Caleb Borick practices piano about three hours a day. Currently, he is working on the Grieg Piano Concerto, Brahms Rhapsody No. 1 and 2, and etudes by Paganini, Chopin and Scriabin.
It's mid-summer, the period when he can browse through his music and select his own repertoire, unhindered by his teachers' preferences.
He sits at the 7-foot borrowed Steinway grand that fills the library of his James Island home, stretching his fingers across the keys, moving them quickly in order to play the big chords, runs and arpeggios.
Caleb is 11. He is among the city's gifted young artists who look toward a music-filled future.
Caleb and three other musicians, violinist-composer Nicholas Bentz, 20, violinist Shannon Fitzhenry, 19, and pianist Micah McLaurin, 19, recently won competitions that have helped raise their stature and validate their talents.
Bentz won the concerto competition at the Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy (PRISMA) in Paul River, British Columbia. He played the Shostakovich concerto, a 40-minute-long "beast of a piece," he said.
As first-place winner, he got the chance to perform the concerto with the PRISMA Orchestra and soon will travel to Moscow for a week of intensive music-making with the storied Moscow Symphony Orchestra, with which he will play the Brahms Symphony No. 1.
Currently, he is at the Summit Music Festival in Upstate New York where he has entered another competition. Two more will follow, one later this year, another next year. For those he's learning another beast of a piece, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1.
Bentz grew up in West Ashley and attended Ashley River Creative Arts. He first picked up the violin at age 6, entering the Suzuki program at school, then quickly finding a private teacher. In recent years, he has studied violin with CSO Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker and composition with College of Charleston professor Yiorgos Vassilandonakis.
Today, he is a student at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, a prestigious conservatory, where he is pursuing a double major in violin performance and composition. His teachers are famous in classical music circles: Herbert Greenberg (Bekker's old teacher) and Kevin Puts. It was Greenberg who suggested that his young student enter the PRISMA competition and play the Shostakovich, Bentz said.
His composition career also is flourishing. Last year, a piece he wrote for himself to play was a finalist for the Morton Gould Award. He just finished a piano quintet that is "really challenging, really long," he said. It requires stamina, a strong sense of rhythm and emotional investment from the performers, he said. Possibly the string quartet he helped form last year will perform it soon with a guest pianist.
When Bentz attended the Charleston Academy of Music, where Bekker offers private lessons, he took music theory with Irina Pevzner and excelled, absorbing quickly all that CAM could offer. "Can I do more?" he asked his teacher. "Why don't you try composition?" she replied.
He interviewed with Vassilandonakis, who accepted the aspiring composer, then in 10th grade, as a private student.
He said he was still in his experimental phase. "It's too early to say I have a style," Bentz said.
Shannon Fitzhenry was one of five winners of the concerto competition at the Miami Summer Music Festival, a new organization that draws musicians from all over the world and whose faculty includes Bekker. She performed the Sibelius concerto and was the only violinist to reach the competition's pinnacle.
Fitzhenry comes from a musical West Ashley family with whom she was homeschooled.
"We used to have a family quartet," she said. Her siblings all play string instruments. When her older sister married, the quartet became a trio. The group, called Coastal Chamber Musicians, has performed at weddings, corporate events and on other occasions, for more than 10 years.
Her parents have been very supportive, very understanding, very patient, she said.
"When I was about 14, I was getting very discouraged," she said. "Yuriy and my parents were giving me pep talks, but I wasn't motivated. I wasn't in an orchestra, I wasn't in competitions. Finally, they gave me a choice: Do I want to do this or not? I just thought about my day, going through it without the violin, without going to concerts, rehearsals. I couldn't imagine it. So it became my own passion."
In Miami, Fitzhenry was among 30 competition semifinalists, nearly half of whom were violinists. The group was narrowed down to 11 finalists, including three violinists, then to five winners.
In a month, Fitzhenry will move to Baltimore and begin her first year at Peabody, where she will study with Greenberg.
