30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, 2019 edition

Meet the next generation of classical music stars.

Meet the next generation of classical music stars

They're winning big competitions and prizes, making exciting debuts, graduating from top music schools — and we think they're amazing. (Photos by John Paik, Mike Capson, Simeon Rusnak)

It's a beloved summer tradition at CBC Music: our classical "30 under 30" list, celebrating the accomplishments of Canada's hottest young classical musicians.

Last year, Canadians cleaned up at some of the world's biggest international classical music competitions. This year's inductees into CBC Music's classical "30 under 30" community are continuing that winning trend.

Without exception, all of them told us that they wouldn't be where they are today without the unconditional support of their parents. So, this year we dedicate our classical "30 under 30" list to these unsung heroes who invest time and money to help their children be their best selves and reach their goals. Take a bow, moms and dads!

And now, meet this year's 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, from oldest to youngest.

Is there a young classical musician who has grabbed your attention? Let us know via Twitter @CBCclassical.

Jillian Bonner, mezzo-soprano

Age: 29
From: Saint John

In 2005, at the historic Imperial Theatre in Saint John, Jillian Bonner sang in the chorus of Puccini's Tosca and her fate was sealed. Fourteen years and a lot of hard work later, she's basking in the afterglow of singing her first Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at the Lunenburg Academy of Music last May. "I have to actively convince myself to practise other music, instead of just constantly working on Werther!"

But other work does beckon: Bonner is heading to Toronto this fall to begin a Rebanks Family Fellowship at the Royal Conservatory of Music, and she'll make her debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in January 2020 as a soloist in Mozart's Requiem, the latter resulting from a collaboration between the TSO and Barbara Hannigan's Equilibrium Young Artists initiative. If Bonner gets homesick for the lush greenery and ocean breezes of her native New Brunswick, she'll distract herself with — this is weird — a mix of horror and Disney movies. And when she's not belting out show tunes from Sondheim musicals ("he writes such beautiful, poignant lyrics"), she's busy advocating for social justice, "especially pertaining to feminism and the LGBTQIA+ community."

We raise a pint of Moosehead (Bonner's favourite) in her honour.

'Get back on that horse.' — Jillian Bonner (Mike Capson)

Naomi Woo, conductor

Age: 29
From: North Vancouver

Hey, Winnipeg: get ready to welcome Naomi Woo to your fair city. She's moving there in September to become assistant conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, conductor of the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra, and artistic director of Winnipeg Sistema. "I look forward to getting to know many sides of this vibrant city," she says. "I'm especially thrilled to be able to work with the musicians in the WSO — it is such a warm community, and an absolutely stellar orchestra."

Woo will be arriving from Cambridge, England, where she recently submitted her PhD thesis on 20th- and 21st-century piano études, including a full chapter on Nicole Lizée's Hitchcock Études. "I really love the way she works with sound, and also how blurred the boundaries are between the live and electronic components of the music." Despite her busy schedule in Winnipeg, Woo will return to England in September to perform piano with Tangram, a collective dedicated to the new music of the Chinese diaspora, at the Rye Arts Festival. She loves Blossom Dearie ("her voice is just amazing"), greatly admires Marin Alsop, and says nothing beats "working at the piano while a deer casually strolls up to the window to peer through" at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

'I think of myself as much a curator as a musician.' — Naomi Woo (Irene Trancossi)

Stephen Ivany, trombonist

Age: 29
From: Shoal Harbour, N.L.

"Other than sharks, bugs, heights and open water, I think my biggest fear is not being heard," says Stephen Ivany, adding, "you can read into my choice of trombone all you want." Evidently you can take the boy out of Newfoundland (all the way to Greenville, N.C., in fact, where Ivany is assistant professor of trombone and euphonium at East Carolina University) but you can't take that Newfoundland sense of humour out of the boy.

Jokes aside, Ivany has had a busy year: he played second trombone in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 with the North Carolina Symphony under Karina Canellakis in January, did a recital tour of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and saw two of his graduating students get accepted into master's programs. Despite his many accomplishments, Ivany says he's constantly "in pursuit of total mastery" of his instrument and still regularly consults Scott Hartman, his former trombone teacher at Yale, for guidance. This fall, fuelled by a steady diet of pink Starburst, he'll tour Ecuador and Colombia with the Carnyx Trio, and in 2020, he'll release Monuments, an album featuring six new chamber works.

'Consistent work equals consistent results in all aspects of one’s life.' — Stephen Ivany (Greg Locke)

Bryn Blackwood, pianist

Age: 28
From: Toronto

The first thing to know about Bryn Blackwood is that, on his mother's side of the family, he's related to famed composer (and Alberti bass abuser) Muzio Clementi. If that name gives you piano-lesson PTSD, don't blame Blackwood: he has made up for it by winning first prize at both the 2019 Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition and the doctor of musical arts recital competition at U of T, where he studies with Marietta Orlov as a recipient of the Alice and Armen Matheson Graduate Scholarship.

