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Orchestra Nova's 'Next Star' Talent Competition Down To Three

Orchestra Nova's 'Next Star' Talent Competition Down To Three
Last spring, Orchestra Nova San Diego announced the world's first classical music talent competition. The competition includes voting from the Internet community and by members of concert audiences. The orchestra has announced the three finalists from the internet voting and panel judging portion of the competition. Now it's up to live audiences to go and see them perform this weekend with Orchestra Nova to declare the winner. The three finalists join us in studio with Orchestra Nova artistic director and conductor, Jung-Ho Pak.

You can be a member of the voting audience by attending any of the Orchestra Nova concerts on March 5th, 6th and 8th where the finalists will perform. For more information, go to the Orchestra Nova website.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The votes have been cast and the finalists have been selected. Soon the Next Star will be announced. No, you haven't somehow missed a lot of episodes of this season's "American Idol," I'm talking about a different competition. Last spring, Orchestra Nova San Diego launched their own talent search to find the next classical music star. People who had put their talents and ambitions on hold, were urged to enter to see if they could realize their classical music dreams by being chosen to play as a soloist in concert with Orchestra Nova. Three finalists have now been selected, and the Orchestra Nova audience will choose a winner. I’d like to welcome my guests. Jung-Ho Pak is the Artistic Director and conductor for Orchestra Nova San Diego. Jung-Ho, welcome.

JUNG-HO PAK (Artistic Director, Orchestra Nova): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Hei-ock Kim is one of the finalists. She is a classically trained pianist, and researcher at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Hei-ock, welcome.

HEI-OCK KIM (Pianist): Thank you. It’s good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Gorden Cheng is also a pianist. He is a Systems Engineer at Sony Corporation. Gorden, welcome.

GORDEN CHENG (Pianist): Thanks for having me on, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Maria Lozano is a soprano studying voice at SDSU. Maria, welcome.

MARIA LOZANO (Soprano/Voice Student): Thank you. Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Jung-Ho, let’s start with you. Catch us up, if you would, in this competition. What kind of judging and scrutiny have these three finalists been through to get here?

PAK: Well, it was an open application process, meaning that anyone between the ages of one and 150 could apply, which is unusual, as we talked about last time, to have a completely open competition with no age limit. The second thing is that they just submitted a video and people online got to vote for them, so we chose the top 10 people for semi-finals and then they performed live and then we chose the top three from that. And now, still, people can still vote on the internet to visit our website at and they can still vote there. But the preponderance of the vote will be people attending the concert this weekend on Friday, Saturday and Monday evening. And that’s very unusual because usually classical competitions are juried by professional musicians, whatever that means. I mean, usually they’re soloists of some sort and judging peers. But I thought it would be more interesting and perhaps even more truthful to see if the audience could vote what’s in their heart as opposed to a pianist judge who said, you know, oh, I use a fourth finger trill here or, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah.

PAK: And rather just to let people decide. And, you know, for example, you know, there are a lot of major competitions around the world but how many of them actually go on to major careers. And it’s something to win a competition but it’s another thing to have a career, and that’s what we’re trying to do, is maybe get a little closer to the point.

CAVANAUGH: Right, now I’m – I wonder, you led us down the path here of how these three people were selected as your finalists. Were you heartened by the quality of musicianship out there as you went through all these submissions?

PAK: I was heartened and relieved because this was quite – there were a lot of unknowns. First off, we limited this to people who were in the San Diego County.


PAK: Studying, working, living in San Diego County. I mean, it would’ve been one thing to open it up to the entire country or even the world. I’m sure we would’ve gotten a lot of – a lot more submissions but we wanted this to be homegrown because we wanted to tell the human story. More than finding great musicians, we wanted to find San Diegans who other San Diegans could relate to. And so I’m very relieved to find out they’re not only excellent performers but I think that they’re at a professional level that when audiences come, they’re going to go where were these people hiding all this time?

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s get into our conversation with the finalists and let’s start with you, Maria, if I may.


CAVANAUGH: How did you start? How did you decide to take part in this competition?

LOZANO: Well, I saw the flyer at school, at San Diego State. And my teacher said it’s a great chance for you to be with one of the best orchestras so let’s try it. And I set my video and, thank God, I’m here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you grew up in Ensenada.


CAVANAUGH: How did opera become a part of your life?

