When the Mondavi Center and its Young Artists Competition issued its first call for applicants in 2007, a scant 20 applied. Many were local musicians.
Five years later that competition has morphed into a national one with hundreds of applicants and auditions scheduled in Portland, Ore., New York City and Los Angeles.
Applicants now number in the hundreds, and the competition partners with the New York-based Concert Artist Guild, Steinway Artists and IMG Artists.
The evolution of the competition, which seeks talented classical musicians between ages 10 and 21, owes much to its director and Mondavi pianist-in-residence, Lara Downes, and Mondavi's director of programming, Jeremy Ganter.
The feeling at Mondavi was always that the competition at the UC Davis facility would be more than just an outlet for local talent, said Downes.
"We've been committed to discovering extraordinary talent since the competition's inception, and that talent can come from anywhere," said Downes. "For me, expanding the reach of the competition is really about furthering the larger mission of the Mondavi Center as a training ground and laboratory for young talent."
The expanded focus took flight in 2009 when auditions were first held in San Francisco and Los Angeles. That year's call yielded 120 applicants. Last year, more than 200 applied.
This year's competition is divided into two divisions: a Young Artists Division for pianists and instrumentalists ages 10-16, and a Founders Division for vocalists ages 17-21.
The grand prize winner of the Founders Division gets $6,000. The Young Artists Division winners each get $2,000.
Additional prizes include a $5,000 Bouchaine Young Artists Scholarship from the Napa Valley summer Festival del Sole.
Despite the expanded focus, Sacramento musicians have always been well represented at the competition, as evidenced by young pianist Kevin Sun, who as a 10th-grader at Sacramento's Mira Loma High School dazzled judges with his performance of Bach's Prelude from his English Suite No. 6. Sun took first prize in the senior division in 2009.
To date, most of the winners of the competition have been California natives doing their schooling out of state.
To keep pace with its expanded focus, the competition now has a endowment seeded by three of its original donors and is in the midst of restructuring its budget so it can offer bigger prizes, Downes said.
The success of the competition is serving as a model for others at Mondavi, said Ganter.
"The YAC is the longest running and most evolved of these programs," Ganter said. "Last year Mondavi added the Mondavi Center SFJAZZ High School All-Stars for young jazz musicians. That was a great success, and now we're looking at developing similar programs in other genres."
Ganter said a dance competition would be the next logical step, given the center's record as a dance presenter.
"What we've been doing is introducing artists to the stage and also creating a cycle, where three or four years after a win we invite that winner back to perform on a Mondavi concert series," said Downes.
A key partnership for Mondavi, Downes said, is its first-time collaboration with the Concert Artists Guild a 61-year-old organization with a solid international reputation for discovering, nurturing and promoting young musicians.
"We're looking into whether we can feed into their competition," Downes said.
The guild's competition is held every year, with winners afforded a debut recital at Carnegie Hall as well as career development, said Cindy Hwang, its West Coast and Asia Pacific agent.
"We feel that there can be a good synergy between the Young Artists Competition and us," said Hwang.
Most who compete at the Concert Artists Guild have finished their conservatory schooling and are ready to start their careers. "This partnership will let younger artists know what CAG is and that it is an option for them to pursue at some point," Hwang said.
Being a winner at the Young Artists Competition has proved key to the winners' development. One is violinist Alina Kobialka, who won last year with performances of Prokofiev's Five Melodies, Nos. 1, 2, and 3, and Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasie."
"I've gotten more opportunities to perform," said Kobialka, who is co-concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. The win at Mondavi was followed by her performing at the 2012 Beijing Menuhin International Violin Competition as well as the national NPR radio show "From the Top."
Many have been musicians from the Bay Area, particularly Palo Alto, such as pianists Kenric Tam and Hilda Huang. Tam won the grand prize in 2007, and already had an impressive résumé before competing, including performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Tam returned to perform a recital at Mondavi in 2011, and has said winning the Mondavi competition helped him gain more competition experience. Following that win, Tam won first place in the Schimmel International Piano Competition.
Huang won the grand prize in the junior division in 2010 at the age of 13. At the time, she had already competed in 20 competitions.
After Huang's win, Downes brought her and violinist Alexi Kenney who won the grand prize in the senior division in 2010 together for a duo concert at Mondavi earlier this year.
"That was important to me as a musician because I really had not done much chamber music," Huang said. "That experience opened my eyes a little. It taught me a lot about rehearsing and the decisions you have to make as chamber musician."