As a toddler, Alina Baron would often climb up onto the piano bench in her home and reach high above the piano to get hold of her mother’s violin. She really wanted to play, and the cardboard instruments and toy violins that made sounds when you pressed buttons just weren’t exciting enough. 

So she got her first real violin when she was 3. 

A few years later, her younger sister, Whitney, followed suit: After frequently trying to take her sister’s violin, Whitney also got her own at age 3. 

Like the Baron sisters, some of Sophie Wilkes’ earliest childhood memories include the violin. During special get-togethers with extended family, Wilkes would listen to her aunt and grandmother perform violin duets. She was always excited to hear them play, and it didn’t take long for her to decide she wanted to join them. She soon got a violin for Christmas and was taking lessons by age 5. 

For all three of these young musicians, the love of the violin, of performing, started early. It stemmed from family traditions, from a desire to be connected with loved ones.

And over the past several years, as they’ve taken lessons, performed in orchestras and taken part in competitions, that love has evolved into a finely-tuned craft. 

Sophie Wilkes, violinist, poses for photos for the 2023 Salute to Youth Portraits at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Now, Wilkes and the Barons are among the nine soloists who have undergone a monthslong audition process and earned the honor of performing with the Utah Symphony on Nov. 22 for the 63rd annual Salute to Youth concert, which is sponsored by the Deseret News.

For some of the soloists, like 18-year-old Alina Baron, this year marks a welcome return. For others, like Whitney Baron, 14, and Wilkes, 12, this year’s Salute to Youth is an exciting debut.

But all of the musicians, regardless of age or instrument, have at least this much in common: They’ve worked really hard, and they’re ready to perform.

“For more than six decades, the Deseret News and Utah Symphony have partnered to provide this Salute to Youth concert. The young musicians we honor have pursued their passion for music along the difficult path of exacting correction and critique by trusted teachers,” said Doug Wilks, executive editor of the Deseret News. “The result is a passion for beautiful music that brings joy to all. We salute their excellence.”

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Sisters take the Salute to Youth stage

The first time Alina Baron found out she made Salute to Youth, she cried happy tears. She performed as a soloist with the Utah Symphony in 2021, and the big moment was a true highlight in her music career thus far.

“I think it strengthened my love for music because it was an amazing experience,” she said. “And it showed me what you can do with music.”

Baron, who is now a freshman at the University of Utah studying violin performance, didn’t cry this time around. But when she heard she was going to be in Salute to Youth a second time, she couldn’t stop smiling — and that’s largely because she gets to share the moment with her sister.

”I was all smiles for like a week,” Baron said during a Zoom call, with her sister by her side on the couch. “I don’t think I stopped.”

Alina Baron and Whitney Baron, violinists, pose for photos for the 2023 Salute to Youth Portraits at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“When we found out we were both in it, I think that’s the most exciting thing because you always hope for each other and yourself,” Whitney Baron added, noting that she had to keep the big news to herself for a few hours while she waited for her older sister to get out of class. “Lots of screaming — the happy kind.”

With their four-year age gap, the sisters don’t typically end up squaring off against each other in competitions. They’re usually in separate divisions. But Alina Baron is confident that their enthusiasm and support for each other wouldn’t change if they were in the same age group. 

“We’d still root for each other,” she said. 

Whitney Baron, violinist, poses for photos for the 2023 Salute to Youth Portraits at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Even outside of music, the sisters do just about everything together — including going on hikes, taking their dog, Roxy, on walks, and playing soccer. They’re each performing a solo piece for the Salute to Youth concert, but they’ve also prepared a duet: Pablo de Sarasate’s Navarra for Two Violins. 

As they perform on the Abravanel Hall stage, the Barons hope the audience will be able to feel the joy they feel learning and playing together.

“I want people to feel like they’re having fun while they’re watching classical music,” said Whitney Baron, who is a freshman at Mountain Heights Academy in West Jordan. “It’s something that you’re supposed to have fun with. People shouldn’t watch and think, ‘Oh, wow, that looks like it’s hard.’ It should be like, ‘That sounds fun. It looks like they’re having fun.’” 

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A 12-year-old makes a major debut

The Salute to Youth audition process is daunting. It starts with an online application and preliminary audio recording due over the summer. In September, applicants who make it through that first round get to perform in the final audition round. Two months after that, the young musicians who are selected have the distinction of performing their piece with the Utah Symphony. 

For many of the competitors, preparation is a yearlong process. You have to keep up on your piece at all times.

Part of Wilkes’ preparation included learning more about the history of the piece she chose to perform — Bach’s Concerto in A Minor — and studying up on the baroque music era. Getting to know Bach a little better, she said, helped her play better. 

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The preteen talks about her piece like it’s one of her close friends. She uses the word “fun” a lot when describing it. The concerto is more than the notes, she says — it’s about phrasing and dynamics, emphasizing certain parts of the song to make it really interesting. She’s studied it with a few teachers, including Jenny Oaks Baker, and tries to practice four hours a day. 

But for all of her preparation, Wilkes says she was still shocked when she heard she would be making her Salute to Youth debut. The seventh grader was teaching a violin lesson (she has seven students) when her dad popped in to tell her the big news. She spent that night calling family and teachers, and there’s going to be a lot of people rooting for her at the concert Wednesday night. 

Sophie Wilkes, violinist, poses for photos for the 2023 Salute to Youth Portraits at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Whenever she performs, Wilkes thinks about what started it all for her: listening to her grandmother and aunt play violin duets together. She has a vivid memory of playing the violin with her grandmother when she was 6 or 7 — a moment that solidified the importance of the violin in her life. 

“I just remember being like, ‘Oh, wait, I really, really love this and I want to continue,’ you know?” Wilkes said. “She’s died now, but it’s been just like a really memorable moment where I can look back on that and be like, ‘Wait, I do love playing the violin.’ That little moment helps me remember her and the music that she shared with me.” 

The student at Sunrise Ridge Intermediate School in St. George has a lot of interests, including swimming, tennis and running. She’s not even a teenager, but she does have her sights on pursuing music in college. Regardless of what she ends up studying, Wilkes does know that music makes her happy and it’s something she wants to keep around. 

“I hope music will always be a part of my life,” she said.

In the meantime, Wilkes is gearing up for her first time performing with the Utah Symphony — a major debut at the age of 12. It feels a bit surreal for the young violinist, who has traveled from her southern Utah home to Salt Lake City a few times over the years to hear the orchestra. (She’s also been able to enjoy the symphony in St. George on occasion, thanks to the organization’s robust education outreach program.)

Like all of her fellow Salute to Youth musicians, Wilkes — who is one of the youngest performers this year — knows that taking the Abravanel Hall stage, backed by the professional orchestra, isn’t a moment to be taken for granted.

“I’m really excited. I mean, I’m a little nervous, but I guess that means I care,” she said. “I’m just excited that I get this opportunity.”