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UPStarts! showcases up-and-coming U.P. performers

Grace Bergstrom, tubist

HOUGHTON — Later this month, Western Upper Peninsula audiences will get a chance to catch performances by rising local musicians through the Pine Mountain Music Festival’s UPStarts! program.

The program started in 2012. The idea came when then-artistic director Josh Major was in New York auditioning performers for that year’s opera.

“He heard two auditioners from the Upper Peninsula as they were studying, and he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to do something to feature performers from the U.P.,'” said UPStarts! Director Susie Byykkonen.

Each year, the festival puts the word out to area directors, and also gets submissions through word of mouth. Performers audition, and also fill out a questionnaire.

The performers must be from the U.P., between the ages of 16 to 30, and pursuing a music career or majoring in music at a university.

“Whoever we get, then we kind of tailor the program around them — what are their strengths, what kind of repertoire do they have,” Byykkonen said.

Playing at this year’s shows are tenor Darrius Morton, tubist Grace Bergstrom, and oboist Marlee Matthews.

Morton and Matthews are based in Marquette, while Bergstrom grew up in Houghton. She is the first tubist to be part of the UPStarts!, Byykkonen said.

She’d gone to Pine Mountain Music Festival performances as a child. After graduating with degrees in tuba performance and music education from the University of Iowa, she was looking for places to perform during the summer.

Begrstrom performs several pieces during the program, including her own composition, “Wild Geese for Tuba & Electronics.” As a music student during COVID, she wound up playing a lot of pieces either unaccompanied or with an electronic backing track.

Growing bored of not playing in ensembles, she started writing short etudes for herself. “Wild Geese” came about after a professor encouraged her to compose something for her student recital.

Begstrom had her friend recite the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese,” then heavily distorted his voice, creating a soundscape that evokes the feeling of the poem to her. She also added her own vocal hums in the background of the electronic piece. On top of that, she improvises a new tuba part with each performance.

“It was kind of a really fun piece to work on in that sense, where I’m working not only as a composer and creating this landscape of sound and connecting it to this poem, but also as an improviser, connecting what I’m hearing to what I’m playing,” she said. “Every time I play it, it’s like I’m reading this poem by Mary Oliver in a different light. And I’m coming to it as I am in that moment, and I get to express that musically, which is really fun.”

After the performance, Bergstrom is booked as part of the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band for like one week in July, and then starts a music teacher position for K-3 in Minnesota in the fall.

Bergstrom said the young performers booked for the program can bring an excitement and curiosity about many kinds of music.

“I think also kind of opening it up — Hey, any young performers, let’s have you do a recital and then let’s have you do an ensemble at the end’ — is really fun and really cool,” she said. “It’s definitely going to stretch me as a tuba player to play with a vocalist and an oboist. I’ve never done that before, so I’m excited to grow in that way.”

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