LOZANO: Well, I have that to blame my dad. He was an oceanologist and his day off was watching opera at KPBS and he didn’t want us to do any noise or anything so he sat us down and we had to watch opera at that time. So it was kind of the way that I started, like at five years old, hearing opera, just staring at my dad, looking at what he was saying, so…

CAVANAUGH: Now I understand you chose a rather circuitous path back to music. You went into the Navy and you did a number of different things. Did your father – has – did your father get to see you perform opera?

LOZANO: Yes, he did. He got me to hear (sic) La Boheme before he passed away. Yeah, that was the greatest thing.

CAVANAUGH: I can imagine that it would be very, very important to you…


CAVANAUGH: …for that. You’re studying voice now at SDSU.

LOZANO: Yes, I’m doing my master’s at the School of Music with Professor Mary Mackenzie.

CAVANAUGH: Your commitment to this education is really extraordinary because you made a very long trip to SDSU from Encinita – I mean, Ensenada, that is. A very – Every day. I mean, I can barely imagine it. Now, tell us a little bit about that commute.

LOZANO: Well, after I finished my bachelor’s I got a scholarship from San Diego State to do my artist’s diploma and at that time I was living with my parents in Ensenada. So every day I took the bus two hours from Ensenada to Tijuana, the border line two hours and then an hour and a half on the trolley to San Diego State and all the way back, every single day. And I was going to come and live here then my dad passed away so I said, well, at least sometimes stay with my mom. So I continued doing it for a year and a half.

CAVANAUGH: That is commitment.


CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to hear an excerpt from the video performance used for the competition. This is Maria Lozano performing “Mi Chimano Mimi” from La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini.

(audio excerpt of Lozano’s audition performance)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Maria Lozano. Remarkable. Maria, what are your plans for your singing career?

LOZANO: Well, I love singing, that’s one of the main things I’m here.


LOZANO: But I like to teach and I would like to pursue a research teaching career also but, first of all, singing. I like to perform, and I think I have to do that a little bit more.

CAVANAUGH: I think you do, too.

LOZANO: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to Hei-ock Kim, another one of the finalists for Orchestra Nova San Diego’s Next Star competition. Hei-ock, you started playing piano at the age of three, is that right?

KIM: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: And what was your path? You went through formal music education?

KIM: I did. After I began piano lessons, such as they were at the age of three, at the age of nine, I started going to Juilliard Pre-College, which is a once-a-week program for students who like basically are 18 and younger and we study theory and ear training and have lessons, etcetera. And then I went to college. I just went to Princeton University as a regular student. Then I went back to music, got my master’s at Juilliard and then took a small hiatus to just freelance. And then I got my doctorate at Catholic University of America in D.C.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I think this is an education for the rest of us in the non-musical world. Anybody hearing that you went to Juilliard, not once but twice, might think that, you know, oh, you were just immediately set on a musical career. Jung-Ho, that’s not necessarily the case, though, is it?

PAK: No. No, in fact, I would say probably the preponderance of people who graduate from conservatories don’t necessarily make it in music. There was a study just about two years ago or so about Juilliard grads and, by far, the overwhelming majority were not having professional careers in music. So, you know, what to do?

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. You went to work at Scripps Institute (sic) of Oceanography. Tell us a little bit about that.

KIM: After I finished my doctorate, I was already living in San Diego and I had done music for all of my life and I just wanted to see what else was out there. And living in San Diego, loving the ocean, loving being outdoors, obviously I’ve developed a passion for the environment and for preserving nature. And I got lucky. I fell into this job at Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and was able to start a new chapter in my life. So I’ve been there for three years now and I’m learning a multitude of things about an area I knew nothing about before. It’s been a wonderful ride.

CAVANAUGH: Now what got you interested in competing for this Next Star competition?

KIM: Ironically, it was somebody at Scripps who is a board member of Orchestra Nova and he sent me the announcement via e-mail. He knew that I played piano and thought I might be interested. And I got curious. I had sworn that I’d never compete again but the fact that this was an amateur competition for musicians in San Diego really piqued my interest, and the online component, the fact that the community could get so involved, really made it a fascinating – fascinating thing. It’s not your typical competition, as Jung-Ho has described.

CAVANAUGH: And you were – you said you’d never compete again because that was so much involved with your musical training.