While Blackwood says Jacob Collier's album Djesse reinvigorated his love of harmony, these days he's most likely to be diving deeply into the modernist works of Russian composer Nikolai Roslavets. "His music has such an expressively dark harmonic sense." An amateur baker, Blackwood unwinds either in the kitchen ("one day I will perfect macarons!") or the campgrounds of Ontario. (Fun fact: he was a zipline/canopy tour guide for a number of years.) This fall, you can catch him playing music by Jean Coulthard, Jacques Hétu and Brian Current on his cross-Canada Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition winner's concert tour.

We invited Blackwood to Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto and he cast a spell with this Scriabin Prelude:

Bryn Blackwood | Alexander Scriabin: Prelude in B Flat Major, Op. 11, No. 21

4 years ago
Duration 1:58
Bryn Blackwood performs Alexander Scriabin's Prelude in B Flat Major, Op. 11, No. 21

Ariane Brisson, flutist

Age: 28
From: Montreal

In June, Ariane Brisson became the new artistic director of Pentaèdre, the renowned wind quintet of which she's been a member since 2016. Earlier this year, they went to London, England, to perform Schubert's Die Winterreise (arranged for voice, winds and accordion) with Christoph Prégardien and Joseph Petrič at Wigmore Hall. "Without a doubt, the musical highlight of my year," Brisson enthuses. (Watch here and be amazed.)

In the upcoming season, while continuing her doctoral studies at l'Université de Montréal thanks to a generous SSHRC grant, she and her Pentaèdre colleagues will present an all-Jacques Hétu concert on Nov. 8 ("simply magnificent music!"), and in May 2020 she'll join some friends from Les Violons du Roy to play the complete flute quartets by Mozart. An ongoing obsession for Brisson is the music of Ravel ("I've always been sensitive to his musical language") and she's busy transcribing his pieces for her instrument. And yet, she insists she is not a flute geek! 

This summer, you're likely to find her hanging out — literally, in the hammock she takes everywhere — near a lake, and knitting with a gin and tonic/mojito/Pilsner within reach.

'Vivre et laisser vivre (live and let live).' — Ariane Brisson (Annie Éthier)

Sarah Bissonnette, mezzo-soprano

Age: 27
From: Boucherville, Que.

It's been a terrific year for Sarah Bissonnette. She won first prize and the audience prize at Vancouver Opera's inaugural VOX competition — "It was a pleasure to sing on the stage of Queen Elizabeth Theatre and to feel so welcomed for my first day in B.C." — and completed her tenureship at Calgary Opera's Emerging Artists program, which saw her perform in the "quite effervescent" world premiere of Veronika Krausas and André Alexis's Ghost Opera at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Earlier in the year, she was on the East Coast to work on the title role in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri at the Lunenberg Academy of Music.

Now, you might be inclined to put your feet up after all that, but not Bissonnette. She's making the most of her summer, studying art song and opera at Edith Wiens' Internationale Meistersinger Akademie in Germany. She loves being onstage and hopes to improve her hair and makeup skills ("I have never learned how to contour," she admits.) Occasionally Bissonnette despairs at the wage gap and double standards in the music business. "There is still so much work to do, especially in opera, to give equal opportunity to female voices," she says, adding, "New works should really pass the Bechdel test."

Best thing about being a musician? 'Bringing together mind, body and soul,' says Sarah Bissonnette. (Steffanie Sedlbauer)

Sharanjeet Singh Mand, sitarist

Age: 26
From: Surrey, B.C.

A latecomer to his instrument, Sharanjeet Singh Mand was 16 when he began playing the sitar and in the 10 years since then has become one of its leading proponents, especially skilled at fast taans (patterns of notes) and soulful gayaki ang (imitation of the human voice.) So skilled, in fact, that he recently left his job to devote himself full-time to "taking Indian classical music to a platform where it actually deserves to be." Last fall, he got to perform alongside his guru, Pandit Harvinder Sharma, who was touring Canada, and Singh Mand recently joined the faculty at Place des Arts music school in Coquitlam, B.C.

His music-making is inspired by nature. "I look at a seedling breaking through hard ground and surviving through sun and rain until it becomes a bowering tree," he reflects. "I lose myself for hours watching drops of water slowly merging into each other on a window or watching the graceful movements of a caterpillar." Not surprisingly, Singh Mand is also a poet, writing in multiple languages.

