Sophomore cellist lands command performance at final state round of Golden Empire Festival

(Photo used by permission of Needler)
Sophomore Chardonnay Needler plays “Elegie in C Minor” in the first round of the solo Golden Empire performance on March 4.

After receiving a gold in the first round on March 4, sophomore cellist Chardonnay Needler qualified for the state level of the Golden Empire Solo and Ensemble Festival in Sacramento on May 5-6, where she received a command performance. According to orchestra teacher Felecia Keys, Emma Williams, ’15, and Needler are the only two SCDS students ever to receive this high ranking.

Q: What is a command performance?

A: A command performance is basically the reason why people enter the Golden Empire Festival. The scores are all out of 4 or 5, with a 1 being the best, and the judges judge (musicians) on tone, pitch and intonation, phrasing, etc.

A command performance is one that earns all 1’s.

Getting a command performance is and isn’t a big deal. It is (a big deal) because few people have gotten them in SCDS history – Emma Williams would always get them for her (violin) solos – but also (it isn’t because) you aren’t competing against anyone in Golden Empire; you’re competing against yourself.

Q: How common is it?

A: They don’t have to give a certain amount of (awards); it just depends on how good the crop was this year.

I for sure wasn’t the only one to have gotten it – I think there were four other people (at the event) who (had gotten) command performances by the time I left. I was there for two hours.

I don’t know how well I played. In my mind I can always play better, and I’ll never be good enough for myself.

Q: Who competes in this competition?

A: Competitors are from all around the state, (and) there’s a high-school and middle-school division. Our school doesn’t really do the middle-school division, though.

Within the divisions, there (are) the solo and ensemble groups. We’re all judged on the same criteria.

It’s not a competition where there’s a first, second or third place. It’s one where you’re judged against yourself and the criteria that you should meet at a certain point. You’re judged on how hard your song is and your ability (to execute it).

Q: How is a command performance different from getting a gold?

A: As long as the majority of your scores are 1’s and (there are) no 3’s, that’ll probably get you a gold. But a command performance is all 1’s.

Q: Who else from SCDS competed in the first rounds?

A: For solos, (sophomore) Allison (Zhang), (senior) Anny Schmidt and myself. We weren’t competing against each other; we were competing for gold. There also was a quintet and trio. In the quintet was (junior) Atsuo Chiu, myself, Allison, Anny  and (junior) Yasmin Gupta. In the trio (were freshmen) Shimin Zhang, Emma Boersma and Monet Cook.

I was the only one to go on, which was a big surprise at the time. (Everyone else, including the group I was in,) got silver.

(Photo used by permission of Needler)
Page one of three of sophomore Chardonnay Needler’s evaluation.

Q: How long have you known about this competition?

A: I’ve been doing this competition for three years – basically as long as I’ve been watching “Doctor Who”! It’s more like a way to gauge what you need to work on more, as well as a way to get used to performing, because I’d probably like to do some more major competitions in the future.

Q: How close have you gotten to a command performance before?

A: When Allison and I were in seventh grade, we played “La Paix and La Réjouissance (Peace and Rejoicing)” by Handel.

We got all 1’s except for one 2, but even that one 2 kept us from getting a command performance.

Q: Why did you enter this year as a soloist instead?

A: I did solo because I felt that I needed to get better at it. It’s a different experience than playing with other people, and it’s sometimes easier and sometimes harder.

(Photo used by permission of Needler)
Page two of three of sophomore Chardonnay Needler’s evaluation.

Next year I should (find) a song that’s more challenging, but I kind of did (the competition) because I say yes to a lot of things.

Q: Why did you decide to enter this year at all?

A: I remember Keys would always talk about, “Emma Williams, Emma Williams, Emma Williams,” when I was younger. No one gets a command performance except for Emma Williams.

Getting a command performance for me this year wasn’t even an option – I was just trying to not get bronze or a 5.

Getting a command performance was very, very surprising.

Q: How was it surprising for you?

A: I’m in the middle of APs, and it’s been academically hardcore these past few weeks. I was very busy, and because I was very busy, I didn’t prepare for it at all.

I prepared in the sense that Thursday, the day before the competition, I looked at the piece (“Elegie in C Minor” by Gabriel Fauré) for the first

(Photo used by permission of Needler)
The final page of sophomore Chardonnay Needler’s evaluation.

time in a month, basically since when I got gold.

(“Elegie” is) a piece that I knew from last year, so I was more just tweaking out a few things and making it sound as musical as possible.

Q: What do you mean by “musical?”

A: It means having good dynamics, good phrasing, giving the notes depth. You can play notes, and you can play music. And that is different. It’s like singing versus talking.

Music notes are just vibrations that go on for certain amounts of time, but playing them musically means you have to make them have feeling by adding a human element to it. And that’s what I think the judges are looking for (in competitions).

Q: How were you right before and during the competition?

A: So I got to the competition and  realized I forgot both my rockstop, a little plastic box thing that attaches to your chair (and) prevents your cello from sliding away, and (a copy of) my music (because) I forgot that the judges needed a score of the music that I was to play.    

When I sat down (to play), I was super nervous. No one was in the room but the two judges, my dad and the accompanist, John Cozza. And the (male) judge had a face that looked very (un)amused, so I was just like “Great!”

Then I started playing music and felt better, but I was still really nervous that I was being judged and that I probably blew my chance for something that could look really good on college apps.

Q: When did you find out your scores?

A: I wanted to leave, but my dad said that it sounded beautiful and that we should wait, so I did.

We waited for about 10 minutes, and then the people who were working at the festival brought out a manila folder. One of them said congrats to me, and I was thinking, “For what?”

But then I saw the little slip of paper that said “command performance,” and I was in disbelief.

(I didn’t want my scores) because I knew that for the fast part with the sextuplets, the notes were a little bit mumbly; they weren’t clear and defined. And the (female judge) pointed that out.

She also said something I didn’t know before this: the rhythm should come from the left hand and not from the right. But that was a constructive thing, and I’m glad because I can work on that in the future.

Q: What’s the next step from here?

A: It’s the end of the music season, so now I’m done.

I don’t want to aim for command (next year) because I don’t want to let myself down, but I’ll also be looking for other competitions because maybe the judging is too easy here if I managed to get a command performance!

By Mohini Rye 

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