Meet the 2022 ‘Final Forte’ musicians
April 11, 2022 Leave a Comment
Four of Wisconsin’s most talented young musicians will take the stage at Overture Hall on April 13 to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the 2022 Bolz Young Artist Competition.
Watch the competition live in Wisconsin Young Artists Compete: The Final Forte, 7 p.m. on PBS Wisconsin or view the livestream on pbswisconsin.org. The full audio program will also air live on Wisconsin Public Radio’s NPR News & Music Network.
This year, The Final Forte features four violinists from across the state: Zak Chen of New Berlin, Clark Snavely of New Berlin, Jane Story of Stevens Point and Ellen Zhou of Middleton. In between practices, lessons and extracurriculars, the finalists sat down with PBS Wisconsin to share a little more about themselves.
PBS Wisconsin: What drew you to playing music?
Zak Chen: I think the community aspect of it, with peers and audience alike, is something that really draws me into music. It’s a huge self-esteem thing for me, it’s inspirational in that way. I feel a lot more sure of myself; I’m able to perform at this level and for this amount of people.
PBS Wisconsin: Do you play any other instruments besides violin?
Chen: I play the piano, and I really enjoy playing that as well. I take it pretty seriously, too. Piano has a lot more voices, a lot more just notes going on than a violin does. And it makes these super neat little pictures in my mind. So I enjoy piano a lot. I like to spend some time just learning pieces that aren’t even classical. I spend time learning pieces from different movies or video games that I enjoy, and that’s just for fun. It’s really relaxing.
PBS Wisconsin: How have you connected your performance with musical theater?
Chen: I play in the pit orchestra. So, while everyone’s up there, singing and dancing and doing the play, I’m in the bottom accompanying them on the violin. That’s an experience I’ve never had before. I think having that mix of art forms is new to me, and it’s something I enjoy immensely. The musical that we’re performing is “The Addams Family.” My little brother is right next to me and we’re the only violinists in the pit, so it’s a good way we spend time together.
PBS Wisconsin: Are you looking forward to competing on April 13?
Chen: There’s obviously going to be a certain amount of stress, but since I’ve been preparing for so long, I think it’ll be pretty rewarding. This time there’s going to be a whole online audience and viewers watching from home, that’ll be new to me. I think the idea of performing in front of an audience is already enough to make me practice harder and push more. You put so much time and effort into preparing, and then it all leads up to 10 or 20 minutes of playing, and the amount of self-satisfaction that you get from playing is incomparable.
PBS Wisconsin: How much time do you devote to your music?
Clark Snavely: I practice every day for five or six hours. And of course, there’s also orchestra and lessons and quartet. So, I’m really doing it most of my time. I’ve got a practice room upstairs, and my parents put curtains on the walls to make it less loud for the rest of the family.
PBS Wisconsin: You played with the Madison Symphony Orchestra once before, in their middle school level competition. What was that experience like?
Snavely: It was really cool because I walked out on the stage — it was just me before the orchestra had arrived. First of all, I was struck by the magnificence of the hall and like the beautiful, gigantic organ behind me. And then I started playing in it, and it’s a great hall. And then the orchestra came in, and it was a totally new experience to get to play with such a big orchestra.
I was really pumped up and ready to go, and I walked out on there, took my bow and started playing, and it was incredible to have such a large audience and a symphony behind me. That’s a surreal experience, because you always see that on YouTube, and it was me this time. I really enjoyed it.
PBS Wisconsin: Your brother plays the violin, too. Do you ever get the chance to play together?
Snavely: Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra will occasionally provide us with gigs to go and play at some home or business, like a nursing home, and we’ll go and play some duets or play for a family. Actually, for those gigs with my brother, we play some duets that are written by our grandpa, which is pretty special. He wrote us some jazz style duets for violin. He’s a clarinet player and used to be with Milwaukee Symphony and UW, so it’s kind of special to play music he wrote. He’ll come and coach me and give me advice on phrasing and stuff, and we’ll play some duets for fun just around the house. He’s ninety-two and still playing clarinet, which is pretty impressive. We’re proud of him, and he’s been a great example to all of us.