"Music conquers all," he asserts, and his playing certainly conquered us when he came to our Vancouver studio last winter:

Sharanjeet Singh Mand | Yaman | CBC Music

4 years ago
Duration 4:18
Sharanjeet Singh Mand stopped by CBC Music's Studio 1 in Vancouver for a special performance of Yaman on the sitar.

Heemin Choi, violinist

Age: 26
From: Halifax

Heemin Choi often reminds himself that 'the night is darkest before the dawn.' (Donna Santos)

"I love going back to Korea. The food is endless and so good and cheap," says Heemin Choi, whose journey began in Seoul 26 years ago. After a brief detour to the Solomon Islands, his family eventually settled in Halifax, their long-term home. "I find inspiration in both my mom and dad every day," he says. "They risked a stable life to move to Canada so that my sister and I could grow up in a more favourable environment."

In Halifax, Choi studied with Philippe Djokic at Dalhousie University before heading to Houston, Texas, to complete his master's degree with Paul Kantor at Rice University. Choi participated in the Verbier Festival Academy last summer, and got to play Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 under the direction of Simon Rattle. "My favourite orchestral musical experience," he recalls. "The energy onstage was so surreal you could feel the air buzzing!"

Last fall, Choi was awarded the three-year use of the 1768 Miller Januarius Gagliano violin from the Canada Council for the Arts' musical instrument bank. He'll play it with Kinetic Ensemble, a conductorless group in Houston, in the upcoming concert season. Until then, he'll load up on Lays ketchup chips ("only available in Canada!") and brag to anyone who'll listen about the Raptors' win.

Abshir Miller, guitarist

Age: 26
From: Iron Bridge, Ont.

'It could be worse.' — Abshir Miller (Melissa Lagacy)

Abshir Miller started out as an alto saxophone player, but he soon succumbed to the allure of the guitar, partly due to the Canadian Guitar Quartet's 2003 release Les Scènes de quartiers, which he says changed his life. Miller did his bachelor of music in guitar performance at the University of Toronto and completed a performance diploma at Sudbury's Cambrian College before heading to California last fall to begin his master's degree with David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There, he became the guitar department's teaching assistant and is a member of the "hire" team, playing various gigs throughout the Bay Area.

Like so many performing artists, Miller says his biggest fear is giving "a horrible performance," which he appears to have avoided so far. ("I would like to be a little more optimistic," he admits.) In August 2018, he nabbed the $1,500 first prize in the guitar division of the National Music Festival in Sackville, N.B. Miller loves Beethoven "for the quality and emotional depth of his music," has taken coffee-worship to a whole other level, and looks forward to the 2019 Sauble Beach Guitar Festival later this month, where he'll participate in master classes, play in the guitar orchestra and catch up with old friends.

Nicole Linaksita, pianist

Age: 26
From: Vancouver

In high school, Nicole Linaksita was nicknamed "Squirrel" by friends watching her play expert-level Guitar Hero. They were noticing that caffeinated focus and persistence she would also apply to academics (she holds an undergraduate degree in computer science) and, of course, piano.

Linaksita won first prize ($10,000) at the Canadian Music Competition's 2019 Stepping Stone final as well as the Canimex Group Prize ($1,000) for best performance of a Canadian work, having already taken part in the 2012 and 2016 editions of that competition. She also placed third at this year's Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition, and while acclaim is important, she also values music's therapeutic qualities. "Some of my favourite performances were in high-care seniors' homes," she says. "It made my day when an otherwise unresponsive resident started to sing along to a tune they remembered from years past."

In her spare time, Linaksita enjoys drawing, animating and arranging video game music — endeavours we hope she'll have time to continue this fall, when she heads to the University of Texas at Austin to begin her master's in piano performance.

'Be yourself.' — Nicole Linaksita (Nicole Linaksita)

Meagan Milatz, pianist

'Stick to your instincts!' — Meagan Milatz (Mathieu Deshayes)

Age: 26
From: Weyburn, Sask.

In May, Meagan Milatz's childhood dream of playing with the Regina Symphony Orchestra was fulfilled when she was the soloist in David McIntyre's Piano Concerto No. 1, conducted by Gordon Gerrard, at the RSO's 110th anniversary concert. "There were so many family members and friends in the crowd, it left me speechless and a bit choked up," she recalls. Fans everywhere will have a chance to hear her as of September, when she and violinist Amy Hillis (together they're known as meagan&amy) begin Roadtrip!, a pan-Canadian 50-concert tour. When that wraps, she'll play music by Beethoven, Ravel and Poulenc with cellist Matt Haimovitz at the Isabel Bader Centre in Kingston, Ont.