KIM: Competitions are a strange animal. They force you to focus very hard on one thing in one particular manner. You’re playing to win. You’re not playing to enjoy. You’re not playing even to please your audience, so it kind of takes some of the spirit out of musicianship.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Well, let’s hear an excerpt from your video performance. This is Hei-ock Kim performing “Fantasy Impromptu” by Frederic Chopin.

(audio excerpt from Hei-ock Kim’s audition)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Hei-ock Kim playing Chopin, one of the finalists in Orchestra Nova’s Next Star competition. I just – After hearing that, I just have the fantasy of you, you know, just coming home from your day at work and with some co-workers, hey, does anybody play the piano? Yeah, I play a little.

KIM: It happened just yesterday, as a matter of fact.

CAVANAUGH: And you producing that.

PAK: You know, Maureen, one of the beautiful things that I think Hei-ock is expressing about the idea as amateurs is that from the word ‘amateur’ is the word love, ‘amore’. And I think this is really – The idea of a competition’s just a vehicle. It’s almost artificial. It’s really to present three people who absolutely love music from the bottom of their heart who don’t have to do it but do it because they – well, they have to do it because their souls move them to do it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Exactly. Hei-ock, one last question, if I may. You say your dream is to see classical music become, really, a big part of modern culture. How do you see that happening?

KIM: Well, some of the ways are already in progress. For example, Orchestra Nova, the things that they’re doing to bring the audience into the experience by speaking to them, by using different media. I think it’s part of the modern trend to incorporate different types of experiences into the listening experience. There are other organizations out there who are doing wonderful things. Classics for Kids is bringing music to underserved kids by using theatre and dance. I don’t think there’s one solution. I think there are many solutions, and it’s wonderful to see people exploring. Personally, I wish I had the solution. One of these days, I’d like to be a contributor to something major. I don’t have a solution but I do have that hope.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. And I want to introduce our audience to the third finalist, Gorden Cheng. And, Gorden, you work as a systems engineer at Sony and, somehow, even with that fulltime, very important job, you manage to practice three hours a day. How do you find time to do that?

CHENG: Well, you know, a lot of people ask me that question, Maureen, and the answer I have is, you know, when you love something so much, you make time for it. And, you know, I definitely make time for music every day of my life.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there we go back to that amateur, that love that Jung-Ho was talking about. Now your father was an engineer.


CAVANAUGH: And did he want you to follow in his footsteps? Is that why you are a systems engineer?

CHENG: Yes, that’s correct. Actually, my last year of college I wanted to be a music major because I didn’t really like what I was doing and so I told them I wanted to, you know, try out for Juilliard or something and then they said, no, you have to, you know, do the prudent thing and finish college. And so I did.

CAVANAUGH: And did you also have a background as a child of studying music?

CHENG: Well, I started piano lessons when I was eight years old and I only studied privately like with teachers. I study privately now and I actually do see professors from USC and UCLA and study with them privately.

CAVANAUGH: Now you did become, as I say, a systems engineer but the first thing you did when you got the job was not buy a house or a car, you got something else. What did you get?

CHENG: Oh, I bought myself a 7-foot Bösendorfer piano.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that. We – I don’t think a lot of people know about that piano.

CHENG: Oh, a Bösendorfer, it’s like – I know a lot of people have heard of Steinway Pianos but they’re, you know, Steinway and Bösendorfer are the two top brands of pianos in the world.

CAVANAUGH: And where have you put this very large piano?

CHENG: This piano sits in my living room so I – I do not have a dining table, I have a piano there. So, you know, I eat food on top of my piano. I’m just kidding.

KIM: Oh, sure.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s heard Gorden Cheng in his video submission performing “Grand Polonaise Brillante” also by Frederic Chopin.

(audio excerpt from Gorden Cheng’s audition performance)

CAVANAUGH: That’s remarkable. Gorden Cheng…

CHENG: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …performing Frederic Chopin. How did you find out about this competition, Gorden?

CHENG: Well, last year I was actually entering myself into another competition…


CHENG: …and I needed some string players to play it with. So then I made a post on Craigslist and it turns out that Erin Breene and Robert Schumitzky, players in the orchestra, they got together with me, they responded to my ad, and then we played the Tchaikovsky Trio and then later on during the year they recommended to me…


CHENG: …hey, you should try out for this competition.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. How long did you all wait to hear back on this? When did you submit?