Bekker said he was immensely proud of his two students and amazed at the talent Charleston has produced in recent years.
Fitzhenry and Bentz will be featured soloists with the CSO Chamber Orchestra at a Feb. 24 Dock Street Theatre concert titled "Student, Teacher and Legacy," Bekker said.
"We will play the Vivaldi Concerto for four violins," Bekker wrote in an email. "Ashley Yoon, my 10-year-old student (incredibly gifted), will join us."
The concert will feature new commissions from Vassilandonakis and Bentz.
"This will be the first time Charlestonians will hear the music of both Yiorgos Vassilandonakis and Nick," Bekker wrote. Bentz's piece for string orchestra is an 8-minute work, "the first piece of 'absolute' music I've ever worked on, where instead of there being an overarching plan or some kind of outside inspiration to move the piece forward, I'm relying entirely on gestures within the music, and really moving a measure at a time," he said. "It's like going down a tunnel with a flashlight."
Another recent competition winner is pianist Micah McLaurin, the gifted West Ashley native and student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
McLaurin was one of three winners, and the only pianist, to receive top honors at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., a summer program he is attending on full scholarship, according to his former teacher, Enrique Graf. He played the technically challenging Chopin concerto.
All these young musicians have studied with teachers (Bekker, Graf, Pevzner) at the Charleston Academy of Music, a nonprofit music school on Rutledge Avenue.
"They are all CAM students; I find that amazing," Graf said.
Hearing the music
Caleb's success is noteworthy for the progress it represents, according to his teacher, Graf, and his mother, Susan Borick, who homeschools her son and encourages him to seek challenges.
Each summer, the Borick family looks for something musical Caleb can do away from home. It affords him a break from the daily routine and exposes him to other talented musicians.
Searching online, Susan Borick came across the website for the Philadelphia International Music Festival, a summer camp for young musicians 9-19, held on the campus of Bryn Mawr College. About 350 students enroll.
It proved an enormous success for Caleb. He was one of 60, and the only pianist, to participate in the competition. He played the first movement of the Grieg concerto.
He expected the judges to announce winners in each age division. He tied with a young violinist. Then came the surprise. As a thunderstorm howled and boomed outside the auditorium, Caleb was named the overall winner.
"I didn't know there was a grand prize winner," he said.
His charismatic teacher at the camp, Svetlana Smolina, was so taken with Caleb, she promised to follow his studies and emerging performance career, helping when she could, Susan Borick said.
Caleb has perfect pitch and a photographic memory, and he can hear music in his head just by looking at the score. These gifts help make him a quick learner. Every since the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed the Verdi Requiem in 2013, he's been immersing himself in the score, playing the movements on the piano.
He's been listening to a lot of other music, too, improving his knowledge of the classical music repertoire, readying himself for a performance career.
"I remember the first time Caleb came to hear Micah play at the Sottile (Theatre)," Graf said. "He sat in the front row, and sat in amazement." Exposure to other talented musicians has inspired him. It's something his mother wants more of: opportunities for Caleb to interact with and be challenged by others.
Graf said both Caleb and McLaurin have been unusual students.
"Working with them is easy in a way, because musically you don't have to tell them anything," he said. They've got an innate artistic sensibility. "We mostly talk about technique and little things in the score that (they) might miss."
On Oct. 25, Caleb will play the Grieg concerto with the Fountain Inn Symphony Orchestra at the Younts Center for Performing Arts near Greenville. It will be his second appearance there.
The 11-year-old already is on his way.
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Micah McLaurin, 19, is a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.×
Shannon Fitzhenry, 19, studies violin with Yuriy Bekker.×
Caleb Borick, 11, plays the beginning of the Grieg concerto. His mother, Susan Borick, sits in the background. Caleb studies with Enrique Graf.×
Caleb has taken an interest in the Verdi Requiem and has been playing it for fun.×
Eleven-year-old pianist Caleb Borick and his mother, Susan, compare hand spans.×
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