March and May concerts features award-winning young artists

Katelyn Deng, who won the Al Navaroli Youth Competition, will play the piano at this year’s NextGen Concert March 9 at Gavilan. Photo courtesy Katelyn Deng

By Calvin Nuttall

At just 14, Katelyn Deng will debut her musical talents to a South Valley audience in her first concert performing a complex piano concerto accompanied by an orchestra.

After winning this year’s annual Al Navaroli Young Musicians Competition, the high school freshman takes center stage with the South Valley Symphony at its March 9 NextGen Family Concert. Her performance of Liszt’s “Concerto No. 2” will showcase her confidence and virtuosity at such a young age. She chose the challenging piece to perform for the contest judges in January.

Since the age of four and a half, Deng has been at the piano. Her true appreciation for performing, though, began to blossom into her passion comparatively recently when she entered middle school.

“Only then did I start really getting into the music and really exploring its different worlds,” she said. “I started finding out that music isn’t straightforward. Instead, there is a much broader aspect. You can explore. It is really about finding your own voice.”

Deng learned about the SVS competition from her piano teacher. Established in 2009 in memory of Al Navaroli, a passionate supporter of the symphony, the competition discovers talented young musicians in the Bay Area and provides winners with an opportunity to perform live at the March concert.

Franz Liszt in 1858. Katelyn Deng will perform the composer’s “Concerto No. 2.”

“When I opened the website, I could immediately tell this was going to be a really fun opportunity,” Deng said. “I told my parents, ‘I really want to do this one.’ So my dad drove me from Fremont to Gilroy for the auditions, but it was worth it.”

Deng tied with pianist Aidan Kwon for first place. A friend of Deng’s, he will perform Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the symphony’s May 12 Mother’s Day concert.

Deng describes “Concerto No. 2” as “a really fun piece” with “a lot of different emotions, a lot of different tempo changes.” Much of the time while performing for the judges, she found her heart racing and had to calm herself before getting into the slow sections.

“I was so happy I got to express those emotions for the judges, and for my dad, who was in the back,” she said. “In the end, it wasn’t about winning, I was just so happy I got to do this. Winning was just a nice part of it.”

SVS conductor Anthony Quartuccio felt impressed a (then) 13-year-old could play one of the most technically difficult pieces in the piano repertoire.

“She knew this piece, every note of it, by memory, and with specific intention to communicate her musical thoughts to the audience,” he said. “We were really shocked at how she could maintain the intensity, and yet remain calm, while playing this incredible piece of music from beginning to end.”

Considered one of the most influential pianists of the early 19th century, Franz Liszt was viewed during his life as a renegade in music composition. His work broke the mold of traditional classical piano of the era, Deng said.

“Liszt was kind of the Taylor Swift of his day,” she said. “When you play Liszt, you do not just have to be virtuosic onstage, you have to be confident.”

Deng’s passion and skill at the piano was born of the encouragement and discipline she got from her parents.

“They push me, and I’m very grateful,” she said. “Sometimes my parents will tell me to practice, but it’s not because they want me to become a professional pianist. When they see I’m lagging, they know that, if I don’t practice, in the end I’m just going to give up. Because they push me, I still have piano as a part of myself.”

In addition to her ability on the piano, Deng enjoys other creative outlets, including creative writing. She says the discipline she has developed in her piano training is a boon when picking up new skills. It helps her to push through when she wants to quit.

“Music has really opened my love for other creative subjects,” she said. “Practicing piano every day has led to writing every day, doing problems every day. It has led to a lot of good habits. Looking back, I think if I didn’t do piano, I don’t know what I would have become. It has definitely changed my life.”

Deng has found her free time to practice the piano dwindling as her school workload mounts. Although she feels life may soon begin to pull her in directions away from the piano, the impact it has played on her life will remain with her forever.

“My dream career is not clear yet, but I still want to continue with music in my life,” she said. “I’m not sure about majoring in music, or going to music school, but I still want music to be a part of my life and incorporate this part of myself.”

Calvin Nuttall is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter and columnist.