Students Shine at 2007 ASTA Alternative Styles Competition
If Ed McMahon were to resurrect Star Search, he should start at the annual American String Teachers Association conference, held this year at the Marriott Hotel inside Detroit’s Renaissance Center. There’s no question that the stardust glittered at that well-attended event. Highlights included the third biennial Alternative Styles Awards and gala concert on March 10 with a performance by the Turtle Island Quartet.
This year’s winners of the Alternative Styles Competition showed astounding talent, stage presence, and technical wizardry. The final concert showcased several genres of music outside of the Western classical tradition, including jazz, Irish and Scottish fiddling, and even rock. Outshining the music was the camaraderie displayed between the many young performers who demonstrated charm, intellect, and professionalism.
Nineteen-year-old Olivia Smiley, a first-year student at Butler University in Indianapolis who won in the Established Tradition category in the competition’s senior division, is among this year’s competition winners. Smiley is a two-time Ohio state fiddle champ and a two-time winner at the Indiana state championships. A classically trained player, she launched her music career by accident when she walked into a bluegrass jam session while at camp.
Mari Black, 20, a fiddler from Cambridge, Massachusetts, won for Musicianship in the senior division, performing an original composition. In 2005, she received an award in the junior division for Best Groove.
Jason Annick won in the senior-division Improvisation category, pulling his dad on stage to play along on guitar. Anick is a student at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford and is earning dual degrees in performance and engineering, specifically acoustical engineering. “It’s something I’m interested in doing as a day job for a while so I can get some money until something comes up,” he said.
Mike Barnett, 17, of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, took top honors in the Musicianship category for the junior division. He started playing classical music at the age of five. Originally from Nashville, Barnett began fiddle lessons at age ten. He said his past enrollment at the Mark O’Connor Tennessee-based fiddle camp has had a significant impact on his playing. Another inspiration for Barnett has been 14-year-old Alex Hargreaves of Corvallis, Oregon, who also won this year in the junior division in the Improvisation category. Hargreaves has gigged at the Wintergrass Festival near Seattle and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. In 2005, the teen fiddler won the use for one year of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin at the Mark O’Connor String Conference in San Diego. The instrument is presented to fiddlers who show exceptional merit.
Rounding out this year’s top junior competitors was repeat winner Antonio Pontarelli, a 15-year-old rock violinist from Temecula, California, who was awarded the top prize for Best Groove. Pontarelli made the switch from classical to alternative styles at age ten and quickly gained fame for segueing further into alternative rock. In 2004, he was named the grand champion of NBC-TV’s America’s Most Talented Kids. Pontarelli is recording a new album that features his playing and singing skills.
Ruby Jane Smith won Best Groove in the elementary division. Smith got a chuckle when she gave a nod to old-school bluegrass by including in her performance of “Arkansas Traveler” bite-sized skits that charmed the audience. The 12-year-old hails from Columbus, Mississippi.
Madison (Maddie) Denton, a 13-year-old player from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, won in the Musicianship category the elementary division. The Siegel Middle School student also plays guitar and mandolin and has won national championships on each of these instruments. Meanwhile, Ari Messenger, also 13, from Croton-on-Hudson, New York, won the division’s Established Tradition category. Messenger is enrolled at the pre-college program at Manhattan School of Music. A singer as well, he soloed at Carnegie Hall during a concert with the American Choral Directors Association Eastern Division Honor Choir.
Benjamin Beilman, 17, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, beat out 33 other finalists to become this year’s grand prize-winner of the 2007 ASTA National Solo Competition. Beilman, a junior-division violinist, performed at a winners’ concert on March 10 held at the conference. He also is the Gold Medal winner in the 2007 Stulberg Competition. He has performed with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and will perform with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at a future date. He and 11 other finalists received cash awards of $1,000 each.