Milatz studied fortepiano and piano, respectively, with Tom Beghin and Ilya Poletaev at McGill University, graduating with a master's degree in 2017, and she's still happily based in Montreal, where cycling and whiling away the day at Marché Jean-Talon are her favourite activities. She says she secretly wishes to play the horn — could this be because she recently performed with Stefan Dohr, principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic, at Domaine Forget? Future goals for Milatz include learning to throw a Frisbee properly and getting a Bernese mountain dog.

Jaelem Bhate, conductor and composer

Age: 25
From: Richmond, B.C.

For Jaelem Bhate, Leonard Bernstein has been a role model. "Beyond his genius as a conductor, composer and person, his life story reminds me that it's OK to be different and to forge your own path," he says. After starting out in the sciences, Bhate's path now bisects classical music and jazz. He recently completed his master's degree in orchestral conducting at UBC, having done an undergraduate degree there in percussion, and his debut jazz album, On the Edge, which features his own big band compositions, has been described as "well-designed, smartly performed [and] admirably recorded." (Check out these recent videos of Bhate's arrangements of Bizet's Carmen for jazz orchestra.) 

In May, at its annual Jean Coulthard reading sessions, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performed Bhate's composition Natcitlaneh. In July, he was a conducting fellow at the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., working with Gerard Schwarz. In November, Bhate will conduct the VSO in their Wall to Wall percussion show. A new project is Symphony 21, through which Bhate aims to reinvigorate orchestral music "not by reinventing the wheel, but by removing that wheel from the wagon and attaching it to an electric hybrid vehicle." Other things to know about Bhate: the Toronto Symphony's recording of Holst's The Planets was "almost solely responsible" for hooking him on orchestral music, he is a fan of standup comedy and all sports ("I've even watched darts in a pinch") and he's "fairly obsessed with dogs."

'It’s all crazy until it isn’t.' — Jaelem Bhate (Takumi Hayashi)

Meagan Turner, violist

'Have a take, and play to the best of your ability.' — Meagan Turner (Adam Despinic)

Age: 25
From: Toronto

Receiving her master's degree from Juilliard this spring was "tremendously exciting" for Meagan Turner. "It was a thrill and an honour to walk across a stage so rich in musical history!" And she'll remain in New York for the foreseeable future, having been accepted into Carnegie Hall's Ensemble Connect for 2019-20. While she loves living in New York ("there's always something new to check out"), she visited Sydney, Australia, last year and seems to have left her heart there. "I'll never get over the view of the harbour and the opera house, and the food is to die for," she says, adding, "I checked meeting a koala off my bucket list!"

In July, Turner returned to the Steans Music Institute at the Ravinia Festival, where she played Mendelssohn's Octet, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and Berg's Lyric Suite. "The Berg is one of my favourite works, despite its tremendous difficulty, so I was thrilled to finally have the chance to learn it." While not immersed in all things viola, Turner likes to cook ("I've been experimenting with Thai cuisine lately and recently learned to make a green curry from scratch") and rarely goes a month without listening to Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations. Surprising fact about her? She used to be a huge WWE fan and her ringtone was her favourite wrestler's walk-on music.

Thomas Le Duc-Moreau, conductor

Age: 25
From: Montreal

'Keep calm.' — Thomas Le Duc-Moreau (Francis Leduc)

Meet Thomas Le Duc-Moreau, the incoming (and youngest ever) assistant conductor of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. His first year on the job will coincide with Kent Nagano's final season with the orchestra. "It will be very special," says Le Duc-Moreau, who has recently completed his tenure as assistant conductor of the Orchestre Symphonique de Québec, and is the founding and artistic director of his own orchestra, Ensemble Volte, which offers an "audacious alternative to the traditional concert formula" and is generating a lot of buzz.

He studied cello and conducting at the Conservatoire de Montréal and credits his mentor, Jacques Lacombe, for his success. "He inspired me a lot about the role of the conductor and all its different aspects." A recent obsession for Le Duc-Moreau is baroque music, especially the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau, which explains why he secretly wishes to play the harpsichord. (He's less secretive about his weakness for red wine.) François Truffaut's La nuit américaine left a lasting impression on Le Duc-Moreau. "It's about the making of a movie, and it touched me how the director is always connected to every little detail. It reminded me a lot about my role as a conductor."

Antoine St-Onge, bassoonist

Age: 24
From: Morin Heights, Que.

'Work hard and enjoy life harder.' — Antoine St-Onge (Annie Éthier)

"If it's winter and there's some good snow up in the mountains, I need to ride it," states Antoine St-Onge, a passionate backcountry snowboarder and cyclist who has just completed his first season as principal bassoonist of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Could there be a better job for someone with his abilities and interests?

