Student thrives in Concerto Competition despite physical, mental hurdles

Gina Gravagne performs William Walton's "Concerto for Viola and Orchestra" on the stage of Jones Concert Hall with her pianist, Byunghee Yoo | Photo courtesy of Carlos Monzon

By Abigail Gan | Reporter

Upon first glance, it seems to be a quiet Saturday morning at the Glennis McCrary Music Building, no different than any other. Just a few steps inside, eight students prepare to compete in the prestigious Baylor School of Music Concerto Competition on the stage of Jones Concert Hall.

At approximately 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23, Waco sophomore Gina Gravagne, a viola performance major, walked to center stage with her string instrument tuned and ready. She began to play William Walton’s “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra,” the piece that will be declared the winner in a few short hours.

The Concerto Competition allowed woodwind, brass, string, percussion and keyboard students to compete with a solo concerto for the chance to perform with the Baylor Symphony Orchestra or Wind Ensemble. The competition consisted of a preliminary round, during which a maximum of two students from each instrumental area can advance, with the exception of percussion, to a final live round.

For Gravagne, it’s been a long journey to this competition. She said she started preparing her concerto in February or March of 2022. In another sense, Gravagne’s preparation has been 16 years in the making. She began playing the viola at the age of three. She comes from a musical family — her dad plays the viola and piano and both of her paternal grandparents are musicians for a living.

Gravagne said after she displayed musical talent and affinity as a child, her parents decided to sign her up for music lessons.

She was born with Symbrachydactyly, a condition where she is missing two fingers on her right hand. When deciding which instrument to learn, some instruments that she wanted to play — like the flute or cello — weren’t possible with her age and condition. So, she turned to the viola.

Throughout the preparation process for the competition, Gravagne said her motivator wasn’t necessarily to advance or to win.

“It wasn’t about ‘I want to win the concerto competition,'” Gravagne said. “It was ‘I want to do my absolute best.’ And I want to prepare and learn this piece well for the glory of God.”

However, Gravagne said that preparation and practice for the competition wasn’t always easy. During her recordings for the preliminary rounds of the competition and even during her final dress rehearsal, Gravagne said that she had terrible memory slips and spot checks.

Near the end of Gravagne’s dress rehearsal, her viola professor told her that she was going to do her final run through. This was her one shot. And it went phenomenally.

“I thought, well, if I just had that good of a run, how on earth am I going to do that again tomorrow, like that was my one shot, I don’t have another one in me,” Gravagne said.

Gina Gravagne and her viola professor Dr. Kathryn Steeley pose outside the Glennis McCrary Music Building after the concerto competition results are announced.
Gina Gravagne and her viola professor Dr. Kathryn Steeley pose outside the Glennis McCrary Music Building after the concerto competition results are announced. Photo courtesy of Carlos Monzon

On the morning of the competition, Gravagne said she was surprisingly calm.

“I walked on stage, stood backstage, and I did some breath work and then walked out and played,” Gravagne said. “And it was awesome.”

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Mary Franks Thompson director of orchestral studies and music director of the Baylor Symphony Orchestra, said the competition gives students a goal, a challenge and something to strive for. He said music is a combination of individual practice and presentation.

“If we don’t have that combination of ‘I need to present this, and there needs to be a musical output,’ then music is not really music and musicians are not really musicians,” Harth-Bedoya said.

Harth-Bedoya said the competition presents a different challenge and outlet than a competition between one instrument where the result reflects who plays their instrument or their repertoire best. He said the competition is about who is best fit to the piece they chose rather than who’s better than someone else.

“There’s no first, second, third and fourth and rankings like that, because it’s a very unique competition,” Harth-Bedoya said.

Harth-Bedoya is no newcomer to working with rookie orchestra soloists. He has worked with artists like renowned violinist Hilary Hahn on her first concerto at the age of 12 and Alisa Weilerstein, a MacArthur Fellow and cellist, at the age of 15 when she made her Carnegie Hall debut.

“There’s always one first, first time, there is not a second first time,” Harth-Bedoya said.

Harth-Bedoya said he loves being available to help students during this particular time. Harth-Bedoya said the first encounter of soloistic performance with an orchestra is special because it’s the fulfillment of a goal, but also a launchpad for a young performer.

Kent Eshelman, professor of music in euphonium and tuba and coordinator of the annual School of Music Concerto Competition, said the competitive element of the competition provides motivation and a representation of the real world to Baylor music students.

Eshelman said the competition is certainly not beyond any of the music students.

“Whether you want to make that time commitment and can do it in the midst of all the other things that are pulling on you during the semester is a big question for a lot of students,” Eshelman said.

Gravagne’s advice to people preparing to perform or compete in the future is to “know your music, know yourself and then let God take care of the rest.”