KIM: I submitted back in December.

CHENG: Yeah, same here.

LOZANO: And I think I was in January.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. All right. So you have your finalists, Jung-Ho. What will happen this weekend?

PAK: Well, each person, every evening, will be presented in a ten minute piece or in Maria’s case, she’s doing three different pieces…


PAK: …to fill the ten minute slot. Each person will have a different chance to go first, second or third on each of the three evenings to be fair, and then at intermission, the audience votes. They’ll be given a ballot and they’ll be tabulated and each evening the total will be – I think – Well, we’re still dealing with how exactly it should be announced. We’ll figure that out. But at the end of the three evenings then we’ll know who the final winner is and that winner will be announced on Monday evening at Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla.

CAVANAUGH: And once we do know who the winner is, what is the prize?

PAK: Well, our hope is actually to invite the winner back to a future performance for a complete performance, more than ten minutes, a full concerto, if you will, with the orchestra. But we’re hoping also to feature all three of the finalists in other events. Already, they’ve participated in other, you know, media type of things but we’d like to actually keep their profile up as much as we possibly can because we are sincere about trying to launch their careers.

CAVANAUGH: This is just such an amazing opportunity. I want to ask you, Maria, how much fun have you had so far?

LOZANO: Oh, this is a lot. It’s a lot of fun, especially getting all the attention.

CAVANAUGH: Now, have – you have, of course, sung in front of an orchestra before.

LOZANO: Yes, with the San Diego State Orchestra.

CAVANAUGH: Right, but is this, however, is this heightened because this is a competition?

LOZANO: Yes. It’s different, it’s a great experience, especially working with Orchestra Nova and Maestro Jung-Ho Pak. It’s a one in a life experience. It’s – And it’s completely different because when you’re doing an amateur orchestra or a school orchestra, well, they follow you.


LOZANO: You don’t – If you do a mistake or anything, it doesn’t – it covers. You’re a student. But here it’s a professional thing so it’s different. The adrenaline is different also.

CAVANAUGH: And you’re not still making that nine-hour commute.

LOZANO: No. I’m here in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Hei-ock, how have you found time to practice considering that you work full time.

KIM: I’ve had to squeeze it pretty much out of anywhere. I mean, there are 24 hours in a day and if you say, okay, I have to sleep for 8 hours and I need to work for 8 hours, you still have 8 hours… I plotted this out very carefully.


KIM: So I have 8 hours to work with, minus, you know, eating and other things.

CAVANAUGH: Does the level of commitment of these people really sort of bowl you over, Jung-Ho?

PAK: It does, totally. I – I knew that – I had to believe that in this large metropolitan area there had to be a fair amount of people who are incredibly talented but just haven’t seen the light of day in terms of talent. And I know that, again, there are a lot of people graduating from music conservatories at a very, very high level. Where do they go? So, again, I’m so – I’m excited and relieved to be able to present such talent.

CAVANAUGH: And as Hei-ock was saying, this is all part of your idea of trying to get classical music out to people through your outreach to make it part – more part of our common cultural life.

PAK: Well, I’m taking a page from “American Idol” to be sure.


PAK: And because I think people – I think the reason reality television has gotten so much attention is because people want to be able to relate to other people. Classical music, we’ve not done a very good job about it. We usually create these, you know, little plastic busts that sit on pianos and we idolize and revere, you know, classical musicians. But I wanted to sort of demystify that and say, in your backyard there are people that you can respect and adore.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you all so much and I want to name you all. Jung-Ho Pak is the Artistic Director and conductor of Orchestra Nova San Diego. Hei-ock Kim is one of the finalists for the Next Star competition, along with Gorden Cheng and Maria Lozano. Thank you so much for speaking with us and for letting us hear your performances. I really appreciate it. Now I want everyone to know they can be a member of the voting audience by attending any of the Orchestra Nova concerts, March 5th, 6th and 8th where the finalists will perform. To learn more, you can go to the Orchestra Nova website at

PAK: And just a quick addition. We’re also performing Schubert’s 5th Symphony, so talk about gilding the lily a little bit, we’re…

CAVANAUGH: Marvelous. Thank you again so much.

LOZANO: Thank you.

CHENG: Thank you.

KIM: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And if you’d like to post a comment, you can go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

(audio excerpt from Lozano’s audition performance)

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