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The National Youth Music Competition: rewarding SA’s upcoming musical stars

From 10 to 14 October 2017, 21 young musicians between the age of 14 and 19 competed in the 33rd National Youth Music Competition. Creative Feel spoke to talented young violinist, Gilah Kellner, who won the competition’s top prize.

It was an incredible experience and privilege to perform with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and maestro Brandon Phillips

     At just 14, Gilah Kellner was the youngest musician competing in this year’s National Youth Music Competition, which took place at the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium in Parow, Cape Town. In addition to clinching the prestigious gold medal, which includes R30 000 and an invitation to perform at Overstrand Arts in Hermanus and at the Darling Music Experience, the violinist was also awarded the Polina Burdukova Prize of R4 000 for the best performance by a string instrumentalist of a classical work by a Russian composer.
     In the final round, Kellner performed the three movements of the Kabalevsky Violin Concerto in C major, Op. 48. ‘It was an incredible experience and privilege to perform with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and maestro Brandon Phillips. For receiving the Polina Burdukova Prize, I performed the “Grand Waltz” in E minor from the ballet Cinderella, by S. Prokofiev, in the semi-final round.’
     Kellner, who is homeschooled in order to accommodate her rigorous practising schedule, practises, on average, for six hours a day – taking a break on Sundays. This dedication, along with immense talent, saw her become the clear winner of the competition – surpassing musicians five years her senior.  

To be selected for the competition is already an achievement for each of the contestants

     ‘Winning the National Youth Music Competition 2017 was absolutely incredible,’ she says. ‘I did not think I would win the gold medal, and when they called out my name for the first prize, it was like a dream come true. I could never have managed that stressful, tough, and daunting week without God, who sustained me until the end. I performed on a donated violin, generously provided by the Cluley family. I am very grateful to them. I am also thankful to my teacher, Irene Tsoniff. Without her teaching, patience and encouragement, my entering and winning the competition would not have been possible. I also have the kindest godmother in the world, Lorraine Emery, who makes my beautiful dresses and is tirelessly supportive and generous.
‘I started playing the violin at the age of eight, and have been with Irene for the last two years. Prior to beginning the violin, I played the recorder for a year. My recorder teacher’s daughter played the violin, and when I heard her perform a lively piece at my teacher’s studio concert, I fell in love with the sound of the instrument.’

National Youth Orchestra
Winners Eike Coetzee (3rd), Gilah Kellner (1st), Emilio February (2nd) with Michael Maas


     With an average age of 16.7 years, 21 contestants were selected to compete in the competition, following auditions across the country. Following three rigorous rounds, six young musicians were chosen to take part in the finals.
     ‘To be selected for the competition is already an achievement for each of the contestants,’ says Michael Maas, Founder and Chairman of the National Youth Music Foundation. ‘Over the past 33 years, these young musicians have raised the bar annually, proving that there is a healthy growth culture of classical music throughout South Africa.’
     Over the past three decades, the event has produced top musicians such as Pieter Schoeman (leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra), Jeffrey Armstrong (former leader of the Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Orchestra), Sakhile Humbane, (studying at the SA College of Music, University of Cape Town), Eben Wagenstroom (studying in Cincinnati, USA) and Myles Roberts (currently studying in Milan, Italy, and who will perform as guest artists at this year’s Finalists Gala Concert).
     Other established musicians who emanate from the competition are Nina Schumann, Petronel Malan, and Thapelo Masita, to name a few.

National Youth Orchestra
Gilah Kellner

     But it’s not just all music for Kellner, whose other hobbies include: ‘reading, writing, listening to music, and playing chamber and orchestral music. I was a member of the Embrace String Quartet, which sadly ended recently. I also play in the South African National Youth Orchestra. I love other cultural things such as drama, literature and language. I am learning French as a second language at the Alliance Francaise.’
     And her favourite composer? ‘P.I. Tchaikovsky. I love his music because it has so much passion and emotion. I also love Romantic music.’
     This rising young star is definitely someone to watch in future competitions – we are sure her talent will take her far!
     All the winners of the National Youth Music Competition: Gilah Kellner (14, overall winner and Polina Burdukova Prize); Emilio February (19, second prize; best performance of a concerto in the final round; best performance of a South African work in any round); Eike Cotzee (15, third prize; runner-up in the string category); David Cyster (17, winner of wind instruments category); Leon Hartshorne for best winds instrumentalist); Jolandi Schaap (19, winner of piano category); Nicholas Bruiners (19, runner-up in the string category); Ah-Young Moon (14, runner-up in the piano category); Althea Steynberg (18, runner-up in the wind instruments category); Rosemarie Lemmer (19, Unisa Shadow Jury Prize for best semi-finalist); Zoe Coetzee (17, Michael Masote prize for most promising contestant in strings category); Beate Boshoff (16, Pauline Nossel prize for best performance of a classical work by a pianist).

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