Grant Smith has been playing piano for years and never passes up the opportunity to perform. This year is no different, with Smith having been selected to perform as a soloist for the second time in this year’s Cal Poly Symphony Winter Showcase.
“It’s fun as a pianist to get out of the practice room where you’re playing by yourself all the time,” Smith said.
Cal Poly has been providing students like Smith with the chance to perform solo as part of the Winter Showcase since 2017. Smith, a double civil engineering and music major, and Kiran Manikonda, a computer engineering major, have been selected as this year’s soloists to perform in the Cal Poly Symphony Winter Showcase.
The showcase will be performed virtually Friday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased through the Performing Arts Center. The event is sponsored by Cal Poly’s Music Department, the College of Liberal Arts and Instructionally Related Activities program.
Each year, soloist auditions are held in November, providing students from all majors the opportunity to be selected to perform in the showcase. Previously, the showcase was a large selection of pieces that would be performed by the symphony together.
Manikonda will be performing Gioachino Rossini’s “Introduction, Theme and Variations,” on his clarinet, while Smith will perform the first movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor on the piano.
“Auditioning [this year] was really different from other years. Usually, it would be with the judges in person, but [this year] I actually met up with Paul Woodring, the university accompanist, in person at Cal Poly and we made a recording to submit to the panel who was picking the soloists,” Smith said.
Smith previously performed as a soloist in the 2019 Winter Showcase when he played an organ.
“There were three professors and me in the Performing Arts Center where I played the organ [on stage], and it was personal,” Smith said. “I was actually there and meeting with them, and I was kind of nervous because I was playing in front of real people.”
“This time, it was just me and the accompanist. We did two takes of the recording and there was no one there watching so it’s not the same experience,” Smith said. “You don’t get as excited or in the moment when you’re playing for a camera.”
Smith is in his final year at Cal Poly getting a double major in civil engineering and music. He said balancing the demands of both majors on top of a solo performance is difficult.
“If I was just a music major, it would be fine. And if I was just a civil engineering major, it might even be a little bit better,” Smith said. “This year it’s been really tough. Having my senior projects going on and being in the intensive music history series, I don’t have the time that I want to practice.”
Even with his course load, Smith practices about two hours a day, but said he should be practicing between four and six hours a day.
Smith hasn’t let his shorter practice time and hectic schedule get in the way of performing with the music department. Smith said that events like the winter showcase are opportunities for improving his skills working with other instrumentalists.
“The biggest reason [I auditioned] was getting experience performing with an orchestra,” Smith said.
Smith added that following his graduation in June he hopes to continue pursuing music and possibly attend a music graduate school.
“Any experience I can get playing with an orchestra is good. As a pianist, you don’t play that much with other instrumentalists, and when you do it is usually small arrangements. So, I don’t get to play with the symphony or other big groups of people very often,” Smith said.
In addition to the performance by this year’s soloists, the program will include two pieces from Gordon Jacob’s “Old Wine in New Bottles” and Edvard Grieg’s “Two Elegiac Melodies.” Jacob’s pieces will be performed by the wind and brass sections of the orchestra and Grieg’s will be performed by the strings.
Since Fall of 2020, the symphony orchestra has been rehearsing and recording as a hybrid ensemble.
“Everything this year has been different,” Cal Poly Symphony Director David Arrivée said. “Usually, we have a total of 24 violinists playing in the orchestra. Right now, we have eight in-person and two virtual.”
The orchestra has been divided into an in-person string ensemble that has been meeting inside, and an in-person wind and brass group that has been meeting outside, as well as other student musicians that have been joining remotely from home.
The presentation will be the combination of these three.
“Most of the heavy lifting practice comes before the audition in order to win and be able to play,” Smith said, “After that, it’s working on it yourself and kind of perfecting some things but then also working on it with the symphony. I was lucky enough to be able to go and play with them in person.”
“I’ve been practicing with them about once a week for an hour, for about the last five or six weeks. So I got a lot of opportunity to practice just with the strings, since the winds have been meeting outside at a different time,” Smith said.
Following the showing of the pre-recorded performance, there will be a live Q&A session with Cal Poly Music Professor and conductor David Arrivée as well as Manikonda, Smith and other students.
Over the last three seasons, the Winter Symphony Showcase has featured students of all different majors performing on a wide variety of instruments. Arrivée said in an email that a typical year sees 12 to 18 students competing for the soloist spots.
“Students first fill out an application that lists the repertoire they would like to play, what instrumentation is required, and how long the piece is,” Arrivée said, “They get this signed by their faculty coach and then submit it to me. Going through this process helps avoid many common problems such as the piece being too long to fit on the program, requiring too many instruments, isn’t for orchestra at all, or lacks available performing materials.”
Arrivée also expressed that he often consults with students before they submit anything, with the same goal in mind of avoiding common problems.
“Once [students] pass this step, they rehearse their solo with our staff accompanist, Paul Woodring, who plays with them in their audition. This is important, because we need to know how they react to the accompaniment,” Arrivée said. “Everything Paul plays will be played by the orchestra, after all.”
Arrivée explained that students audition in front of a faculty panel of three to four people with a good variety of instrument specializations. The faculty panel then discusses each performer and selects those who they feel will give the strongest performances with the orchestra.
Arrivée also expressed that they had less students than usual trying out for solo spots this year, with many students choosing not to audition due to the restrictions of the pandemic.
“The same change happened in the number of students trying out for the solo competition,” Arrivée said.
Preparations for the Winter Symphony Showcase are being made with accommodations for the virtual format, but the final performance recording has already been completed.
Even with this year’s changes and accommodations, Arrivée expressed excitement about the upcoming performance and the soloists that have been chosen.
“I’m very happy with the performers who tried out this year,” Arrivée said. “It’s always so enjoyable for me to hear them perform, even though it may be terrifying for some of them.”