SALT LAKE CITY — He might’ve been the youngest performer Tuesday night, but that didn’t put 12-year-old Ezekiel Sokoloff at any sort of disadvantage. In fact, the 5-foot violinist had the privilege of kicking off the 59th annual Salute to Youth concert with the Utah Symphony.
While that could be a daunting task for many performers, Ezekiel proved to be up to the challenge.
"I actually wasn't nervous,” he told the Deseret News, one of the annual event's sponsors, backstage following his performance. “I just try to let the muscle memory take over so I don't really think too much.”
The young violinist opened the concert poised near the edge of the Abravanel Hall stage, ready to wow the audience with the final movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 — a piece he said was “exciting to play.” That excitement shined bright through his expressive — and sometimes playful — movements that were almost humorous at times. After reaching his final notes, Ezekiel responded to the audience’s loud applause with a beaming smile. That smile would end up being just one of many throughout the two-hour concert.
Because for Ezekiel and his eight fellow Salute to Youth musicians, Tuesday night was more than just a performance. Standing on the Abravanel Hall stage alongside the Utah Symphony was the fulfillment of a dream — a rewarding moment reflecting years of sacrifice, countless pages of music and endless hours of practice and memorization.
“We’re just overjoyed that he (got) this opportunity to play,” said Ezekiel’s mother, Jonah Sokoloff. “I think in a very serious musician’s life — even when they’re very young — being able to play with a major symphony when they’re young is really the very first important milestone in what might be a professional career.”
Following Ezekiel’s enthusiastic kickoff, Julia Johnson, 16, took the stage with the first of the evening’s two harp numbers. Johnson’s fingers tackled the many strings with ease, both hands fervently plucking out the royal-sounding Harp Concerto by George Frideric Handel. As the song came to a close, Johnson passionately pounded on her instrument and released her arms upward as the piece’s final notes resonated throughout the hall.
Cellists Nathan Blanchard, 13, and Stella Wadsworth, 14, have their differences — Nathan’s into soccer while Stella prefers pirouettes — but the two came together for a love of music Tuesday night. Nathan, who wore a bright red tie to match Stella’s sparkling red dress, ferociously dug into his strings and leaned competitively toward Stella as they played the third movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos. Stella seemed to revel in the rivalry, effortlessly playing as she smiled through the whole number and looked at her partner more than she did her instrument.
Erika Rosen, a 17-year-old harpist from Murray, performed the evening's final harp number, playing a transportive rendition of Gabriel Pierne's cinematic “Concertstruck.” With the orchestra's swelling strings behind her, Rosen took center stage with dramatic arpeggios and runs fit for a romantic scene from a classic film.
The second and final duet of the night — Mark O’Connor’s Double Violin Concerto — was a standout moment for many reasons. For starters, it was nearly impossible for any performer to match the level of fun 18-year-old violinist Adrian Wu was clearly having onstage. As soon as the Utah Symphony kicked off the piece, Wu was swaying and bouncing his full head of floppy hair to the syncopated rhythms.
"I hope it wasn't too much,” he joked backstage, sweat dripping from his hair. "When I hear the beginning of that piece — even in the car when I'm alone — I'm just like, 'It’s so groovy, it’s so good' ... If I could stand up there and wave my arms, I would."
While Wu refrained from waving his arms, he did give the audience a sassy look as 18-year-old violinist Natalie Boberg slid into her first note of the piece, a jazzy start for a jazzy piece. It was a fiery fiddling duel that offered a dynamic end to the concert’s first half.
Sarah Sun kicked off the second half, and for the 17-year-old pianist, performing on the Abravanel Hall stage was the fulfillment of a longtime goal — Sun was 8 years old when she first auditioned for Salute to Youth. Her nine-year journey translated into a passionate performance of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Sun began the piece with her face tilted and lowered to the keys, as if the piano was whispering to her a secret.
Sun's emotional piano playing provided the perfect setup for the evening's final performance.
Prior to his performance, 16-year-old pianist John Zhao said he loved “playing every note” of the first movement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “grand” Piano Concerto No. 1. What he didn’t mention was how many notes the piece entailed. From start to finish, Zhao’s fingers ran a marathon of notes, moving rapidly up and down the keys through a series of double octaves and arpeggios.
It was a passionate conclusion to a night of virtuosity displayed by all nine Salute to Youth performers.
“It's a fantastic night," said Doug Wilks, editor of the Deseret News. “Each one of these performers has put in so many hours, and to see the accomplishments, to see them own their instruments, it's just really a pleasure and it's an honor for the Deseret News to be a part of this year after year.”