Before moving to Calgary, St-Onge was a member of the Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal and subbed with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Les Violons du Roy and other Quebec ensembles. While he says Mozart's timelessness and Mahler's modernist approach to symphonic form will never cease to amaze him, he's also drawn to Acid Pauli and Aphex Twin's "amazing organization of a musical environment."

Work–life balance? He's got that figured out: "Preparation for upcoming performances is a big thing on days off, in my case reed-making, score-studying and instrument practice," on top of outdoor activities and "spending time with human and furry friends." St-Onge is looking forward not only to playing lots of Beethoven with the CPO in 2019-20, but also to marrying his fiancée. "She is amazing."

Hannah Craig, cellist

Age: 24
From: Scarborough, Ont.

In May, Hannah Craig auditioned for her very first orchestral position — and got the job! She joins the Victoria Symphony in September, in time for their "Beethoven 250" cycle. "I'm really excited to get all of those under my belt," she says. Last November, as a winner of the Glenn Gould School's concerto competition, she made her orchestral debut playing Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey. "Craig displayed an authoritative command of her technique, a sumptuously full sound and expressively lyrical phrasing," wrote one reviewer.

The daughter of musicians, Craig singles out her mother (her first cello teacher) as especially influential. "She is extremely honest with me, not just with regards to life, but especially to cello." Speaking of honest, Craig tells us she's fascinated by the theorbo, is very much into Ravel's music these days, and would like to take a road trip with — get this — Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Jeff Goldblum, Björk and a medium-sized dog. Shotgun!

She and pianist Daisy Leung recently dropped by our Toronto studio to play some Fauré:

Hannah Craig, cello; Daisy Leung, piano | Gabriel Fauré: Romance, Op. 69

4 years ago
Duration 3:54
Hannah Craig and Daisy Leung perform Gabriel Fauré: Romance, Op. 69

Matthew Cairns, tenor

Age: 24
From: St. Catharines, Ont.

'Singing is a lot like cooking; it takes preparation, execution, and a great amount of passion to create the perfect outcome.' — Matthew Cairns (Mikelis Rogers)

Even though Matthew Cairns won first prize ($5,000) and the CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize at the Canadian Opera Company's 2018 Centre Stage Competition, the highlight of his year was likely the Toronto Raptors' victory in the NBA finals. "I am a massive Raptors Fan," he says. "I try to get to as many games as I can."

Despite that distraction, Cairns recently completed his master's degree in opera performance at U of T, studying with Darryl Edwards. He says he admires Luciano Pavarotti "because he was able to inspire a generation of people with his passion for his craft," and as an incoming member of the COC's Ensemble Studio, Cairns will be able to exercise his own passion for opera. He's slated to sing three roles in their upcoming season: the Prince of Persia in Turandot, the Gamekeeper in Rusalka and the Messenger in Aïda. "I can't believe I get to work and share the stage with so many fantastic artists," he says. To store up energy for that, he's spending as much time as possible this summer on the dock at his cottage ("It is a beautiful and serene place with an amazing sunset") and enjoying the occasional cigar and glass of scotch ("Sorry, Mom").

Samuel Blanchette-Gagnon, pianist

Age: 23
From: Quebec City

"I am trying to learn to be more patient," says Samuel Blanchette-Gagnon. "It's a quality of utmost importance for a musician, because music needs time to grow." While that may be true, he has been wasting no time racking up accolades. Blanchette-Gagnon won the 2019 Prix d'Europe (watch his performance of Liszt's Après une lecture de Dante from the gala here), walking away with $26,500 in prize money. This comes one year after he nabbed second prize at the Stepping Stone final of the 2018 Canimex Canadian Music Competition.

Blanchette-Gagnon singles out Michel Franck, his coach for the past two years, as especially influential: "He transmits a wonderful way to conceive of, and make, music: a fantastic combination of savoir-faire, intelligence and intuition to create a unique moment that is not just a reproduction of what was done during rehearsal." He'll put that wisdom into practice this fall recording an album (Debussy, Szymanowski, Franck) with violinist Marie Bégin, and playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Orchestre Symphonique des Jeunes de Montréal in March 2020. When not "putting his life, thoughts, experiences and feelings into music," Blanchette-Gagnon loses himself in math, physics and literature and seizes every opportunity to get out into nature.

'Believe in what you find beautiful.' — Samuel Blanchette-Gagnon (Marianne Isabelle)

Xiaoyu Liu, pianist

Age: 22
From: Montreal

Xiaoyu Liu was one of two Canadian pianists selected from a field of 954 applicants for the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in June. (Watch his round 1 recital here.) Back in 2012, he won the grand prize at the OSM Competition (he was 15) and in 2015, the Prix d'Europe, so he's no stranger to the thrill of competition. Maybe that's why he can picture himself as a race-car driver in a parallel universe.

