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Musical milestone

Young cellist has world on a string as he makes history with win

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David Liam Roberts celebrated his 14th birthday by winning the Aikins Memorial trophy Saturday night at the Winnipeg Music Festival.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

David Liam Roberts celebrated his 14th birthday by winning the Aikins Memorial trophy Saturday night at the Winnipeg Music Festival. Photo Store

For David Liam Roberts, his 14th birthday is one for the record books.

The barely-into-his-teens cellist won the Aikins Memorial Trophy Saturday night as the youngest recipient ever awarded the top instrumental prize at the 96-year-old Winnipeg Music Festival. His surprise, late-night win came against 18 other gifted students, including his elder violinist brother, Thomas. It capped a celebratory day spent doing what Roberts loves most -- making music -- while becoming the icing on his own proverbial (birthday) cake.

"It's pretty exciting," the soft-spoken artist says in an interview following the trophy class held at Westminster United Church. "I didn't actually think I would win. But it's a big, big honour and is just amazing."

The prize also includes the Ann Lugsdin Memorial Bursary, named for the beloved late local pianist/teacher as part of her living legacy. Roberts also adds the Victor Feldbrill Trophy for most outstanding solo string performance, also won in 2012, to his growing list of accolades.

The Aikins Memorial Trophy, named after James Aikins, Manitoba's ninth lieutenant governor from 1916 to 1926, has been awarded since 1930 for most outstanding performance in an instrumentalist competition. It's typically given to university-age students on the cusp of professional careers -- a point noted by the teen's father and namesake, David, a Winnipeg tax manager who says he was equally surprised by the win. "We are obviously very proud of both our sons tonight," he says. "But we're also very, very happy. David Liam's piece is famous -- and it's a real showstopper."

His violist daughter Emily also received the Bach Festival Trophy over the weekend.

As the fourth of five musical children -- all of whom play stringed instruments -- Roberts began music lessons at age three through the Suzuki music program, with the then-toddler performing on an instrument one-sixteenth the size of a regular cello ("basically a large viola," he says). His first teacher, Jonathon Bauch, a former student of WSO principal cellist Yuri Hooker, led to his current teacher, Hooker, four years ago.

"David Liam is uncommonly talented and is playing very advanced repertoire at a surprisingly young age with a high degree of passion, maturity and precision," Hooker says of his protegé via email, also noting his competition piece, Tchaikovsky's Pezzo Capriccioso, Op. 62 is considered one of the most difficult in the cello repertoire. "I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a very successful performing career."

After spending his first decade playing on smaller, child-friendly cellos, Roberts finally graduated to a full-size instrument last summer. His current cello, an 18th-century, Dresden-made instrument, was purchased from a retired Calgary music teacher. While also playing "a bit of piano," Roberts clearly felt in tune with the eloquent, honey-toned instrument.

"The cello is a great instrument, really lush. And I definitely love it," he says, adding that he has no particular preference of composers -- except one. "Solo Bach is awesome."

The highly focused musician, home-schooled by his pianist mother Sandra and now in Grade 10, diligently practises four hours each day. He listens almost exclusively to classical music, and performs with the Winnipeg Youth Concert Orchestra. He'll be returning to Calgary's Morningside Music Bridge training school in July for a second consecutive year to further his training.

Those rare times when he's not in the practice studio, Roberts also trains to compete in Manitoba's summer triathlon. He managed to squeeze in a family birthday dinner on Saturday before the day culminated with the entire audience -- including the trophy class's four adjudicators -- serenading him with Happy Birthday as he collected his prizes.

When asked how he approaches his own music-making, the prodigiously gifted young student displays an artistic sensibility well beyond his tender years.

"If I'm not absorbed in the music, then there really isn't any point; it's just technique," he says. "There's obviously a background in each piece that everyone can hear. But it's all about conveying your own interpretation to the audience, through your facial expression and, of course, through your ears."

At this early point, Roberts hasn't decided whether he will pursue either a solo or ensemble-based career. But one thing is absolutely clear.

"Cello is my life," he says simply. "It's my passion and I'll always play."

The competition for WMF's second major trophy, the Rose Bowl for most outstanding vocal performance, will be held Saturday at 7 p.m. at Westminster United Church. A gala concert featuring highlights of the festival takes place Sunday at 2 p.m. at the same venue.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2014 C8

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