John Flannery, 15, could claim to be one of the best high school pianists in the state.
The Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchesta’s (SEISO) Young Artist competition allows contestants from across 19 counties, and a variety of musical talents, to play before judges for the $200 and the opportunity to perform with SEISO in February.
Following this year’s competition — held Dec. 1 in Mt. Pleasant — Washington High student John Flannery took first place.
“(Flannery) had one of the best presentations I’ve ever heard,” said Robert McConnell, conductor for SEISO and one of the judges for the competition. “It was startling, really, and I told him so afterward.”
The judges — consisting of McConnell, retired piano instructor Susan See and Iowa Wesleyan professor Dr. Jason Edwards — ranked the performers privately before discussing their choices as a group.
The competition has been around longer than McConnell’s been conductor for the orchestra. Though he hasn’t competed in it himself, he’s seen his daughter go through twice. He’s familiar with the months of practice and level of rigor required to succeed.
“It’s difficult comparing a vocalist to a pianist to a violinist to a trumpet player,” McConnell said. “It’s not like you have 15 flute players coming in and you pick the best one. Part of the skill is picking a piece that complements your performance.
In Flannery’s case, he actually decided to change pieces leading up to the competition.
“I had chosen one piece with my teacher that I was working on for a couple of months (the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor) until I listened to this one piece that I loved (the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major),” Flannery said. “I switched over and that’s what I won the competition with.”
What made him pick the Ravel Concerto in August is how fresh it sounded. It gave him the opportunity to make more of an impression.
“Grieg Piano Concerto is pretty well known all around,” he said. “It’s hard to describe, but it’s so well known I felt like I was just playing it. Whereas with (Ravel) I just thought it was completely fantastic and I just had to learn it.”
He plans on performing with the SEISO in February, though this won’t be his first time playing with the group. Leading into all-state competitions earlier this year, Flannery was preparing “An American in Paris,” which SEISO also happened to be working on.
Even having heard Flannery then, McConnell was still blown away by his performance. He mentioned Flannery could likely go into music professionally if he desired.
McConnell and the other judges were unanimous in picking Flannery for first place, but the performer himself was slightly less certain leading up to the announcement of the winner.
“All of the other entrants were amazing,” Flannery said. “I had no idea how the actual decision would go because they all did a fantastic job.”