History of the Competition


The competition, first known as the KPO Concerto Competition, was conceived in 1984, when two Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra (KPO) players, Barbara Cran and Barbara Robinson proposed the idea of rewarding local music students, who were in secondary school and taking their music seriously, by providing them with the opportunity to play a concerto with an orchestra (the KPO).

One of the special things about the competition’s original rules - and this is still in place today - is that there are no set pieces, so the student can perform any work he or she chooses – as long as the orchestral parts are available in Australia, or can be obtained in time for rehearsals from overseas publishers. This makes for a very varied and interesting concert program, as well as a great performance opportunity for young musicians.

Right from the start, the Concerto Competition was an instant success. The opportunity to perform in the Finals Concert is highly prized, and the standard of those taking part is extremely high – at times breathtaking. It is inspiring for KPO players to see that so many young people are committed to the discipline and rewards of performing the concerto repertoire.

‘The future of music is in safe hands. The future is in safe musical hands. This was evident from the fine quality of the finalists at the NSW Secondary Schools Concerto Competition.’ Ken Healey 1 July 2011 North Shore Times

Finalists in the competition are nurtured by KPO through varied opportunities to raise profile and expand their experience as musicians.

Today, the philosophy behind the competition remains much the same as in the earliest days, with only minor amendments made over the years to improve the experience for participating young musicians.


Originally the KPO Concerto Competition was conceived of as a Ku-ring-gai-based event. It was, and still is, supported by Ku-ring-gai Council and back in the early years contestants were mainly Ku-ring-gai residents, or students attending schools in Ku-ring-gai.

In the first year of the competition there were x competitors. Over recent years the total number of entrants has exceeded 130.

The competition enjoyed great success in the local community, but, as the popularity of the competition grew, there was intense pressure to expand the competition’s reach to allow competitors from other parts of Sydney. From 2002 the competition expanded further to include entrants from across NSW & also ACT. The competition was no longer a Ku-ring-gai exclusive! From this time the competition became known as the NSW Secondary Schools Concerto Competition.

The competition has provided an invaluable performance opportunity and stepping-stone to national and international success for performers such as pianists Alexander Gavrylyuk and Simon Tedeschi, violinist Natalie Chee, saxophonist Amy Dickson and the competition’s very first winner, pianist, Hikari Nakamura, as well as many more budding musicians who now take their place in the professional music community across Australia. Looking through the list of winners, we see names of many musicians now working as soloists, chamber musicians and orchestral musicians.

As the competition has become so popular, the committee has been forced in recent years to cap the total of individual entries at a suitable number, because of the requirement for the adjudicators to hear each competitor perform at the Auditions, which is a single day event.

How the Competition Works

All individual competitors perform at the Auditions and three adjudicators (specialists in strings, woodwind or brass and piano) provide every competitor with a report and at the end of the day they select those who will perform again at the Semi-Finals. At this recital stage, three different adjudicators select half a dozen competitors who will become Finalists and perform at the Finals Concert.

At the end of the Finals Concert the selection of prize winners is made at the discretion of the Finals Adjudicator, who, having chosen the Overall Winner, selects winners for both Senior and Junior Sections from the remaining candidates. The Overall Winner, therefore, is the competitor whom the Finals adjudicator considers to be the very best performer, regardless of age.

It is interesting to note that this award has been won by a Junior competitor on several occasions, with the first Outstanding Performer being Junior competitor and pianist, Hikara Nakamura and most recently in 2011 when violinist Grace Clifford was selected as Overall Winner.

The Multiple Section entrants audition once only and from their performances a group is selected to perform at the Finals Concert.

Adjudicators are selected from professional musicians across the country.

The competition is organised by a KPO sub-committee that reports to the KPO Executive. This hard-working group build and oversee a large team of volunteers to support the entrants and adjudicators and ensure the smooth running of all stages of the competition. Volunteers are always welcome!

Auditions Day is a mammoth occasion. As a result of careful planning and scheduling, the performances run like clockwork! The event is carried out entirely by a team of volunteers who, despite their exhaustion at the end of the day, are all on a high after hearing so many talented young people perform – Auditions Day is a real buzz!!

