of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1991, says the Stulberg is important in a young artist’s career because it gives that person a “lofty goal to shoot for in practice and craft.”

Pine says the Stulberg has another advantage for the young competitors. “At a more advanced level like the Stulberg an applicant has the opportunity to be inspired by their peers, see how they stack up,” she says. “It’s important to hear other contenders, but they also meet friends and future colleagues.”

That’s why From the Top was interested in featuring the Stulberg, says producer Balsom.

“Many of our young guests have talked about the impact being part of major competitions has had on their development, and we wanted to delve a little deeper into that for our national radio audience,” he says.

Both Ross and Pine say competitors win even if they lose.

“It’s not about winning, though (that’s) great,” Ross says. “It’s really about the process and developing yourself as an artist.”

Pine, as a Stulberg competitor, took bronze in 1990 and silver in 1986 but didn’t place the last time she competed, in 1991. “You can be someone who doesn’t win and still goes on to find life and a career in music, and I’m a good example,” she says.

Of From the Top’s interest in the competition, Hamilton says she’s excited not only for the young contenders, but for the audience as well. “There’s a chance to hear your laughter and applause on the radio later, to be a part of the documentary process,” she says.

The best part of being an audience member, though, is hearing the young musicians play, as Pine points out.

“I feel there’s something really special happening in Kalamazoo for these young kids,” Pine says of the Stulberg. “These are the superstars of tomorrow, and you get to hear them first.

“It is really thrilling.”

Jordan Bradley

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