Young Texas Artists marks growth with 37th annual competition, welcomes new Director of Program and Operations

Medalists in the 2022 Young Texas Artists Music Competition applaud for violinist Clara Saitkoulov, Grand Prize winner and Gold Medalist in the Strings Division / Photo by Dave Clements

When eight finalists take the stage at the 2023 Young Texas Artists Music Competition on Saturday, March 11, they will be part of a long tradition of classical musicians who have launched or advanced their careers in the Lone Star State at the annual event.

The Competition’s alumni include Grammy-nominated baritone Joshua Hopkins (2004 Gold Medalist in Voice); Natalie Lin Douglas (2009 Gold Medalist in Strings and Audience Choice Award winner), who is founder and artistic director of Houston’s Kinetic ensemble; Allyson Goodman (2013 Grand Prize winner and Gold Medalist in Strings), who is principal violist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra; and rising concert violinist Clara Saitkoulov (2022 Grand Prize and Gold Medalist in Strings).

While Houston is home to several noteworthy competitions for young artists – including the Houston Symphony’s Ima Hogg Competition, the Texas Music Festival’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Young Artist Competition, the AFA Concerto Competition, and numerous others – the Conroe-based Young Texas Artist Music Competition holds a special distinction.

According to Young Texas Artists (or YTA, the sponsoring nonprofit), and based on Houston Arts Journal’s review, its music competition is the only one of its kind in the Greater Houston area – and one of the few in the country – with four unique performance divisions: Voice; Piano; Strings; and Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp, and Guitar.

Flutist William Yeh, Silver Medalist in the Winds, Brass, Percussion, Harp and Guitar Division at the 2022 Young Texas Artists Music Competition / Photo by Dave Clements

“From what we’ve seen, classical music competitions for young adults with four or more divisions are rare,” said Susie Moore Pokorski, President/CEO of YTA. “We don’t know exactly how many exist nationally, but it’s more common to find competitions that focus on a specific category, like piano or strings.”

For context, Pokorski points out that other nationally-recognized competitions may offer four divisions but may rotate them annually, like the William C. Byrd Young Artist Competition, and while the Ima Hogg Competition (currently on hiatus because of the pandemic) allows the same orchestral instruments as YTA, it does not have a voice division.

The Young Texas Artist Music Competition also has the distinction of being one of the longest-running competitions for young musicians in Greater Houston (along with the Houston Symphony’s Ima Hogg Competition, which was created in 1976).

Founded in 1983, Young Texas Artists celebrates its 40th anniversary as an organization this year, and it has steadily hosted its annual competition for nearly four decades – canceling only in 1989, 1990 (during a recession) and 2021 (during the COVID pandemic), according to Pokorski. Its first year was a showcase that featured one performer.

This year also marks a milestone for Pokorski, who is serving her 25th year at the helm of YTA. She says that she has witnessed the organization’s growth in size, reach, and resources during that time, including an increase in interest and applications.

“In 1999, 14 young musicians competed with YTA. This year, YTA received 90 applications, and from them, approximately 65 musicians are being selected to compete,” Pokorski said. The Competition is open to classical artists ages 18-30 (20-32 for Voice) who are Texas residents or affiliated with a Texas music school.

Pokorski led the change to expand the number of divisions from two (Piano and either Voice or an Instrument in alternating years, up to that point in 1999) to its current four-division format. In response, YTA grew its number of judges from three to five – one specialist in each division and one at-large judge, serving in tandem to evaluate the contestants.

Pianist Jade Simmons will mentor the winners of the Young Texas Artists Music Competition / Photo courtesy of the artist’s website

The number of volunteers has also increased from “only a handful” in 1999 to currently “more than 50” who help with competition events or host out-of-town contestants in their homes. Pokorski added that several years ago YTA initiated a career development program for emerging artists headed by concert pianist, Jade Simmons.

One of the most recent signs of the organization’s growth is the creation of a new position, Director of Program and Operations, to which Aurel Garza-Tucker was appointed in November 2022.

“We are delighted to welcome Aurel to our team,” Pokorski said in a statement. “Her background in music education and music competitions is a tremendous asset … Aurel will oversee YTA’s business and operational matters, freeing me to focus on the development and expansion of our local and statewide audiences, opportunities for our artists, and YTA’s core mission.”

A bassoonist/contrabassoonist with a Master of Music in Bassoon Performance, Garza-Tucker comes to YTA from the Austin Chamber Music Center, where she served for seven years as the Assistant Director of Education and Production. She is also Vice President of the Austin Civic Orchestra’s Board of Directors.

Aurel Garza-Tucker is YTA’s new Director of Program and Operations / Photo courtesy of Young Texas Artists

Garza-Tucker will remain in Austin and make regular visits to Montgomery County, expanding YTA’s footprint in Texas.

Classical music – and Texas – are both at the forefront of YTA, whose competition was designated an “Official Music Competition of the State of Texas” by issue of a Texas Senate Resolution signed in 2007. And since 2012, the Finalists Concert has been preceded by the “Bach, Beethoven, and Barbecue Gala.” Described by Pokorski as “pure Texas: a big party with barbecue, dancing, and a live auction,” the gala generates proceeds to benefit YTA programs for young musicians and the community.

The March 11th gala begins at 5pm in Conroe’s downtown cultural district. The Finalists Concert and Awards will follow at 7:30pm in the Crighton Theatre, where eight finalists will compete for a share of $40,000 in prize money, along with career mentoring and performance engagements.

“Not only do contestants benefit from the experience of performing and the prize opportunities, but also from the invaluable feedback they receive from our expert panel of judges,” said Emelyne Bingham, YTA Artistic Director, in a statement. “Our competition is designed to help young, up-and-coming artists learn how to be professionals.”

Nurturing the next generation of classical musicians is at the heart of YTA’s mission, which has made it part of the fabric of the arts in Texas – a state embedded in classical music through philanthropy, historic music festivals, music education, and new alliances and collaborations that continue to form post-pandemic.

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