Liu graduated with great distinction from the Conservatoire de Montréal, where he studied with Richard Raymond, and he's currently enrolled at the Université de Montréal, working with Dang Thai Son. He likes to sleep late, is a good mimic, and enjoys getting to the ocean when he can ("because you can't see the end"). Liu recently enjoyed spending New Year's with his grandparents in Beijing, China, and attending his five-year high-school reunion. For now, he's indulging his fascination with Scriabin.

'Everything is instantaneous, everything will pass.' — Xiaoyu Liu (Supplied by Xiaoyu Liu)

Albert Chen, pianist

Age: 20
From: Winnipeg

"We live in a world that emphasizes consumption whereas music is all about creating," says Albert Chen, a young pianist with an old soul who looks to legends such as Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau for inspiration. It seems to be working: last October, he did a recital tour of Manitoba and Saskatchewan as a CFMTA young artist; in February, he made his concerto debut playing Beethoven's "Emperor" with the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra; and in June he played the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra — all of this while still working on his bachelor of music.

He loves Shostakovich, hates insects and says Miles Davis's Kind of Blue changed his life. And if he can recover from the disappointing final season of Game of Thrones (he's a big fan), then Chen's future plans include playing in the scholarship-winners' recital of the Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg's upcoming concert season, graduating from the University of Manitoba, and taking the MCAT exam for entry into medical school. We think he'll excel wherever life takes him.

'The only person you should aim to be better than is yourself.' — Albert Chen (Darren Place)

Alison Kim, violinist

Age: 20
From: Vancouver

"I eat way too many sweets for my own good," admits Alison Kim between bites of an egg tart (her favourite snack). On the other hand, they give her the energy she needs to do wonderful things such as playing in the Nico Quartet (one of the New England Conservatory's honours ensembles for 2018-2019), winning the 2019 Michael Measures Second Prize from the Canada Council for the Arts ($15,000) and touring with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada this summer as a soloist in Brahms' Double Concerto.

It may surprise you to learn that, until Grade 11, Kim had plans to go to law school. And at the age of eight, she was accepted to become a trainee at a major Korean entertainment agency. "If I'd had the courage and determination to move to Korea then, maybe I would've become a K-pop star instead!" But the violin won out, due in large part to her Vancouver violin teacher, Taras Gabora ("he motivates me to pour my all into my music") and supportive parents ("the pillars of my music education"). She's looking forward to playing in a four-city Canadian tour of the NYOC and the Euoprean Union Youth Orchestra in November.

'Live with no regrets.' — Alison Kim (John Paik)

Angela Ryu, violinist

Age: 19
From: Calgary

"I am in love with Brahms," gushes Angela Ryu, who recently learned his Violin Sonata No. 3. "The intensity and grandeur of his music, combined with his soulful, breathtaking melodies are just so satisfying to play!" Her good taste is further confirmed by her admiration for James Ehnes's recording of the violin concertos by Barber, Korngold and Walton: "Growing up, that was the CD my mother would always play wherever we'd go!"

In May, Ryu won first prize ($8,000) and the Paul J. Bourret Award ($1,000) for best performance of the test piece at the Shean Strings Competition, securing a performance with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra next season. It was a fitting conclusion to Ryu's first year studying at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she enjoyed hosting her own recital for friends and peers. Like most young musicians, she sometimes has doubts ("the musician's path can be pretty unpredictable and I think that scares me the most," she admits), but this summer, Ryu is putting all fears aside and is "super excited" to be taking part in the Aspen Music Festival before returning for year 2 at Rice. You got this, Angela!

'Work hard, play hard. I always believe that if you put in the work and practice, good results will always come your way.' — Angela Ryu (Calgary Herald)

YuYang Xie, pianist

Age: 19
From: Gatineau, Que.

In November 2018, while YuYang Xie was working out at the gym, the unthinkable happened: "I suffered a comminuted fracture in my right thumb. On my way to the hospital, I forced myself to accept the worst-case scenario that I would not be able to play piano again (at least professionally)." But three months later, he was back at it ("it felt like a new life for me at that moment") and by July, miraculously, he was ready to compete in the Canimex Canadian Music Competition in Calgary, where he won first prize in his age category in addition to the overall grand prize in the 19-to-30-year-old category. He got to play Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Calgary Phil as a result. To celebrate his remarkable comeback, he travelled to Jasper and Banff with his parents ("they are my family and also my best friends") and kayaked on Lake Louise — "the best day off I have had so far!"

A student of Alan Chow at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Xie is currently working on Schubert's Wanderer-Fantasie and despite its "countless scales, arpeggios and even 'lightning octaves'," he says he will "conquer it" in time for a recital in March 2020. On account of a "slight obsession" with math and cards, Xie can see himself as a professional poker player. "In fact, I am currently enrolled in a dual degree program of piano performance at Eastman and economics at the University of Rochester, while taking behavioural science courses as my electives," he explains. "Perhaps that dream is not dead yet!"

