The tuba, known for supporting polka bands with a reliable oom-pah-pah, may not be an instrument you’d expect to produce high-level classical music.

But in the control of high school senior Gabe Welch, 18, the instrument is capable of much more.

One morning last month he rushed out of the house — forgoing breakfast — to make the two-hour drive from Winona to St. Paul. By 10:30 a.m., Welch was sitting in Minnesota Public Radio’s spacious Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Studio, about to execute his first professional recording.

Welch’s initial blow into his massive silver tuba’s mouthpiece reverberated through the room.

“I didn’t think anything was louder than that piano,” remarked technical director Johnny Vince Evans from inside the booth.

Welch’s playing wasn’t just loud; pouring out of the instrument’s large bell were lyrical phrases and technically challenging double-tongued passages. After his first take, Welch hustled back to the recording booth to listen to his rendition of the first movement of Edward Gregson’s Tuba Concerto, accompanied on piano by his aunt.

He sat patiently in front of the gargantuan recording console. As he listened, one hand clenched, the other relaxed, he bobbed his head lightly. It was a solid first take, but he could do better.

“I think we should do a couple more.”

10 seasons of artistry

Welch is one of more than 160 students to reach the featured round of the Minnesota Varsity competition since its inception, and the first-ever tuba player.

The brainchild of Tim Roesler, then general manager of MPR, Minnesota Varsity is now in its 10th season.

Each fall, Classical MPR hosts promote the competition, open to students ages 14 through 18 across Minnesota. Students compete in three rounds, and those who make it past the first one are invited to MPR studios to create a professional recording. That group is then winnowed by a panel of judges from the local music community to four young artists. A fifth artist is chosen by MPR listeners, who can vote online for their “audience favorite.”

Out of 67 instrumental and vocal entries from around the state, 13 young artists were chosen as semifinalists by MPR Classical staff this season.

Their performances — ranging from a Fritz Kreisler work for marimba to a Schumann piano trio — were broadcast on KSJN (99.5 FM) last week and can all be found online at classicalmpr.org/varsity. Listeners will have until April 3 to cast votes for their favorite performance.

The pool of elite artists is then narrowed to five who will perform at a showcase concert planned for May 2020 at Ted Mann Concert Hall.

Sixteen-year-old classical guitarist Jax Wittenberg of St. Paul made it to the featured artist round last year. This year, he wants to be in the showcase. Accordingly, he chose a more difficult piece than last year, J.S. Bach’s Gavotte I and II from BWV 995. The work requires enormous dexterity in the left hand — what Wittenberg’s mother calls “finger gymnastics.”

A natural on the guitar, Wittenberg takes his time to bring out certain notes and makes thoughtful musical choices. His first take was nearly perfect.

A lasting impression

For flutist Karen Baumgartner, a 2011 and 2012 featured artist, the Minnesota Varsity competition set her on the path toward a career in classical music.

“It was validating as far as knowing that all of my hard work was going somewhere. The fact that they were putting effort into young artists and the work they were doing gave me more confidence going forward in life,” she said.

Baumgartner was Minnesota Varsity’s first-ever applicant. A competitive flutist from a young age, she says Minnesota Varsity “values more of the whole person than other competitions.”

The Roseville native is now a freelance flutist in the Twin Cities and has performed with the Minnesota Opera and Minnesota State Dance Theater. Baumgartner also teaches flute at University of Northwestern-St. Paul and the University of Minnesota, Morris.

“It’s a rare experience for a high school student to get to come into a studio like this and have that quality of a recording,” said Christine Sweet, classical initiatives projects producer at Classical MPR.

Baumgartner says it was surreal to hear an excerpt of her performance on the radio multiple times per day, because it was chosen to be part of Minnesota Varsity’s on-air promo.

“It felt like it was a dream, because I was like, ‘This is big-time radio, and I’m on it,’ ” she said.

A space for young composers

Minnesota Varsity also offers a platform for budding composers. Edie Hill is serving as mentor for the featured composers for a second time. As someone who has benefited from mentorship, she says watching the composers grow throughout the experience is a joy.

Each competition season, the group of students is offered a different challenge. This year, they had three months to write a composition for soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers between three and seven minutes long — not an easy task. Hill led one-on-one virtual coaching sessions with the four featured composers and then ran a daylong workshop, where the composers could hear their pieces performed live by professional musicians for the first time.

During the workshop, Hill guided the students through composing for a vocal quartet.

Two out of the four submitted pieces will be chosen for the final showcase. But seeing the composers’ ideas develop throughout the experience is at the heart of Minnesota Varsity.

“Programs like this that spark and encourage and nurture the creative process are so valuable,” Hill said. “I didn’t have anything like this when I was their age.”

In the competition’s 10 seasons, it has reached hundreds of young musicians from all around the state — and their music has reached thousands of listeners.

The way Sweet sees it, Minnesota Varsity is one steppingstone for these students on their path toward musical greatness.

“We feel sure they’re going to be famous someday, and we can say, ‘We knew you when,’ ” she said.

 

Liv Martin (olivia.martin@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.