In 2004, pianist Lara Downes was preparing a recital of Mozart’s music at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis when she had an intriguing idea.
“I invited young performers to join me at the Mondavi,” she said, citing Artur Schnabel’s famous comment that “The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children and too difficult for artists.”
Showcasing young artists at the Mozart concert was an enormous success, with consequences down to the present day. Attendees were delighted with the performances and generous supporters of the arts quickly stepped forward to boost the careers of the young musicians. “They started scholarship funds,” said Downes, which soon inspired her to create the Young Artists Competition as an annual event at the Mondavi, with this year’s installment beginning Friday evening.
“It started strong,” Downes said, “and has been growing all these years. It’s wonderful.”
The $10,000 Founders’ Prize will be awarded to a cellist between the ages of 18 and 22. The $2,000 Young Artists Prize will go to a California-resident musician between the ages of 12 and 17.
The focus of the competition varies from year to year, with the cello featured in the 2019 competition for the Founders’ Prize. Downes was delighted to recruit Melissa Kraut of the Cleveland Institute of Music to chair the jury and to lead the finalists in a master class. The finalists will also perform in a curated showcase of compositions for cello.
“We try to pack a lot into the weekend,” said Downes, “including the master class and social activities for the participants.”
When asked what happens to the contestants in the aftermath of the competition, Downes noted that the younger cohort of performers, 12 to 17, who compete in piano or other instruments, generally have school obligations to return to. By contrast, the senior cohort of 18- to 22-year-olds variously return to colleges or music schools, on the verge of careers that may or may not be focused on performance.
“Our strength is to stay connected to them,” said Downes. “While we are cultivating performers and teachers, we are also forming the audiences of the future. They are sorting out whether music will remain at the center of their professional lives or other things will step into the foreground.”
Downes decried the tendency of some educational institutions to dismiss music as irrelevant in the lives of nonmusicians.
“Life forces people to make choices,” said Downes. “And sometimes people feel they have to give up music altogether because it’s not a career path.” But music education is not merely about earning a living. It is an enrichment. “Whatever else happens, keep this in your life. It belongs to you,” said Downes. “We have forgotten how essential it is. Go out into the world and attend concerts.”
In addition to serving on the cello faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music, Kraut is an author. In “The Cello Can’t Learn,” she contributes her perspective on the role of music in one’s life. Focusing on performance at an early age, she did not anticipate becoming a teacher.
“It was a seemingly random act of fate that forever changed my direction in the music field,” Kraut said, illustrating the life-changing impact that her teachers had. The Mondavi Young Artists Competition is affecting young lives in similar ways.
Downes is artist-in-residence at the Mondavi Center and director of its National Young Artists Program. She describes her career as “97% performance” and recently released the album “Holes in the Sky,” which presents the contributions of women and girls to musical composition and performance. Her collaborators on the album include singer/songwriter Judy Collins and violinist Rachel Barton Pine.
“My objective with every project is to tell a story,” said Downes. “It’s taking a wide range of choices and winnowing that down to a sound world that tells a story. I like to discover and share things that aren’t as well known, unexpected things that have common ground, that contribute to a common narrative.”
If you go
Young Artists Competition
Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, University of California, Davis
When: Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Info: www.mondaviarts.org; 530-754-2787
Cost: $10 to $50