May 27, 2002 – This Memorial Day is one for making memories for three dozen music students, their teachers, families and well wishers– and for Rhoda Tillett, who two months ago had almost but not quite given up on holding a Classical Music Competition this year.
The event had been held in March or April annually since its debut in 1990, but two months ago, the presenting Arts Alive organization found itself without a corporate sponsor. On March 27, Tillett wrote to the music teachers who had entered their students in the competition over the years to say that "the Classical Music Competition as we have known it for the past many years will not take place this year."
And then came the challenge: "If there are St. Thomas teachers who wish to produce a mini-competition (without big prize money, without off-island judges and without transport to and from St. Croix), please contact me, and Arts Alive will make every effort to do this, either before school closes or perhaps as a summer event."
Well, yes, there were teachers who wanted the show to go on. And students who wanted to compete with their peers. And, happily, two local businesses willing to step forward with funding to make it possible — Atlantic Tele-Network with a contribution of $1,500 and St. Thomas Dairies with a donation of $500.
And so, Monday afternoon at 3 p.m., the 13th annual Classical Music Competition will take place in Tillett Gardens. A total of 35 competitors, including two from St. Croix whose teacher was able to arrange transportation, will take part in piano, instrumental, solo voice and ensemble voice segments that will be judged separately at the junior, intermediate and advanced levels. The young musicians range in age from 6 to 18 years.
This is about one-third the number of competitors in recent years, but still more than double the 17 who took part in the first event on April 8, 1990. The 2002 participants are the students of Clayton Emanuel, Levi Farrell, Katherine Hintz, JoSandra James, Howard Jones, Vivian Langley and Jeannette Rhymer on St. Thomas; and Austin Bowen on St. Croix.
The winners will divide prize money totaling $1,000. Three of the most prominent musicians and music educators on St. Thomas — vocalist and band director Lawrence Benjamin Sr., University of the Virgin Islands piano faculty member and organist/choral conductor Lorna Young-Wright, and UVI instrumental faculty member and band conductor Austin Venzen — will be the judges. The criteria for judging remain unchanged — technique, musicianship and stage presence.
The program is expected to last until about 5:30 p.m. The public is invited — with visitors welcome to come and go between performances. There will be complimentary hors d'oeuvres and cash bar service while the judges deliberate after the final performance.
"We are extremely appreciative of ATN and the St. Thomas Dairies for jumping in at the last minute to save the competition," Tillett said in a note in the day's program. "Although in previous years we have had over a hundred participants, with preliminaries on St. Croix as well as St. Thomas, this scaled-down version is keeping the 'arts alive' in the classical music field, and we are very proud to be able to present this event."
On Monday morning, she noted that studying classical music "is not an end in itself for these young people. Some of them will love classical music all their lives as a result, and that's wonderful. But in addition, learning to read music and to grasp the fundamentals of performance will enable them to move into other music areas and do well."
From its inception in 1990 through last year, the competition was sponsored by Virgin Islands Telephone Corp. (Vitelco) and its successor, Innovative Telephone.
In her March 27 letter to teachers, Tillett wrote, "I have postponed writing this to you, as I had hoped that the Innovative office would confirm a date and a budget for me. However, as of this date I have not received this notification and, unfortunately, Arts Alive does not have the financial ability to proceed without a confirmed and approved budget." Even so, she added, "We are very appreciative of the past sponsorship of the telephone company for this event."
Vitelco/Innovative had been contributing prize money of $5,000 annually, plus covering transportation, promotion and production costs well in excess of that amount since the competition became a bi-island event in 1995, with preliminary rounds on St. Thomas and St. Croix and the final round alternating from year to year between the two islands.
In one sense there is corporate continuity with this year's competition: It was Vitelco executive Neil Prior, a patron of classical music in the community, who committed the phone company to sponsorship in 1990. Several years later, Prior and co-owner Jeffrey Prosser parted ways, with Prosser retaining ownership of Vitelco and Prior keeping its parent company, ATN.
Tillett noted that Innovative's sponsorship in recent years was corporate, and separate from the support that Arts Alive has continued to receive for its annual concert series from the Prosser Foundation.
"I give the kids and the teachers a lot of credit for pulling it together when they didn't have a date until a month ago," Tillett said. "Of course, the fact is, the kids were practicing all year and were planning to do it all along."

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