ST. CLOUD -- Noelle Gray, a Little Falls High School senior, soloed last weekend with the St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra, her reward for winning its 2000 Young Performers Competition on piano.
Her rendition of Beethoven's "The Emperor" concerto brought the audience -- who packed Ritsche Auditorium for the orchestra's 25th anniversary Family Celebration concert -- to its feet in appreciation.
"I've been playing it (the concerto) for a long time, and it was really at my fingers," Gray said in an interview this week. "Technically, I know the piece very well ... and the second movement was very expressive."
In auditions last month, Gray won the piano competition over eight other contestants, playing the second and third movements of "The Emperor," a warm-up for her solo performance Sunday at St. Cloud State University.
Concertmaster Marion Judish said she was impressed with Gray's "light piano touch" and her musical interpretation, "particularly in the second movement."
The audience -- primed by the 80-piece orchestra's rousing performance of "The Celebration," specially commissioned for the anniversary concert -- greeted the young pianist's final notes with long applause. The young pianist responded with several trips to the stage for diminutive bows of her head.
Gray said she and her teacher, Paul Wirth of the Central Minnesota Music School in St. Cloud, "worked a lot on it in the week before my performance and I think I got it."
She said she was looking for a "placid sound, be organic and expressive, trying to get good finger touch, getting to the bottom of the keys but playing relaxed with a little bit of tension, and for the most part I got what I wanted."
The 17-year-old pianist is familiar to lakes country audiences as the winner of the Heartland Symphony Orchestra's Youth Artists Competition in 1995, 1997 and 1999.
She also performs regularly at area weddings and church events, she said, and is a fixture as a piano instructor at St. Francis Music School, where her mother, Robyn Gray, serves as director.
"I didn't expect to win the St. Cloud competition," the pianist said. "Everyone was playing big romantic concertos and I even left before they announced the winners."
She got the news later in the day from a telephone message left by her accompanist, Gray said.
Sarah Dahl of St. Cloud won the violin competition and delivered a lyrical performance of Saint-Saens' Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor. The St. Cloud Apollo senior is a student of Judish, Heartland and St. Cloud symphonies' concertmaster.
"It was a really good audience," Gray said of Sunday's concert. "But it wasn't as intimidating as I thought it would be. I was nervous about it because it's a big thing and they have a lot of good music there.
"It was a real honor but a big responsibility to create good music," she said. "It was nerve-wracking."
Third in her Little Falls graduating class, Gray is headed for St. Olaf College in the fall, where she will major in pre-medicine, she said. The college awarded her a Buntrock Academic Scholarship and a Winston Cassler Music Scholarship.
She plans to perform with an ensemble group as part of her scholarship commitment.
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