'It's important to hold an optimistic attitude towards both our fortunes and misfortunes.' — YuYang Xie (Supplied by the artist)

Matthew Christakos, cellist

Age: 19
From: Ottawa

On one hand, Matthew Christakos is a typical 19-year-old who enjoys binge-video-gaming and compares himself to a sloth. ("I like to take my time to do things," he says.) On the other hand, he's the model of discipline and hard work, having just graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music's Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy, and previously taken part in the Morningside Music Bridge program in Boston, Mass. He's also highly specific about his preferred lunch order: "Smoked salmon on a Montreal bagel with cream cheese, tomato, onions, capers, dill and a squirt of lemon juice."

Christakos acknowledges his parents' support ("they've been there every step of the way") and singles out his longtime cello teacher, David Heatherington, for helping him find his artistic voice and "keeping things in perspective, whatever the situation." In June, he won second prize ($5,000) at the CMC's Stepping Stone final, and as this year's recipient of the Canada Council's Michael Measures First Prize ($25,000), he has spent the summer touring with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada as soloist in Brahms' Double Concerto. And when that winds down, he'll pack his bags and head to Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where he's set to begin his bachelor of music, studying under Peter Wiley and Carter Brey.

'Try your best and have fun!' — Matthew Christakos (Alice Hong)

David Liam Roberts, cellist

Age: 19
From: Winnipeg

Best thing about being a musician? "Being able to make a human connection with, and speak to, people through my performances without even saying a word," says David Liam Roberts, and that eloquence is taking him far. He was the youngest-ever finalist (and won second prize) at the 2018 Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg's McLellan Competition; he won first prize (strings) and the grand award ($5,000) at the 2018 National Music Festival, securing a solo appearance in spring 2020 with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra; and he has completed his first year at the Royal Conservatory's Glenn Gould School, where he got to play Mendelssohn's D Minor Trio with his newly formed chamber group.

Roberts also oversees the Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg chapters of the Back to Bach Project, visiting elementary schools and "highlighting the importance of having vision and determination in achieving goals as well as sharing great classical music with them." He's inspired by James Ehnes and Yo-Yo Ma and says Pablo Casal's 1937 recording of Dvorak's Cello Concerto set him on his current path. Fun fact: Roberts won the silver medal in triathlon at the 2012 Manitoba Summer Games. Catch him if you can!

'Always be sincere and genuine.' — David Liam Roberts (Simeon Rusnak)

Eric Guo, pianist

Age: 17
From: Toronto

"I feel that 24 hours in a day is not enough for me," says Eric Guo, and it's no wonder. He's too busy being amazing! In March, Guo won third prize ($4,870) at the Hastings International Piano Competition in the U.K. — he was the youngest contestant and the only Canadian — where he played Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the final round. Last August, he won first prize ($9,161) in the junior division of the 11th International Chopin Competition for Young Pianists, held in China. And in July, he placed third at the International e-Piano Junior Competition in Minneapolis, Minn.

"Besides practising piano, sleeping is my favourite thing," he says, then gets philosophical: "I believe peace and music are the most important things for mankind." Who can argue with that? A student of Li Wang at the Royal Conservatory of Music's Taylor Academy, Guo loves Vladimir Ashkenazy's recording of the Ballades and Scherzi by Chopin, the composer he's currently obsessed with "because all of his music is noble, poetic, dramatic and nostalgic." It may also be because Guo is busy preparing for the Canadian Chopin Piano Competition coming up later this month, where he'll compete in the senior division. He's also got the 2020 International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in his long-range plans. We like his chances!

'Smile through tears. The more difficulties one confronts, the stronger one will be.' — Eric Guo (Michael Yao)

Ariel Wang, flutist and pianist

Age: 16
From: West Vancouver

Growing up, Ariel Wang loved Harry Potter ("even now, I'm still learning lessons from the characters in that story") which may explain her wizardry on not one but two instruments. Don't believe us? She toured Portugal in March as principal flutist of the Phillips Academy Chamber Orchestra (she's in Grade 11 there while studying music at the nearby New England Conservatory) and earlier this summer she attended the Boston University Tanglewood Institute's flute workshop. She then headed to the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., on a merit scholarship in piano, where she was one of five winners of the concerto competition. She got to play the first movement of Rach 2 with orchestra on July 25 as a result. (Was she channelling her piano hero, Evgeny Kissin? "[He] has reserves of power that I really hope to replicate," Wang says.)

