Music minor outshines major competition

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Sarah Riopelle explains her process and method in memorizing music in the Davis Concert Hall on Feb. 8. Riopelle will be performing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on Sunday, Feb. 19 with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. Sarah Manriquez/ Photo Editor Photo credit: Sarah Manriquez


Sarah Riopelle can recall watching a cartoon featuring Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a child. Now a student at UAF, Riopelle is playing the same piece in a concert hall, accompanied by the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra. She is the first music minor to win the Concerto Competition in a decade.

For Riopelle, music, especially piano music, was a constant throughout her childhood.

“My mom, when she came from China, she wanted to learn the piano,” Riopelle said. She and her sisters were all encouraged by their mother to learn to play piano.

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Sarah Riopelle, here playing the piano, is the winner of Category C in this year’s Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition. Sarah Manriquez/ Photo Editor Photo credit: Sarah Manriquez


The Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra hosted their 26th annual Concerto Competition this January. The competition has three categories: one for children 12 and under, one for teens 13 through high school seniors and one for UAF students. The winners of each of these categories are given the chance to perform their piece onstage with the Symphony.

“It’s allowing people to have the chance where normally, in big cities, that’s not even a possibility,” Riopelle said

Of the 8 competitors in the contest’s UAF category, 7 were music majors with the exception of Rioppelle . She recalled feeling that all the competitors had a fair chance and praised her peers, saying they all were very devoted to their pieces.

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Sarah Riopelle, in rehearsal Tuesday, Feb. 7. completed a particularly straining section of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” She threw her arms up in the air after finishing her last note and then slammed them down in relief. Kael Knight/Sun Star Photo credit: Kael Knight


“I’m still in shock over that, slightly. I know how hard I work, and I know how hard Scott has worked, and Rose, and all these other people who are music majors. It’s just insane,” Rioppelle said.

When she enrolled in UAF, Riopelle was planning to major in chemistry. She later switched to mechanical engineering. She hadn’t planned on taking any music related courses. This plan quickly changed.

“After that first semester I missed it so much that I decided I wanted to take lessons.” she said.

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Eduard Zilberkant (right) and Sarah Riopelle (left) discuss “Rhpasody in Blue” after symphony rehearsal. Kael Knight/Sun Star Photo credit: Kael Knight


This was when she first reached out to Eduard Zilberkant. A few weeks later, Riopelle and Zilberkant met. Riopelle says she ran to the music department.

Zilberkant, a piano professor, remembers being impressed by Riopelle. When he first heard her play, he described recognizing her “tremendous potential” and “strong personality”.

“I would say that her engineering major and the analytical and mathematical aspects of her mind really help her practice and approach to learning pieces,” said Rose Crelli, one of Riopelle’s close friends and a violist in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra.

Her colleagues and instructors agree that Riopelle is extraordinarily talented. Her roommate, Carie Navio, remembers sitting in her practice room and listening to her play.

“Sarah is talented, but she’s also hard working,” Navio wrote in an email. “She devotes a lot of her time between engineering classes and music.”

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Many people expressed surprise at Sarah Riopelle’s decision to perform in heels, as it requires her to spend time practicing in them. This was a recent decision, brought on by her desire to wear heels to her upcoming performance. Kael Knight/Sun Star Photo credit: Kael Knight


“I practice a lot, or at least I try to. Last semester I averaged about 20 hours a week,” Riopelle said.

Riopelle believes the semester she spent away from music has increased her dedication to the art. In addition to her music practice, she enrolls in 15 to 19 credits per semester, regularly meets with her senior design group, works two part-time jobs on campus and serves as the treasurer of Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society.

Riopelle says at first she was hesitant to compete, but at Zilberkant’s request she entered the competition, selecting “Rhapsody in Blue” as her competition piece out of a long list of other possible pieces. She started training for the competition in October.

Riopelle says there’s a nostalgia factor to why she picked “Rhapsody in Blue”, but she also enjoys playing the piece.

“It’s like a freedom to be able to play rhapsody in general – it’s what you’re feeling at a moment. It’s an improvisation. Do you feel free? Do you not? Do you feel happy? The music is there, and you can put a different spin on it,” said Riopelle.

“You have to have the ability to play what’s on the page, but you have to go beyond it. If you played every note correctly in the right rhythm of what Gershwin wrote, the piece would really sound terrible,” Zilberkant said. “You have to go beyond that, and find the character of the piece, the mood, the style.”

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Cirdan Vonnahm, 11, playing the cello in rehearsal with the Fairbanks Orchestra Symphony on Feb. 7. Cirdan won Category A of the Concerto Competition. He has been playing since he was 4 years old, getting his start in the studio of Peggy Schwartz. Kael Knight/ Sun Star Photo credit: Kael Knight


The youngest category was won by Cirdan Vonnahm, an 11 year old cellist. Vonnahm will perform the final movement of the J.C. Bach/Casadesus “Cello Concerto.” The teenage category was won by Joey Hogenson, an oboist and a junior in high school. Hogenson will perform the first movement from Haydn’s “Concerto for Oboe.”

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Joey Hogenson, a high school junior and the winner of the Concerto Competition B Category, performs the first movement of Haydn’s “Concerto for Oboe” in rehearsal. Joey began learning to play the oboe when he was 11 years old. He is now the principal oboist of the Fairbanks Youth Symphony. Kael Knight/Sun Star Photo credit: Kael Knight


Rioppelle says she’s exhilarated and anxious to perform. Both her parents will be attending the concert, as well as many of her friends. She believes music will continue to be part of her life after graduation.

The concert will be held in Davis Concert Hall on Feb. 19. The pre-performance lecture by Zilberkant will begin at 3:30 p.m. and the performance will begin at 4 p.m.

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2 Responses

  1. Steven Potter says:

    This is an incredible article. I think the reporter did a great job!

  2. Teresa Harbaugh says:

    Wish I could have been there!

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