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Local musicians play to standing ovation at international festival

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Gian Carlo Menotti's mother had the connections to send her son, a young musical genius, to study at the Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music.

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She presented a letter of recommendation for admission written by Arturo Toscanini's wife, and in 1928, her son joined the ranks of other talented librettists and composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber.

These relationships continued for Menotti's entire career. He kept his Italian citizenship and enjoyed being known as an Italian-American artist. He garnered many awards from his native country as well as his adopted one. His efforts in mentoring young artists drove him to begin an innovative approach to performance.

In 1958, when Menotti first envisioned a gathering of young American artists studying in Europe, he and others decided on the city of Spoleto, Italy, because of the richness of the arts, the appreciative audiences and the beauty of the city located in the Umbria Valley near his birthplace in the northern part of Italy near the Swiss border. The festival, which included a gathering of the visual arts, dance, theater, opera and music, was successful beyond his hopes and the Spoleto Festival was launched.

In 1977, Menotti and others chose to launch the Festival of Two Worlds and include an American city which had all the attributes and charm of Spoleto. Charleston, S.C., was chosen because of its long history of being home to theater, ballet and one of the oldest musical organizations in the country. Spoleto Festival USA is a proud descendent of its Italian heritage. The festival continues to be a prized by those accepted during its 17-day event held each June.

"I knew about the festival because we lived in South Carolina for six years, and I played in St. Michael's Church in Charleston," said Sarah Carlson organist and musical director at First Lutheran Church.

In October, she and Del Lyren sent in their application complete with solo recordings, supporting documents and a prospective program.

Although he practices two hours every day, Lyren admits to being "very nervous about it, and there were some points when I thought we should cancel. For some reason I was having confidence problems."

He said he discussed his concerns with Carlson, and they changed the program a few times.

"Eventually, we settled on a program that worked for both of us, and so we went through with it," he said. "And I am so glad we did because it went extremely well, and for me it was a terrific confidence builder."

Carlson was aware of the reputation of the festival throughout the country and the caliber of the performers, so for her, this performance was an honor and a giant step in her career.

Lyren and Carlson arrived from the furthest distance. He said he had no idea of what to expect, but he loved the excitement, quality of the music, crowds and the city itself.

"Sarah was a good tour guide," Lyren said.

The duo performed an hour-long concert for trumpet and organ to a capacity crowd in the 1875 St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.

Carlson performed on a French Austin Organ, which she understood to be one of the finest instruments at the festival and said the acoustics were great. They both felt the committee chose this venue for them because it so closely fit their program.

One man from Hickory, N.C., told Carlson if he had the opportunity to hear only one concert, theirs would be the one. His enthusiasm was shared by the audience who rose to a standing ovation as the last notes faded away.

The concert was professionally recorded and will be played on North Carolina Public Radio. Carlson said she is thinking of approaching Michael Barone for it to be played on his Minnesota Public Radio show "Pipe Dreams."

Overall, the pair said the experience was one they would like to try again.

"It gave me confidence to know that I can achieve great things while I have the full-time job of having three children, 5 and under," Carlson said. "I am already scheduled to play in New York City at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in February of 2011 as part of their ongoing concert series. I also plan to go to England to play at St. Paul's Cathedral in London."

Lyren said he is always amazed in his travels to meet someone who has a connection with Bemidji, sometimes someone who went to music camp.

"Every year, we are recruiting students who are more and more talented, and they work really hard, which is fun to see," he said. "They are average musicians who are willing to put the time and effort to excel, and many have gone onto some pretty amazing careers and major graduate programs. One of the people in the audience (at the concert) was a retired music professor from Arizona State University where I received my doctorate."

Based on the success of this concert, Lyren and Carlson said they feel they have a good chance to being asked to perform again at Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston.

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