In June, she won first prize (piano) in the senior category of the American Fine Arts Festival's Golden Era of Romantic Music International Competition. As part of that prize, she'll play Schumann's Fantasiestücke in November at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps Beyoncé can take some of the credit: "Homecoming was so powerful to me," reflects Wang, "and watching her confident, passionate performance (five times in the first weekend it came out) was incredibly inspirational to my own musical performance." Oh, and one of Wang's poems was recently published in her school's literary magazine, no big deal.

'Chin up, smiles on, look straight on.' — Ariel Wang (Stuart Beeby)

Sarah Oulousian, pianist

Age: 15
From: Brossard, Que.

If Sarah Oulousian's name is familiar, maybe it's because her older sister, Emily, appeared on our 2016 list. Or, it could be from this TV interview she did in January prior to her performance in Beethoven and the Bully with the National Academy Orchestra. It was just the first of many accomplishments for Oulousian in 2019: In May, she won the grand prize ($1,000) at the Steinway Junior Piano Competition in Ottawa. In June, she won the grand prize ($1,000) at the Concours de musique Choeur de la Montagne, and in July — are you detecting a pattern here? — she was the youngest competitor at the CFMTA's National Piano Competition in Winnipeg, where she walked away with the second prize ($3,000) and two other awards ($2,500). 

Oulousian says she looks to prominent women such as Julie Payette ("not only an astronaut but also a pianist and singer") and Michelle Obama ("articulate, educated and inspiring") for encouragement, and like Ariel Wang, above, she's awestruck by Evgeny Kissin ("His performances are filled with character and energy. His hair, too!"). When not practising, she's involved in sports (football, fencing, cross-country running) and is a self-described book worm. She'll play a duo recital with her sister in Pro Musica's Mélodînes series in February 2020, and then, in April, she'll be the soloist in Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D Minor with the string orchestra at the Conservatoire de Montréal, where she studies with Richard Raymond.

'There is no elevator to success; you’ll have to take the stairs one step at a time.' — Sarah Oulousian (Julie Robichaud)

Henry From, pianist, violinist and composer

Age: 15
From: Bellingham, Wash.

A dual American–Canadian citizen, Henry From lives on the other side of the border, but attends the Vancouver Academy of Music ("Some weeks it seems that I actually spend more time in Vancouver than Bellingham!"), where he studies piano with Amanda Chan, composition with Edward Top and violin with Sandra Payton and plays violin in the school's orchestra. While he tries to adhere to Chopin's dictum, "simplicity is the highest goal," From in fact juggles two instruments, sings in a choir and has composed more than 50 pieces — not exactly a simple life!

Last November, he won first prize ($10,000) in the junior division of the OSM Manulife Competition, playing Ravel's Piano Concerto in G in the final round, and he's a four-time participant at the New England Conservatory's Morningside Music Bridge, where he formed Trio Savyon with a violinist from Calgary and a cellist from Israel. Earlier this year, they played one of From's compositions in Warsaw, Poland.

"Many of my compositions are inspired by the Group of Seven," he says. "These paintings are so imaginative in their colours, which makes it easy for me to compose music to represent them." This summer, he's looking forward to visiting his grandpa in Winnipeg and playing Brahms, Ravel, Chopin, Prokofiev and his own music in Creston, B.C. (Aug. 18) and Tofino, B.C. (Aug. 25). He's also looking for an opportunity to play Khachaturian's Piano Concerto — any takers?

'Simplicity is the highest goal.' — Henry From via Frederic Chopin (Ellie Griffin)

Xenia Huang, violinist

Age: 11
From: Surrey, B.C.

It's been a solid 12 months for Xenia Huang, who attended Charis Camp in Chilliwack, B.C., for the first time, got to see pandas while travelling in China, and — most importantly for our purposes — won first prize in the junior division of the VSO School of Music's Future of Excellence Competition. She admits she gets "very nervous" backstage, but onstage "I just play my very best and try to forget about the people." The people won't soon forget about her, though: Huang will be sharing the stage with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra next season as a result of her competition win.

She finds finger flexibility and vibrato to be the most challenging things about playing violin, which she'll continue working on with her teacher, Carla Birston, at the VSO School of Music. Huang loves Vivaldi, holidays in the Caribbean, and collecting cool rocks. She draws inspiration from Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, the central character in the YA fantasy series Throne of Glass, "because she perseveres in hard times and she does many good things for her country." Despite her prodigious talent, Huang is a normal pre-teen who enjoys skiing and, when the craving strikes, is tempted by "the whole entire junk food aisle." The future is bright.

'I just play my very best and try to forget about the people.' — Xenia Huang (Amy Wang)


Robert Rowat


Robert Rowat has been a producer at CBC Music since 1997. He's based in Montreal and specializes in classical music. Reach him by email