Prizes and Benefits

The key benefit of the competition is the opportunity to perform concerto repertoire with orchestra. This opportunity is provided to all finalists. The Overall Winner (in some years known as Outstanding Performer) is also offered a concert engagement to perform a full concerto with KPO in the following year.

‘All rehearsals and the performance with the KPO I will treasure as being the first time I had an opportunity to play with a full orchestra a piece of my choice. If I do play the piece again I will hear in my mind the KPO behind me. The experience that the finals gave me is an incredible prize indeed!’ Cindy Chau, Finalist 2011 & 2012

Finalists are also offered various other performance opportunities, and over the years these have included performing in the Macquarie University Sunday Concert Series, performing for the Chopin Society, performing for local retirement villages or at community fundraising concerts.

The original prizes presented at the 1984 Finals Concert were the Senior Section Winner and the Junior Section Winner, with an Overall Winner recognised from the start. From 1989 the Overall Winner was made a separate award; although it was originally termed the Outstanding Performer prize, it is now known as the Overall Winner. From this time, the prizes also comprised a financial reward, made possible through sponsorship support.

The early committee considered a ‘Wind and Brass Award’ in 1989, but this soon changed to a preference for rewarding all Finalists with an ‘Encouragement Award’ by way of individual cups that were presented annually from 1991. The Encouragement Award itself evolved to become a separate prize in 1994 and this in turn evolved into the Wind Prize in 2000 when it became apparent that whilst there were plenty of enthusiastic, talented string players and pianists entering the competition regularly, students playing wind instruments were sadly lacking on the competitors’ list. At first, competitors who were considered for this award could be either Finalists or Semi-Finalists, but by the time this prize was discontinued in 2004, it had been regularly won by a Finals competitor.

The idea for a Wind Prize was a successful ploy to encourage woodwind and brass competitors. This prize was eventually discontinued for the 2004 Competition, as by this time the spread of talented competitors who were regularly entering the Competition covered students from across the musical spectrum. Nowadays KPO has the full gamut of musicians entering on a regular basis – from percussionists to euphonium players! The only limitation, because of venue restrictions, is that KPO must exclude organists.

In order to encourage the enjoyment of making music together the early committee introduced a Double Concerto section in 1986, but by 1992, in response to requests from teachers, this became the Multiple Section, creating the opportunity for young musicians to perform concerto repertoire together with varied combinations of two to four soloists. This element of the competition has proved to be a popular section and nowadays contestants will frequently enter this section with their friends, as well as competing in the individual Junior or Senior section. The selection of the winning group is made at the Semi-Finals recital and the group performs with KPO on Finals night whilst the adjudication is taking place.

In 2010, the Multiple Section winners violists Lisa and Sarah Sung gave the first Australian performance of the Concerto for Two Violas and Orchestra by Anton Wranitzky. Their performance was videoed and is available on YouTube.

In 1988 a special prize was introduced to give members of the KPO a chance to choose their favourite Finalist. This KPO Prize, initially provided in association with the Northside Youth Orchestra Bursary links the orchestra players with the Finals competitors Each year voting takes place after the dress rehearsal and players are asked to choose the best individual competitor based on their performance during rehearsals. Consequently, the playing of the concerto chosen by the competitor who is presented with this award on Finals night, is not related to his or her performance at the Finals Concert, but instead, relates to time spent in rehearsals with the orchestra during preparation for the concert.

‘I would like to first of all thank you all for being such dedicated musicians. It is great to see such a strong musical community supporting the youngsters of the musical world through the concerto competition. Over my three years as part of the competition I have seen it grow bigger and the standard get better each time. It is reputable on all of your behalves for the time and effort you put in to make the final concert such a success.

It has been an honour to receive the KPO Players award for the last 2 years. Receiving this award has, to me, much more significance than receiving the overall prize, and I humbly thank you all for it.

