By Chris Gray
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Through its annual Sounds of Texas music series, Conroe has become known for top-notch Americana music, but the community also gets a cultural infusion of classical each March when the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society sponsors the Young Texas Artists music competition.
While twang echoes from The Corner Pub on the square in downtown Conroe, a block away at the restored Crighton Theatre future classical music stars polish their performances and prepare for careers that for some will be on the world's leading opera and symphony stages.
Conroe is probably the last place most Houstonians would think to look for a major classical music event, yet the Montgomery County seat has hosted one of the most prestigious classical music competitions for young artists in the country for 25 years.
How prestigious? Last year's grand prize winner, Ashlyn Rust, vaulted directly from the Crighton stage and voice training at University of Houston to the role of Tawny Perkins in conductor Plácido Domingo's debut of Howard Shore's opera The Fly with the Los Angeles opera. Yes, that's the Oscar winner of Lord of the Rings fame.
Jonathan Jones, who competed at YTA three times and won two audience choice awards, took first place in the winds division in 2008. Since graduating from SMU last May, Jones has performed in Italy at the Matese Friend Festival and in the European premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Eurydice, where he acted, danced and played clarinet. He will reprise that role at Carnegie Hall in May.
Managed by Conroe native Susie Pokorski, the annual event has become a source of civic pride.
"I'm always amazed how under the radar our fine-arts programs often are," she says. "Conroe has the image of this sleepy town with not much happening, but this city has always supported fine arts. I remember seeing the Houston Symphony here in 1964."
Pokorski's husband Jim was part of the group that began the contest in 1963.
"This was long before we married, when Jim was president of Montgomery County Performing Arts Society," she notes. "He and the other members advanced the idea for a classical music competition for Montgomery County. The first contest only drew three entrants, but they kept working on it, tweaking the events, and eventually opened the competition to the entire state."
Despite appearing to be "Texas only," the contest actually has an international element since the rules allow anyone enrolled in a Texas school to compete. Russian pianist Anastasia Markina, currently in Dallas auditioning for the annual Van Cliburn competition, was the 2007 grand prize winner.
"If you do the math," says Pokorski, "you see it's been more than 25 years since it started, but there were a few years when they just couldn't raise the funds to hold the event. This year actually marks the 25th time the event has been held.
"In 1998, I was complaining to then YTA Chairwoman Marty Taylor that MCPAS was not doing enough to promote the event. Marty moved to Board that year, and I had just retired from my job as a marketing manager," she adds. "They asked me to consider taking the YTA position. I later found out the MCPAS board was probably going to discontinue the program, so I agreed."
The learning curve was fierce.
"I had no clue how to run a music competition," Pokorski admits. "I wasn't a musician myself, but I was a lover of symphony and opera. So I asked my father and my cousin, who has actually judged some of the competitions for us, for advice. They, along with Jim, promised to help me, so I took the job. I fell totally in love with it."
"One of my first priorities was to raise more money," she adds. "Our local electric company, Entergy, came on board and has generously supplied the financial resources that have helped bring the competition to the level it has reached today. Other progressive local companies like Southwestern Furniture, Streater-Smith Honda Nissan and Insurance Associates of Texas have been loyal and willing donors. With that kind of support, we've been able to grow to 80 applicants for 60 spots this year."
Pokorski further notes, "The gratifying thing is that the talent level is just so high now. Our winners leave here ready to walk into roles on a worldwide stage. Not many towns our size can say that."
Following her performances with Plácido Domingo, 2008 winner Ashlyn Rust is living in New York City these days.
"The contest is just so well run," Rust notes, "and maybe the best thing is just the kindness and helpfulness of the people who put it on. But I think my biggest surprise was how high the talent level was.
"Before I participated in the competition, I honestly had no opinion about it at all because I had never heard of it. I accidentally discovered it through an online subscription for singers called www.yaptracker.com (Young Artist Program). I took a chance and it worked out very well for me."
"Every year someone says to me, 'I can't believe something this outstanding happens in Conroe.' The YTA is really just another element in an exciting movement afoot to make Conroe a live-entertainment destination, and that movement comes complete with support from the city through its downtown revitalization committee.
"One thing people are really proud of here is the unique nature of YTA," Pokorski proudly notes. There's no other competition quite like it. Two years ago we were designated an 'official music competition of the State of Texas' by the Texas Senate."
"We also hear from time to time that YTA is one of the quality-of-life elements that lead companies to move jobs here to Conroe," she beams. "That's what I call the arts paying dividends."