Maria Lozano, a soprano and graduate student at San Diego State University, won Orchestra Nova's "The Next Star" amateur talent competition.
Internet voters and audience members at three concerts were the judges (even the orchestra's musicians got to vote) in what transpired to be one of the closest races ever for a talent competition.
Hei-ock Kim and Gorden Cheng, both pianists, were "neck and neck" with Lozano to the very end.
There was no age limit for the competition, but it was limited to amateurs living in San Diego County. The winner will perform with the orchestra in the future.
Lozano was born and raised in Ensenada, Mexico, with four older brothers and a younger sister. She said she learned to love music from her father, who listened to opera on KPBS on his only day off from work.
After secondary school, she moved to Mexico City and joined the Mexican Navy, where she sang with the Navy chorus. She studied computer engineering at Baja California University before switching to music, the great love of her life.
Lozano spent a grueling year taking a nine-hour round-trip bus trip every day to study voice with Mary MacKenzie at SDSU and earned her B.A. degree. She lives in San Diego as a graduate student at SDSU.
Cheng came to the U.S. from China with his family when he was 5 years old so his father could pursue a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Cheng said he began piano lessons at age 8, not because he wanted to, but because it was an Asian tradition that children play an instrument.
As a teen, he stopped playing the piano until one day, feeling a little "down," he began playing again. "I felt pure joy, and I knew then that I couldn't live my life without music," he said. With a computer engineering degree from the University of Texas-Dallas, he moved to San Diego, where he works as a systems engineer at Sony.
Kim, born and raised in New Jersey, began playing the piano at age 3 and entered the Juilliard pre-college program at age 9. Her mother was determined that her "trio of girls" would attend Princeton, and they didn't disappoint, all graduating from Princeton, Kim with a B.A. in philosophy.
Her love of music drew her back to Juilliard, where she earned an M.A. degree and later a D.M.A. at Catholic University of America. She said she moved to San Diego because of her love for nature and an interest in environmental causes. She works as a research assistant at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. — Beverly Lambert, www.orchestranova.org