UH Student Musicians Take Home Top Prizes at National, State Contests

April 22, 2008

Several students from the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music (MSM) have been hearing the sweet sounds of success as of late.

During three separate music competitions, UH student musicians have emerged as first-place finishers.

Moores’ Halcyon Saxophone Quartet took the top prize in the Winds Division of the Plowman Chamber Music Competition in Columbia, Mo. while junior Jessica Wei Zhu walked away with a first-place prize in the Collegiate Division of the Young Artist Piano Competition of the Music Teachers National Association in Denver. Additionally, masters opera student Ashlyn Rust won first prize in the vocal division and the grand prize in 24th Annual Young Texas Artist Music Competition Concert of Finalists at the Crighton Theatre in Conroe, Texas.

“Competitions such as these bring out the best in young artists,” said David Ashley White, director of MSM. “They challenge students’ abilities and often help them emerge as stronger musicians. It is very gratifying to see these kinds of success stories coming from our school, and they also speak to the overall level of excellence that we see among all of our students.”

The Halcyon Saxophone Quartet consists of senior Steven Hicks, doctoral student Holly Carlton, junior Jameka Byrd and sophomore Robert Eason. The ensemble is directed by Karen Wylie, UH affiliate artist.

They competed against groups representing esteemed music conservatories such as the Eastman School of Music, Juilliard, Oberlin Conservator of Music, the University of Cincinnati and Michigan State University.

“We are very happy to have represented MSM at this competition,” Carlton said. “The competition was very stiff considering the reputation of those other institutions, but we were well rehearsed and ready to show that MSM is on par with the best music schools in the country.”

As a result of her winning performance in Denver, Zhu will receive a Steinway piano. She will be flown to New York City to actually choose the model she wants and credits her mentor at MSM Nancy Weems, professor of piano, for helping her remain poised.

Weems had the opportunity to serve as an accompanist during one of the works performed by Zhu, which helped the student pianist feel more at home.

“I have known her for a very long time,” said Zhu, who also studied under Weems’ husband, John. “Having Nancy on stage was very comforting during the competition. She has been a wonderful teacher, and has been immensely supportive of me as an artist.”

Rust didn’t have to travel as far as Zhu and Carlton for her competition, but her contest in Conroe was equally tough. Competing with a selection of the state’s most talented student musicians, she emerged triumphant in the vocalist category. In the final round, she found herself competing against a host of instrumentalists.

“When I found out I won, I was very excited,” she said. “It is always so rewarding to know that all of your preparation had truly paid off.”

While Rust, Zhu and the Halcyon Quartet are still thrilled about their recent victories, they are still aware that these competitions are just one chapter of their musical careers.

Halcyon already is entered into several future competitions while Zhu’s first-place finish has guaranteed concert opportunities for her. Rust will graduate in May and take her golden voice to the Golden State to perform with the Los Angeles Opera, which is under the direction of legend Placido Domingo.

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” she said. “I’ll be sad to leave as I have met so many wonderful people, but I know that the training I’ve received as MSM helped prepare me for this and other professional opportunities. For myself and others, the MSM faculty and facilities offer the ultimate training ground for successful careers in music.”

Mike Emery