For the first time in history, a Conway High School student has won the Stella Boyle Smith Young Artists Competition, a state-wide competition for musicians 18 or younger who play instruments in the piano, strings, woodwinds and brass categories.
As his reward, the 2016 winner, Wilson Vanderslice, a 16-year-old cellist from Conway, will solo with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra on May 7.
Vanderslice — who won with Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor — said he wasn’t expecting it.
"I was very happy because it was a piece that I really loved," he said. "I think I first heard the piece when I was 13 and I’ve always been attracted to the sound."
The piece, Vanderslice said, is meant to represent England’s change after WWI.
Through the music, Elgar is exposing the change of the country as a result of the war and touches on how it was before. Vanderslice said some sections are reminiscent of the past and others are dark, representing emotions Elgar has about the war itself.
"I think what I’m looking forward to the most is having the whole orchestral sound behind [me] and supporting [me] and [me] being a part of them in this flow between the two, which, I’ve never been able to experience. I’m excited to perform it again for an audience," Vanderslice said.
He said playing the full part, not just with the piano, will be a lot more fun.
"I’m a little bit more nervous than I think I would be if I was just playing a recital," Vanderslice said.
Despite that, he said he believes the night would be harder if he wasn’t so familiar with the piece.
"I’ve started, over the past couple of months, going back and practicing the piece [and] relearning the part," Vanderslice said. "I’ve started looking over the score, making sure I understand what the orchestra has while I’m playing my stuff."
Vanderslice said he grew up in a family environment that always supported the arts — his parents John and Stephanie are writers and professors at the University of Central Arkansas — and he started playing cello when he was 11 years old.
"When I initially started, I wasn’t ever thinking about it as something to this level," he said. "Although, I always wanted to be a musician. When you tell a parent that you want to be a musician, it’s a kind of scary thing to say. So, I think they were very happy that things worked out."
Karla Fournier, the orchestra teacher in Conway, said Vanderslice took off in the ninth grade.
"It’s been wonderful watching Wil blossom," she said. "From ninth grade on … that has been his life."
Fournier said Vanderslice can be humble, but it’s important to note that the young musician has been the first chair for the south regional orchestra, all-state orchestra and the all-state chamber orchestra and has been preparing music for multiple auditions throughout the year.
"He is just immersed in the music scene here in central Arkansas," she said. "It’s fabulous watching kids do this."
Fournier, who plays the clarinet with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, will be playing alongside Vanderslice May 7.
"I love having the winners come in every year and perform," she said. "It’s wonderful watching the students take that next step to become professional musicians themselves."
Vanderslice said he owes a lot of his success to ones who have supported him along the way, especially his teacher — Stephen Feldman from UCA, who, as a teacher, has done well to amplify the skills that Vanderslice already had and point out the small things that needed to be altered without being too critical.
"I’ve very proud of what I’ve been able to do and accomplish and I think one of the parts about me that has been able to do that is I’ve always been very hardworking," he said. "I think that’s been a big drive in my playing and in my academic life is just trying to work hard and do the best I can and not worry about what others are doing and focus on myself."
Vanderslice said it feels good to have won this amazing opportunity and to be able to represent Conway during the concert May 7.
To learn more about the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra or the Stella Boyle Smith Young Artists Competition, visit www.arkansassymphony.org.