In the basement of Orchestra Hall a young girl drums her leg with her fingers, practicing an arpeggio. Another girl listens to a Walkman, trying to memorize a portion of a piece of music. A small boy tucks a violin under his chin and starts to tune it. The other people in the room glare at him, and he puts the violin down. At a table in the back two boys play a game of chess, and at another table two girls in their early teens, Katherine Lee and Eva Huang, talk about playing football.
An assortment of polite children and their tense parents has gathered here for the final auditions in the 1989 Illinois Young Performers Competition. Three winners from the junior division (up to age 14) and from the senior division (ages 15-19) will be seen on a WTTW TV special on May 2 and will receive part of the $20,000 in scholarship money offered by Illinois Bell.
The competitors are generally mellow and good-natured. Most of the relatives are supportive, although some are too caught up in the spirit of competition. “Tell Sissy to bring the Beethoven! It’s in the car!” a woman says frantically into a pay phone. Another woman compulsively plucks pieces of lint off her son’s blazer. One man nervously flips and catches a quarter after his son is sent off to a practice room to warm up for the auditions, which are about to begin.
“Aaron’s better than me,” one boy says. “I heard him playing before. He’s better than me.”
“I can’t believe I’ve missed five weeks of football,” says Katherine Lee, her hands folded in her lap.
“I love football,” agrees Eva Huang, whose smile and the bright red rose on her dress seem to belie any nervousness.
The two girls are piano students of Emilio del Rosario, a good-humored Filipino man who teaches and accompanies five of this year’s six piano finalists. “This is the most relaxed finals I ever saw,” he says as he paces around the room, stopping to pop something from the buffet table into his mouth.
“Why do they make the pianos go one right after the other?” somebody asks him.
“If you’re good, you like that,” he cackles. “If you’re not so good, you don’t like it that way.”
“We don’t really feel competitive because we’re students of the same teacher,” says Huang. “If somebody else wins, it’s one of your friends.”
Huang’s mother is pacing nervously around the room. Her other daughter, Brenda, is a finalist in the senior division.
Katherine Lee sticks her tongue out at her mother, who is saying “Of course I’m very proud of her. She didn’t think she would make it this far. I don’t make her practice, but I’ll ask her ‘Did you practice?’ And she’ll say ‘Oh yes, I do now.'”
“Some of these kids are old already,” says one volunteer from the women’s association that helped cater the affair. “Some of them are really sweet, but some of them are old–like they’re 80 or something.”
“It doesn’t matter what we think of how she did,” says Helen Werling’s father. “It matters how she thinks she did. And if she’s proud of herself, that’s all that matters.” Helen is 13 years old and will play the French horn in the “other instruments” category. Her mother does most of the talking.
“Do you know a lot about the French horn?” her mother asks. Then without pausing she says “It’s one of the most difficult instruments to play. Helen wants to play French horn with the Chicago Symphony some day. She’d like to do that.”
“This is basically just a hobby,” says Mike Kim, a tall, 13-year-old flute player who has just returned from the stage and looks displeased with himself. “I think I’m going to be a doctor.” He looks over at his father, an anesthesiologist. “I didn’t do as well as I should have,” he says, shrugging. “I practiced the hard parts, but I didn’t really go over the parts I knew well. The lights were so bright out there. I tried to play with my eyes closed so I wouldn’t have to look at the judges.”
In the audience several overdressed relatives snort derisively at performers who aren’t family. When one hits a sour note, a woman whose wizened hands are folded in front of her mouth laughs through her nostrils. An accountant type looks at his tiny, plump companion. They shake their heads, amused. Then someone in the audience coughs. The woman turns to her husband and shrieks in a stage whisper, “Why do they cough?” A baby sniffles slightly and the woman mimes throttling it.
Not interested in any performer but their son, a young couple catch up on their reading. He casually flips through Chicago magazine and she is buried in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.
Most of the junior-division performers have departed until the late-afternoon awards announcements, and some of the senior-division performers are now trickling in.
“Where’d everybody go?” a young boy asks. “They all disappear back to Hong Kong?”
Emilio del Rosario is stalking around the room, making wisecracks as his students enter. A girl enters wearing a bright orange red dress. He gives her the once-over and says “Are you hitchhiking after the show?”
Another one of his students, a cocky, good-looking guy, enters wearing a suit and a pair of ski gloves. “Your chances just went down,” del Rosario snaps. “I thought there would be more lady judges.
“It’s just like the competitiveness in sports. I try to bend over backwards to be nice because I don’t want to get flak. But people are human, so you can’t avoid that. I’m very understanding that some people are not that nice to me. They’re only human, and my students keep winning.”
It’s true. At the end of the afternoon Katherine Lee and Brenda Huang have won the piano competition. As the winners are announced, the reactions of family members range from happy tears to that of one woman who makes a fist and throws it in the air, shouting “Yyyyyyesss! Yyyyyesssssss!”
“You probably shouldn’t talk to him,” the mother of ten-year-old Jeremy Black, who did not qualify for the strings scholarship money, tells me. “He’s a little disappointed right now.” The boy is sitting off in one corner, kicking his feet back and forth absentmindedly.
Katherine Lee, clutching her winner’s plaque, smiles sheepishly at her mother. “I didn’t think I’d win,” she mumbles. “I’m nervous about having to do that television show.” She turns to her parents. “I would’ve made five touchdowns,” she says. They smile.