PBS Wisconsin: Do you get attached to the instruments you play?
Jane Story: I have five younger siblings, and they all play the violin. We have all passed down the violins, so the ones I used to play, they now play, and we’ve all played some of the same instruments. The instrument I have right now is a Hungarian violin, and it’s really beautiful. I’ve had it for about two years. I really love the E string and how bright and sharp it is, it really cuts through. That was one of the things that really drew me to that violin.
PBS Wisconsin: What else do you do in your free time?
Story: My friends and I do 4-H and musical theater, and we also just like to hang out. Before COVID, we would get together and paint. We did a lot of sewing together before, and we made different projects like skirts and pillows and things like that.
PBS Wisconsin: How much time do you dedicate to your music?
Story: I practice every day. I’ve actually been practicing every day for eight years now, and I practice for about three or four hours so that I can get through all of the technique and the pieces.
I spend a lot of my time when I’m not practicing at musical theater rehearsals, and I really enjoy musical theater. I think it’s really fun to have a different experience in the arts and get a chance to meet other performers and perform in a different way.
PBS Wisconsin: What draws you to musical theater?
Story: Musical theater involves speaking, and it takes definitely a little bit more courage to talk rather than just to play music, but I really enjoy that. You get to speak and also sing and interact vocally with other people on stage and really bring to life a story. I really enjoy playing different characters, making them come to life for the audience and just exploring different personalities than my own.
PBS Wisconsin: What are your plans for the next couple of years?
Story: I do hope to continue competing throughout high school and entering other competitions and hopefully finding more performing opportunities. And I do also hope to find an orchestra that I can be a part of.
PBS Wisconsin: What does music mean to you?
Ellen Zhou: Music has really helped me connect with people of all ages, communicate emotion and make a lot of friends through musical programs and playing in ensembles. It’s definitely a great way to meet new people and create lasting connections.
PBS Wisconsin: What does it feel like to prepare for a performance in a venue like Overture Hall?
Zhou: I have a good enough hold on the piece that I know what I want to express, and I know what I’m going to do. It’s up to me and my adrenaline, just hoping it doesn’t take control of me. Before I get on stage, I usually try not to think about getting nervous; it’s bound to happen, but I think nerves are good. Just don’t think too much about them or else they’ll get a hold of you.
PBS Wisconsin: Are there any musicians who have helped or inspired you?
Zhou: Yes, the conductor for the Wisconsin Youth Orchestra is Kyle Knox, and I find him extremely inspiring. I definitely learn a lot from him about collaboration and playing in an orchestra and being sensitive to the parts around me.
My current teacher is Almita Vamos, she has so many wonderful musical ideas and so much experience, there’s no end to how much you can learn from her. I originally studied with Liz Norton of Madison, and I was with her for more than six years. I think she gave me a wonderful basis to keep building on my skills.
Three years ago, Ms. Norton mentioned Mrs. Vamos’s studio to me; I put that on the back burner for a while, it was too early for me to make the move and start traveling to Chicago. Then, last summer, I decided that maybe it was the time for me to keep building and try to strive further with my music. Every weekend my mom drives me to Chicago and she plays a big part in my musical education.
It’s very touching that these people have been so supportive towards my playing, and it’s definitely what made me want to keep music as a part of my life and never give it up.
Wisconsin Young Artists Compete: The Final Forte will broadcast live at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13 on PBS Wisconsin, with an encore television presentation at 1 a.m. Thursday, April 14. It will also air on The Wisconsin Channel, or PBS Wisconsin-2, 8 p.m. Friday, April 15 and 2 p.m. Saturday, April 16.
The full audio program will also air live on Wisconsin Public Radio’s NPR News & Music Network at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, with an encore presentation 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 17.
Wisconsin Young Artists Compete: The Final Forte will also air on Milwaukee PBS, or Channel 36 – WMVT, 6 p.m. Saturday, May 14.
Featured photo of contestants by James Gill. Left to right: Zak Chen of New Berlin, Jane Story of Stevens Point, Ellen Zhou of Middleton and Clark Snavely of New Berlin.