SALT LAKE CITY — Above the thrill of a live performance, the satisfaction of a job well-done and the enthusiastic applause of an audience, there’s something else 17-year-old pianist Sarah Sun is looking for when she plays at Abravanel Hall Tuesday night: tears.
Sun, a senior at Skyline High School, was 12 years old when she first heard Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, a “tear-jerker” of a piece she looks forward to performing at the 59th annual Salute to Youth concert on Sept. 11.
“The first time I heard it, I think I cried a little bit,” she recalled. “I love it when people cry because that’s when you know you did it right.”
Tears from her audience would be a true compliment for the pianist, who is one of nine young Salute to Youth artists this year. Other performers are violinists Natalie Boberg, 18, Adrian Wu, 18, and Ezekiel Sokoloff, 12; harpists Erika Rosen, 17, and Julia Johnson, 16; cellists Stella Wadsworth, 14, and Nathan Blanchard, 13; and pianist John Zhao, 16.
For 17-year-old Sun — and many of her fellow performers — landing a spot onstage with the Utah Symphony is a rewarding chapter in a lengthy tale of hard work and perseverance.
‘A very long journey’
Sun was 8 years old when she began her journey to the Salute to Youth stage. Nine years later, she’s fulfilled her goal, earning a spot on that stage and preparing to show off the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 — the same piece she auditioned with last year.
So what exactly made the pianist’s performance of that piece better this time around? According to Sun, a large part of it was a change in perspective brought about by her recent conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a decision she said was two years in the making.
“(Last year), I felt like my attitude was kind of wrong because I was so focused on winning and so focused on being technically perfect. This year, just having the gospel in my life and realizing that not everything is about the end result — a lot of times it’s more about the person that you become in pursuit of your goals that matters,” said Sun, who joined the church in April. “(I went) in with peace knowing that even if I didn’t win this competition, I still had value as a daughter of God and that everything was going to be OK.”
But Sun, who aspires to pursue an economics degree at Yale University, came out of this year’s audition a finalist. With the hard part behind her, she’s ready to relish in her big moment onstage with the Utah Symphony.
“It’s just been a goal of mine for such a long time, and it represents all those years of hard work paying off,” she said. “It’s representative of a very long journey, so I’m really looking forward to enjoying it.
This will also be the first time performing at Salute to Youth for Sun's fellow pianist John Zhao, but not for his lack of trying.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity basically all my life,” said the 16-year-old Hillcrest High School student, who has auditioned for Salute to Youth twice before. “I’m really excited to play with such an acclaimed symphony orchestra. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, really.”
Zhao, who has performed at Carnegie Hall twice in his 10 years of study, is eager to bring his interpretation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 to Abravanel Hall. If he had it his way, he’d be practicing for the big moment at least five hours every day of the week, but he can only do that on the weekends since the demands of school — he’s also preparing for a national chemistry exam— make such intensive practice infeasible.
But all thoughts of reactions and the periodic table will leave his mind Tuesday night, when he takes the Salute to Youth stage to perform the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s concerto — a piece he hopes the audience will come to love as much as he does.
‘This is going to be really special’
Compared to her peers, Natalie Boberg's introduction to Salute to Youth came much later because she grew up in California. But making the cut puts her dream of being a professional musician in the realm of possibility.
The 18-year-old violinist was in the car with her mother on a long drive from Salt Lake City to Aspen, Colorado, when she heard the good news.
“My mom started crying a little bit and then I did too,” she recalled. “It was such a surreal moment.”
The violinist had reason to cry as she’s sacrificed a lot to get to this point. Originally from Los Angeles, Boberg is finishing her senior year of high school online while she lives in Salt Lake City with a host family and studies with violinist Eugene Watanabe at the Gifted Music School.
“I spend more time (in Utah) than I do with my family,” she said.
Although it’s hard to be away from her family — especially her 7-year-old sister — Boberg is grateful for the opportunity to expand her music education in Utah, most recently through Salute to Youth.
“It’s my first professional engagement with a professional symphony,” she said. “I’ve played with orchestras before, but I think this is going to be really special.”
Her family is coming out for the big occasion and Boberg is thrilled because there’s something else that makes her upcoming performance so remarkable: She’s composed her own solo.
Performing alongside friend and fellow violinist Adrian Wu, Boberg will play Mark O’Connor’s Double Violin Concerto. This selection separates the duo from the other Salute to Youth performers for a couple of reasons: First, the composer is still alive. In fact, Boberg emailed O’Connor directly for the orchestral score. Second, there’s a fiery dueling banjos-esque cadenza — albeit for violins — in the middle of the concerto.
While her partner’s part in this battle of strings was written out, Boberg’s was not.
“Everytime Mark O’Connor performs it, he improvises his cadenza, so he’s never written one down for the first violin,” Boberg explained. “I’m an OK improviser, but I wouldn’t want to improvise with the Utah Symphony.”
So the violinist took her first big stab at composing, drawing inspiration from O’Connor’s improvisations to create a cadenza she hopes will wow the audience. And while there’s always a possibility of going off script Tuesday night, Boberg suspects she’ll play it safe.
“There’s little things that could change here and there, but for the most part, I think I’ll stick to what I wrote,” she said.
'A story about artistic accomplishment'
Tuesday night will mark all three musicians' first time taking part in the Salute to Youth concert. The stories of Sun, Zhao and Boberg provide just a snapshot of all the hard work and sacrifice that goes into preparing for the prestigious event. And according to Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News, it's these efforts that make the Deseret News pleased to continue sponsoring the yearly tradition, which is now closing in on 60 years.
“The Salute to Youth is consistent with our efforts to provide perspective, insight and analysis about the news that affects Utah’s families," Wilks said. "The story unfolding at Salute to Youth is the best kind of news — a story about artistic accomplishment made possible by patient parents, dedicated teachers and disciplined students who have worked remarkably hard to enhance their talents."
If you go …
What: 59th annual Salute to Youth concert
When: Tuesday, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $12