Grooming virtuosos through competition

Times Staff Writer

With his poised and sensitive rendition of Chopin's Nocturne No. 20 before hundreds of music lovers, Martin Leung proved that Arlene Cheng was right: Competition can fuel a young musician's career.

The 16-year-old pianist was chosen to perform at the benefit for the Pacific Symphony's Chinese-American League because he was a finalist in last year's Showcase for Young Musicians, a league-sponsored competition founded more than a decade ago by Cheng -- a classical music aficionado from Newport Beach.

Leung hopes to snag first place in next year's statewide contest, winning the chance to perform with the orchestra at Cheng Hall in the Irvine Barclay Theatre. "My dream is to become a concert pianist," the high school student said during the reception at the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach. Without such a competition, which also features cash prizes, Chinese music students might succumb to the siren call of rock, or, worse, rap, said Cheng, dressed in a silk crepe version of the traditional Chinese chi-pao, custom made for her in L.A.'s Chinatown. "I wanted to give young musicians a showcase for their talent so they'd use it. And I am thrilled with the results -- they take it very seriously."

Leung, who shared the spotlight with 16-year-old violinist Steven Chen, practices each day for upward of four hours, he said. And not at the command of his mother, who escorted him to the gala, he added, smiling. "I was attracted to the keyboard when I was 3. And when I was introduced to the Mozart piece 'Rondo Alla Turca' at age 5, I tried it out on the piano. I've been playing ever since."

Besides enjoying the performances, guests dined on filet mignon and prawns at the March 8 gala, which raised $20,000 for the league's sponsorship of the biannual competition. "This is a trailblazing organization, and, to my knowledge, there is not another organization of its kind in the country," orchestra executive director John Forsyte told the crowd. "You are nourishing the future superstar."

Next March's competition will cap the orchestra's 25th anniversary celebration. Cheng and her husband, George Cheng, are sponsoring an appearance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who will perform a new concerto, and the "showcase will culminate the festival," Forsyte said.

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