Jill Smith could hardly contain her excitement.

The 17-year-old pianist had just performed on the Abravanel Hall stage with the Utah Symphony, and she was replaying every little detail.

“I finally got that moment to walk on stage, and the lights were shining and there were so many people here to see me,” she told the Deseret News from her dressing room backstage Tuesday night. “It just felt incredible.”

A few years earlier, Smith had shot for this moment but came up a little short in the audition process. But that only seemed to fuel her desire to be a part of the Utah Symphony’s annual Salute to Youth concert.

So when she bought a sparkly silver dress for prom, deep down, she envisioned wearing it for a potential debut with the Utah Symphony.

She’s now officially worn the dress twice.

Jill Smith performs with the Utah Symphony during its 61st Salute to Youth concert at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“That was my vision — I just was so determined to win,” Smith said with a laugh. “I have just been dreaming of this for so long.”

Smith’s enthusiasm for Salute to Youth is palpable — and it’s a good representation of how her eight fellow musicians also felt about performing in the 61st annual concert Tuesday night.

Because for all of the budding musicians, it was more than a performance. It was the fulfillment of a dream — a rewarding moment reflecting years of sacrifice, countless pages of music and endless hours of practice and memorization.

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The return of Salute to Youth

Like most performances in 2020, the annual Salute to Youth concert, sponsored by the Deseret News, was canceled last year. But based on Tuesday night’s performances, the break from the stage didn’t seem to have a negative effect on the young musicians’ skills.

“The interruptions caused by the coronavirus certainly did not interrupt the hours, days and weeks of practice and rehearsal required to reach such a level of expertise,” said Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News. “We are so happy to be back here to celebrate the wonderful accomplishments of these young performers. It was a joy to applaud each of the performers, and the Deseret News is excited to play a small part in helping students launch their musical careers.”

Salute to Youth has certainly played a major role in Ellen Hayashi’s rising career. The violinist was 13 when she made her Utah Symphony debut. Now, the 18-year-old freshman is studying violin performance at the University of Michigan — and she flew all the way back to her Utah home to participate in Salute to Youth for her third and final time.

Ellen Hayashi performs with the Utah Symphony during its 61st Salute to Youth concert at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

By Wednesday afternoon — less than 24 hours after performing with the Utah Symphony — Hayashi will be back at the University of Michigan, immersed in a busy schedule filled with rehearsals and private lessons. It’s a whirlwind few days, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“For me, it’s so important to be a part of something like Salute to Youth,” said Hayashi, who closed out Tuesday’s concert with the third movement from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. “It’s just one of the stepping stones that we need to take in order to shape the career that we want.” 

For Hayashi, her final Salute to Youth performance Tuesday night marked the end of an era. But for younger musicians like Emma Phippen, it was only the beginning.

Phippen, a 16-year-old harpist, chose to mark her Salute to Youth debut with a performance of Marcel Grandjany’s “Aria in Classic Style for Harp and Orchestra.” The performance carried extra meaning because it also continued a family tradition: Phippen’s mother, who is a harp teacher, performed in Salute to Youth as a teenager.

“It was something that I’d always wanted to do, because she talked about it, how she loved it,” Phippen said backstage at Abravanel Hall. “I’ve done so much to prepare for this — it’s just a good payoff.” 

Emma Phippen performs with the Utah Symphony during its 61st Salute to Youth concert at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Tuesday night was also a special debut for Alina Baron. As a young girl who loved attending symphony concerts, the violinist would stage tea parties with her dolls, pretending they were Utah Symphony violinists. Finally getting to share the stage with the musicians in real life, Baron didn’t hold back. She dug deep into her instrument, playing the opening passage of Weiniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, third movement, with such intensity that she had to pluck a single loose hair from her violin bow.

Violinists Eliza Hart and Sarah Kendell — close friends who share the same birthday — were 14 when they performed together for the first time in Salute to Youth. On Tuesday, the friends, now 17, once again took the Abravanel Hall stage together to perform the first movement from Malcom Arnold’s Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra. The violinists’ friendship came to life through the energetic piece as they harmonized and swayed in unison, leading to what would be one of the night’s many standing ovations.

Musicians Sabrina Allen and Stella Wadsworth also returned to the Abravanel Hall stage for the second time on Tuesday. For Allen, preparing for events like Salute to Youth involves practicing as much as 10 hours a day. The 17-year-old-pianist seemed transported as she performed the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, leaning into the piano and bobbing her head as her hands moved rapidly up and down the keys. Wadsworth, meanwhile, dug her bow into the cello and performed Lalo’s challenging Concerto in D minor with an ease that seemed to suggest she was communicating with an old friend.

Ezekiel Sokoloff performs with the Utah Symphony during its 61st Salute to Youth concert at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

After a year of not being able to perform at all due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Ezekiel Sokoloff wasn’t taking his performance Tuesday night lightly. The 16-year-old violinist — who was 12 and at least a foot shorter when he made his Salute to Youth debut — seemed to cherish every single note of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor.

“I’ve been going to symphony concerts since I started playing the violin, so to be able to actually be on stage and play with them is rewarding,” he said backstage at Abravanel Hall.

Like Sokoloff, Hayashi also missed performing during the pandemic. During her senior year of high school, she didn’t connect regularly with her colleagues who were also graduating and preparing for the college audition process. She couldn’t participate in orchestra rehearsals with her friends — something she loves even more than performing as a soloist. 

Participating in Salute to Youth for the final time, Hayashi was more grateful than ever to cheer on her fellow musicians who have put so much effort into making it on the Abravanel Hall stage — musicians she’s come to know well over the years.

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“You get to be there for your peers, to experience this moment that no one will ever forget,” she said. “To share that with your friends, that’s just the most important thing to me.” 

Inspiring a new generation

This year’s nine Salute to Youth artists aren’t going to forget Tuesday night anytime soon. At its core, the annual concert is about celebrating the musicians’ hard work and accomplishments. But in sharing their passion for music, the performers also hope they’ll inspire future Salute to Youth performers down the road.

In fact, as Smith played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1, a girl in the audience could be seen imitating the pianist’s movements. And as someone who was inspired by attending a Salute to Youth concert in 2018, that couldn’t have made Smith any happier. 

“I remember sitting in the audience, just in total awe of these people,” Smith said. “And I remember thinking, ‘That’s my dream. I’m going to be like them.’”

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