Sandy orchestra unlocks opportunities for young pianists

Music • Competition winners will solo with Sandy-based orchestra.
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Matthew Weissman has distinguished himself at piano competitions, earned degrees from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and Brooklyn College and is now a doctoral student at the University of Utah. But his résumé still lacks one important element — a concerto performance with an orchestra.

That omission will be rectified this week when the New York native plays the Grieg Piano Concerto with conductor Joel Rosenberg and the American West Symphony of Sandy. Weissman and high school student Mary Beth Mecham became American West's first piano competition laureates in August, winning a chance to perform with the orchestra during season-opening concerts Oct. 14, 22 and 24. Working as a tag team, they will share concerto movements during the first two concerts, with Weissman performing alone on Oct. 24.

Conceived and organized by Rosenberg, the event is the latest component of the orchestra's mission to promote music education through community outreach. "Opportunities are very rare to play a concerto," Rosenberg said. "With myriad young people studying piano in this valley, they could go through college and grad school without ever playing a concerto with an orchestra."

The competition continues through May with two more phases, each focusing on a different concerto. Winners of these events will be featured with the orchestra, playing Gershwin's Concerto in F on March 2 and March 9 and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 on May 4 and May 5.

Rosenberg, who is also a member of the competition's judging panel, described Weissman as a pianist with prodigious technique and a mature command of the instrument and Mecham as a musician with uncommon musical sensitivity. Other jury members were Utah Symphony violist Cathryn Manning and Kelly Richardson, a pianist, composer and the American West Symphony's principal second violin.

Mecham is an 18-year-old home-schooled high school senior and the daughter of Claude and Brenda Mecham. She takes classes at Snow College and plans to attend Utah State University next year. The busy student travels between her family's homes in Kearns, where she studies with Cassandra Broadhead of Sandy, and Fountain Green in Sanpete County. She learned about the competition late, but fortunately had studied the Grieg concerto last spring. "It fit perfectly with what I was already doing," Mecham said on the phone.

Weissman played the concerto last year as a competitor in the International Edvard Grieg Competition in Oslo, earning a "special mention" prize and a Carnegie Hall debut. The pianist, who studies with piano-area head Susan Duehlmeier at the U., enjoys doing "anything extreme" in his spare time, including skydiving and riding roller coasters. "Others see what I do and don't believe I am a classical musician," said Weissman, who spends up to five hours a day practicing.

He confesses a great fondness for the Norwegian composer. "His music is very ethnic, reflective of his homeland." Weissman also points out that Grieg's music is easily identifiable like that of Mozart, Chopin or Gershwin. "Once you hear one note or phrase, you know who it is."

Rosenberg, who likes to share tidbits with the audience about composers and their music, said he made the decision to pair the Grieg concerto with Johannes Brahms' pastoral Second Symphony because both are stylistically rooted in folk song. "The concerto's freshness makes you think of the Norwegian countryside just as the Brahms makes you think of the Austrian countryside," Rosenberg said.

Besides giving community musicians the opportunity to continue their musical pursuits as members of the American West Symphony and providing gifted young soloists a chance to perform with an orchestra, Rosenberg and orchestra members further serve the community with initiatives such as demonstrations that he and orchestra members give each year at the Sandy library to teach children about musical instruments.

Rosenberg's mother, Gladys Gladstone, taught piano at the U. for more than 50 years, so a love for piano music is in his DNA. But when asked if her influence inspired him to create the piano competition, he said it was just a happy accident. —

Winning piano

P Music director Joel Rosenberg and the American West Symphony and Chorus of Sandy open their new season with piano competition winners Matthew Weissman and Mary Beth Mecham, playing the Grieg Piano Concerto. Also on the program: Brahms Symphony No. 2.

When • Friday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square; Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. at the Good Shepherd Church, 8575 S. 700 East, Sandy; Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 Presidents Circle on the University of Utah campus.

Tickets • Free admission to the Friday, Oct. 14, Assembly Hall concert; $10 adults, $8 students for the Oct. 22 Good Shepherd Church concert, available at the door; $10 general admission for the Libby Gardner Hall concert, available at the door.

Information •

Upcoming concerts

Dec. 9-10, 8 p.m. • Bernstein Chichester Psalms, Haydn "Surprise" Symphony, Geminiani Concerto Grosso, brass music by Gabrielli and others, Good Shepherd Church.

March 2, 8 p.m. • Tchaikovsky "Pathétique" Symphony, Gershwin Piano Concerto in F, Good Shepherd Church. Repeats March 9 and 18, 7:30 p.m., at Libby Gardner Hall and Congregation Kol Ami, respectively.

May 4-5, 8 p.m. • Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, Puccini "Madama Butterfly" act I, Good Shepherd Church. Repeats May 11-12, 7:30 p.m., at Libby Gardner Hall.