Performing with an orchestra is an experience that doesn’t present itself to many, and so when I say that performing with all of you will be something that I will never forget, I mean every bit of it.’ Jonathon Ramsay, 2011

Major awards for the Competition are now known as the Overall Winner, Barbara Cran and Barbara Robinson Awards.

The Trophies

Perpetual trophies, acknowledging each of the three major individual awards, are presented to the prize winners for their schools during the presentation ceremony. After the Finals Concert the winners’ names, instruments and schools are engraved on each trophy and they are delivered to their schools, where they remain on display for a year - sometimes in the school music department and sometimes at school reception - until KPO’s preparation for the next Finals Concert is under way.

The original trophy for the Outstanding Award was recently replaced in 2012. It had been won so many times that there was no more space for engraving the names of winners! It is now part of KPO’s archives and a new trophy for the Overall Winner was purchased as part of KPO’s 40th Anniversary celebrations and was first awarded at the 2012 Finals concert.

Individual Recognition of the efforts of Finalists has always been considered important and the early committee felt that each should be given tangible evidence of their participation in the Concerto Competition. For several years each Finals competitor was presented with a small cup, regardless of whether they also received a large one for their school. These small trophies were supplied firstly by McDonald’s, Gordon and later by Ku-ring-gai Council and discontinuing this routine after the 2003 Finals Concert coincided with the decision to increase future prize money instead. During recent years the committee considered that Finalists and Multiples Winners should have their achievements acknowledged, so a certificate is now presented to all participants at the Finals Concert as recognition of each competitor’s performance.

Celebrations & Special Events

The 10th Anniversary of the Concerto Competition was celebrated in 1993 at Roseville College. The first Concerto Competition conductor, Brian Buggy, who had conducted the Finals Concerts until 1988, was invited to return as guest conductor and past Finalists were invited to join the orchestra. The decision was also made to extend the target area for entrants for the first time since the inception of the competition – so entries for the 1993 competition were invited from students residing in Ku-ring-gai, but who were attending schools in other areas. It’s interesting to note that this alteration to the rules was a successful move and it did attract more competitors. This new dimension to the competitor pool was therefore continued on a permanent basis. The 10th Anniversary Finals Concert was promoted as a Gala occasion with a champagne supper following the concert – presumably soft drinks for competitors!

The 25th Anniversary was held in 2008 and by this time the Finals Concerts had become so popular with audiences that a larger auditorium was required. Thus, the 25th Anniversary was celebrated at Pymble Ladies’ College – a very grand occasion indeed, with the Governor, Marie Bashir, attending. Past Finalists were invited to join the orchestra or just attend as KPO’s guests, along with many folk who had been associated with the Competition over the years. Hikari Nakamura, who was the very first winner of the Competition, flew from USA, where she has a successful music career, to be the Finals Adjudicator. Celebrations began earlier, at the Auditions, with musical-related gift packs being presented to every competitor as they arrived. Likewise, the Semi-Finals was also promoted as a special anniversary event and gift vouchers and concert tickets were given to each Semi-Finalist. The 2008 Concerto Competition really was a special celebration!

To mark the occasion of the Concerto Competition’s 25 years KPO awarded a $10,000 ‘KPO Young Performer’s Scholarship’ with the criteria that the scholarship support ‘a talented Australian musician who had taken part in the KPO Concerto Competition, and who was capable and committed to working both in the global arena, to an internationally acclaimed standard, and also to enrich the cultural life of Australia’. Cellist Martin Smith was awarded the inaugural scholarship to further his studies towards a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and chamber music activities. Martin continues to work internationally and is a regular member of the Streeton Trio, which performs for Musicia Viva and has successfully taken part in a number of international chamber music competitions.

In 2012 KPO’s 40th Anniversary year a cello concerto suited to the standard of Concerto Competition finalists was commissioned from composer Mark Isaacs. The resulting work Invocations for Cello & Orchestra was given two performances in May 2012 with Julian Smiles as soloist with KPO and one of these performances was videoed for YouTube. The commission included the provision of a piano reduction of the orchestral part, and the work is now available through the Australian Music Centre.