It's no great trick to find young musical talent in Philadelphia. The challenge has been in supporting that talent -- with schools offering consistent arts education to every student, and with the performing opportunities and encouragement that budding musicians need to go the distance.
Local philanthropists Catherine R. and Anthony A. Clifton have stepped in to help satisfy the latter two needs. The Emerging Artists Awards they sponsor, presented Wednesday night at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater in their third annual edition, went to five students from local schools. You can quibble with the methods. There's no formal open process that would allow any student to apply. Rather, the Cliftons choose the schools, and the schools choose the winners.
Still, they've cast their eye regionally, netting a fair diversity of talent. Each winner took a turn in the spotlight Wednesday night, performing in front of an audience of supportive insiders, and each walked away with a check for $5,000 — both precious prizes for young musicians.
Saaya Sugiyama-Spearman represented a kind of ideal in the city's ambition for how it can nurture talent. She started at the Settlement Music School's Kaleidoscope program for preschoolers, and appeared on stage playing "Golliwog's Cakewalk" from Debussy's Children's Corner. Now at Masterman High, she will attend Yale University in the fall.
Composer John Franek is a New Jersey product, a junior at Westminster Choir College, and he brought his talents to the keyboard in his own Concertino for Piano and String Quartet, a neo-baroque and Poulenc-inspired high-energy blend played by a quartet of graduates from the Curtis Institute of Music.
Others showed the city as a talent magnet. Russian American violinist Anastasia Mazurok, who played the first movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, was born in St. Petersburg and came here to study at Temple University. Hao Yang, lured from China to Curtis, played, quite impressively, the quicksilver fourth movement of the Sonata for guitar by Antonio José and Asturias by Albéniz.
Jazz double-bass player Alexandre Delcourt began his association with the city virtually — Skyping lessons from France with University of the Arts professor Steve Beskrone. His own piece, Paperplane for guitar, bass, vibes, and drums, was sophisticated and street-smart.
Ukee Washington, the CBS3 news anchor, hosted the evening, popping on stage to describe in gee-whiz tones what it took for each of these students to get where they are. That he described the evening as "momentous" and "historic" might have seemed ridiculous. But as any of the artists in the room or their families could attest, artistic development hinges on a series of odd opportunities, any of which could be the one that, in retrospect, opened the path to success. Perhaps this night was, for one or more, one such stroke of history.