Though it rarely involves concussions and broken bones, the world of classical music is harshly competitive.

According to Karles McQuade, "You have a better chance of being drafted by the NFL than getting picked as a violinist for one of the nation's professional symphonies."

McQuade is the associate artistic director of the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association as well as a conductor, teacher and violinist. He is not a professional football player.

We spoke while he ran errands on Antonio Vivaldi's 335th birthday. McQuade ended the conversation upon arriving at a bakery where he was picking up a cake in honor of the long-deceased composer. Before doing so, however, he filled me in on an upcoming SFYSA event titled Spotlight on Young Musicians.

Now in its seventh year, the event is introducing live judging and cash prizes for the first time. "We wanted to have kind of an American Idol thing going," he explains.

The 12 student participants, who've already passed a preliminary audition, vary in age from 9 to 20. All are from northern New Mexico.

Though most of the music falls into the classical category, SFYA Artistic Director Dana Winograd, who came up with the changes to the event, assures me that "there will be a little bit of everything."

She provides a few examples: "a girl playing violin and singing jazz; someone else performing her own original piano composition; a saxophone player; a string quartet."

Winograd has first-hand experience with the competitive aspects of classical music, as an accomplished cellist in her own right: "I moved here from New York, where I was a freelancer and played a lot on Broadway, Carnegie Hall, that whole thing."

However, she stresses that the changes in this year's Spotlight are not designed to create Santa Fe's own musical Hunger Games (though, speaking of Broadway, Hunger Games: the Musical is not such a bad idea).
Rather, she and McQuade's "aim is to be supportive and encouraging."

She says, "What we wanted to do was make it a little bit more audience-involved and audience-friendly...and put it on the map as an exciting event for musicians and non-musicians alike."

Event host Joseph Illick, the executive and artistic director of the Santa Fe Concert Association, plans on holding informal discussions with the performers onstage, similar to the verbal component on the National Public Radio show From the Top.

Hearing the musicians speak in their own words "engages people on a different level," Illick tells SFR. He believes the spoken element helps humanize the performance process: "When a kid stands up and talks onstage, it makes other kids realize, 'Aha, that's just another kid like me.'"

Illick acknowledges that the contest "certainly mirrors the classical music world, which is hugely competitive."
He points out that once students reach a certain level, it's important for them to find out whether they are up for the ceaseless challenges of public performance and competition.

"Hopefully, they realize that being judged isn't everything," he says, but "if it's too unpleasant for a kid, they might want to consider a different field professionally."

It's a fair point—a talented high school football player who can't stand losing would likewise want to think twice about pursuing the sport in college.

More than just a learning experience for the contestants, Spotlight is intended as a community event. As such, Winograd hopes the cash prizes will encourage more musicians to audition for next year's event.

The top cash award of $200 is not enough for a Stradivarius, but sufficient for something along the lines of a nifty metronome. The first, second and third place winners are determined by four judges who are all active in Santa Fe's musical scene, including prominent educators, the general director of the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and the music director for the Santa Fe Opera. Winograd also serves as a non-voting commentator.

Their live feedback is meant to be instructive rather than ruthless. "There will be no Simon Cowell," Winograd laughs, referring to the notoriously caustic former Idol judge. "We're all going to be more like that one nice girl. What was her name again?"

Spotlight on Young Musicians
7 pm Friday, March 15. $10
Scottish Rite Center, 463 Paseo de Peralta, 467-3770