After 58 years, classical music's star-maker says goodbye

NEW YORK — In the early days of Young Concert Artists, which Susan Wadsworth founded in 1961 to foster fresh talent in classical music, the organization’s recitals were presented in an Armenian restaurant in Greenwich Village.

After 58 Years, Classical Music's Star-Maker Says Goodbye

The owner, a music lover, was happy to have the space turned into a makeshift concert hall on days the restaurant was closed, to showcase the gifted performers Wadsworth had a knack for discovering.

Young Concert Artists has come a long way since those early days. Now, the winners of its annual auditions process — usually four to six — are presented in recital at important halls in New York and Washington, and are provided with a few years of management and guidance, too.

“Susan identifies talent quickly and then wants to help nurture and develop it with care,” soprano Julia Bullock, a winner in 2012, said in an email.

The results speak for themselves: Among the more than 270 alumni, most largely unknown when they won, are major artists like Bullock; pianists Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax and Jeremy Denk; violinist Pinchas Zukerman; cellists Fred Sherry and Carter Brey; soprano Dawn Upshaw; and composers Andrew Norman and Kevin Puts.

After 58 years, Wadsworth, who turns 83 on Sunday, will step aside as director; the Young Concert Artists season ends Thursday with a program of three recent winners playing concertos with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Alice Tully Hall. While she will continue as an artistic adviser, composer Daniel Kellogg is taking over as president.

Wadsworth spoke about the organization and her legacy in a recent conversation. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: What was your vision for Young Concert Artists at the beginning?

A: When I was a student at [what was then called] Mannes College of Music, I was blown away by a few very talented people there, and I quit thinking that I would become a performer. But I kept in touch with these musicians. “When can I hear you?” I’d ask. There really was very little like that back then.

From the beginning, my musical talent seemed to manifest itself in discerning that spark, that talent in others. At Mannes, a friend asked me to listen to this young pianist. It was Richard Goode, who was 14. He played a Schubert sonata and there was this intense concentration, perfection of phrasing, everything was expressive. He was inside the music.

Those kinds of qualities have always moved me. I was on a grants panel for the NEA once, and we were listening to tape recordings. And we didn’t know who anyone was. A recording of a Rzewski piece began with just a repeated note. I heard two bars. This pianist is fantastic, I thought. There was just this quality. And it was Anthony De Mare [who became a YCA winner in 1986]. Finding these musicians who are communicating music with such youthful brilliance and passion and insight, it’s just the most thrilling thing in the world to me.

Once we started, I felt I had something going with the concerts, but it was just a series. I had to do more. So I started booking them. In the fourth year I got a fantastic assistant and she ended up booking like crazy. That’s how the management division started. We’re a smaller organization and we take people from every instrument, and voice, and string quartets, and ensembles. But the purpose is to let them be heard.

Q: A major New York recital can be a lot of pressure. There’s a nice homey quality about YCA events at Merkin Concert Hall.

A: Our series is exciting and important, but it’s also done in a comforting way, I think. My feeling for the artists is not only professional. I just adore them. And that relationship lasts throughout their lives. Because YCA helps them at a time when they are vulnerable, when they aren’t sure if they’re that great, and we give them nurturing and exposure and the chance to perform.

Q: After someone wins the auditions, for how long do you manage them?

A: The contracts are for three years, minimum. But usually it’s four or five or sometimes more, depending on how it goes. But at a certain point we have to edge them out of the nest. That’s always sad, but usually a good thing.

Q: You started choosing composers as winners in 1994. How did that begin?

A: One of the alumni mentioned it to me as something we should do. Then I talked about it with the board, and everyone wanted to. We get composers to send recordings of their music and scores. I don’t think I am qualified to judge a composer. But I sit with the other musicians and the interesting thing is that my feeling agrees with theirs. What I judge on is whether the piece feels organic, rather than someone just playing around with sounds.

Q: And now Daniel Kellogg, a composer, is taking over. That’s a big change.

A: The board did not want me involved with the choice. But he and I are going to work together quite a lot. He has been living in Boulder as a professor at the University of Colorado. So I’m touched and thrilled that he is picking up his family and moving here.

Q: This is a little like asking a mother to pick a favorite child, but are there artists you remember because winning the auditions really made a difference for them, and for you?

A: Well, sure. Jeremy Denk said our choosing him really changed his life. He was in academia, and I kind of challenged him to get out and do what he could do. He was accompanying a violinist, who sent a tape with Jeremy accompanying him. I said, “Who’s that pianist?” I got him to come and play. Pinchas Zukerman, I met when he was 14 and I managed him until he was 18. It’s been a wonderful friendship all these years.


Eyewitness? Submit your stories now via social or: