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Inviting Mozart to a battle of the bands

Violinist Paul Aguilar and pianist Maria Parrini,  winners last year, play in a recording session at WDAV-FM in Davidson.
Violinist Paul Aguilar and pianist Maria Parrini, winners last year, play in a recording session at WDAV-FM in Davidson. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Like so many unexpected successes, this hatched out of a nutty idea that came up over a cup of coffee.

Could you apply the “American Idol” formula to classical music?

It seems you can, and one year after trying it on the local level, classical music station WDAV-FM (89.9) will host the national Young Chamber Musicians Competition Saturday featuring four of the country’s top youth chamber groups.

“Certainly ‘American Idol’ has some influence,” says Will Keible, WDAV marketing director. “It makes the idea of a music contest a popular idea these days.”

No question. Shows like Fox’s “Idol” and NBC’s “The Voice” remain popular on TV, and 2012’s a cappella singing group movie “Pitch Perfect” turned into a hit grossing more than $110 million worldwide and spawned a sequel opening May 15.

Chamber music – a classical form tailored to small groups in which each instrument plays an equal role – evolved in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. WDAV’s Young Chamber Musicians Competition adds a digital component.

Judges selected four finalists and the public has been invited to view their performances on WDAV.org and vote for favorites. Results will be combined with judges’ scores to select Saturday’s winners in two age categories.

Beyond technical merit, one of the things judges will be looking for is how well the musicians communicate, said Bill Lawing, a Davidson music professor who will officiate with Robert Moody, music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony and violinist Rosemary Furniss of the Royal College of Music.

In chamber music, where there is no conductor, musicians sometimes turn to face one another to read nonverbal cues, which are key to a unified performance, Lawing says.

About 40 groups from across the country vied in this year’s preliminary competition and almost all were skilled enough to be finalists, he says.

Based on Fischoff

It was over coffee at the Starbucks at Park Road and Woodlawn Avenue that Keible and Blair Primis, marketing director for OrthoCarolina, came up with the idea of a music competition. Primis wanted to engage younger musicians, perhaps by submitting video applications.

“Battle of the bands is a strange concept in classical music,” Keible says. “We got to brainstorming about what a battle of the bands might look like.”

They adopted the model of the Fischoff Competition held annually at the University of Notre Dame, the top competition for young chamber musicians.

They cut it to one performance day and recorded it for WDAV’s “Carolina Live,” hosted by Lauren Rico. In the first year, contestants needed to reside in the Carolinas, a requirement that was dropped this year.

Already winners

With $4,500 in prize money from OrthoCarolina, the four finalists are already winners. Top finisher in the 19-24 age category will get $1,500 and the second-place winner will collect $1,000. Prizes in the 14-18 age category get $1,250 and $750.

Though a small, college-affiliated station, WDAV has a national profile in classical music broadcasting. It produces nationally distributed shows “Concierto” and, in partnership with South Carolina public radio, “World of Opera” and “Carolina Live.”

Last year’s competition, whose top finisher was Chante Piano Trio out of Greenville, S.C., played to a full house at Davidson. Organizers are thinking about moving to a larger venue next year if interest remains strong. Lawing says the quality of the performances is top-notch.

“If it stays at this level, it’s going to become a major cultural event in our area,” he says. “We’re seeing it in its infancy.”

Washburn: 704-358-5007;

Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

Youth Chamber Finalists

14-18 Age Group

Quartetrilateral: Anna Stenzel, Andria Radaios, Rachel Riese and Adam Lee. Quartetrilateral formed in August 2014 as part of the Intensive Chamber Music program at Midwest Young Artists in Highland Park, Ill.

Philharmonic Association Quartet: Ben Mygatt, Sam Zhu, Hannah Payunk and Jaeyoung Jung. Group formed in fall 2014 in Raleigh from instrumentalists in the Triangle Youth Philharmonic.

19-24 Age Group

Farrago 4 Saxophone Quartet: Stephanie Venturino, Aiwen Zhang, Anne Kunkle and Arthur Liang. Group formed in 2014 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Quartet Fuoco: Rachel Stenzel, Aidan Perreault, David Berghoff and Chris Gao. It is a chamber ensemble of the Midwest Young Artists Chamber Music Program in Highwood, Ill.

Hear it live

Contestants will perform 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Tyler-Hallman Hall at Davidson College in Davidson. WDAV-FM midday host Matt Rogers will emcee. Concert is free, but tickets are required and can be reserved at 704-894-2135.

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