2016 National Auditions Winners


PHILADELPHIA, PA, August 18, 2016—Astral Artists is pleased to announce the winners of its 2016 National Auditions. Selected from an initial pool of several hundred applicants, and following a competitive audition and interview process, seven exceptionally gifted rising-star artists have been invited to join Astral’s prestigious roster.

“We are thrilled to have such an outstanding group of artists join Astral this year,” says Executive Director, Julia Rubio. “Their ability to excel through such a rigorous audition process is a testament to how superb these individuals are as artists and people. We congratulate our National Auditions Winners and look forward to being an influential part of their promising careers.”

Also, for the first time in its 24-year history, the organization will open its auditions process to Philadelphia audiences with the launch of the annual Astral National Auditions Winners Concert. The concert will take place at the esteemed Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, October 26, 2016 at 7:00pm. As a fundraiser for Astral, all proceeds will directly benefit Astral’s artistic and community engagement programs in Philadelphia. “Not since the Pavarotti International Voice Competition in the 1990’s has Philadelphia had a major classical music competition with a national following enrich the city’s cultural calendar,” says Rubio.

Congcong Chai
Natalia Kazaryan
Zhenni Li

Timothy Chooi
Katie Hyun

Emily Levin

Rolston String Quartet

Each year Astral auditions strings, small chamber ensembles, piano, woodwinds, and voice candidates for a spot on its esteemed roster of approximately 30 musicians. Applicants, if advanced, undergo a competitive three-round process. Semi-Finalists travel to Philadelphia, where an independent panel of industry-leading musicians, managers, and presenters from across the U.S. adjudicate each discipline. The Semi-Finalist panels recommend Finalists for the interview round of the National Auditions. Finalists are then invited back to Philadelphia for an in-person interview.

Once awarded a spot in Astral’s career development program, National Auditions Winners receive customized career development mentorship, a full complement of marketing materials, superior performance opportunities, community engagement experience, artistic exploration, and networking with top professionals in the field.


Congcong Chai, piano
Born in Xi’An, China, pianist Congcong Chai has been hailed as a “most gifted pianist… individualistic…with formidable technique” (TheaterJones). He captured the top prize in numerous competitions including the Padova, American Fine Arts Festival, Metropolitan, IBLA Foundation, and the Dallas international piano competitions.

Timothy Chooi, violin
Called “The Miracle” by Montreal’s La Presse, Canadian violinist Timothy Chooi was the Bronze Medal winner of New Zealand’s 2015 Michael Hill International Violin Competition. He has been soloist with most of Canada’s major orchestras, as well as the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Santa Barbara Symphony, and the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Costa Rica. He is a 2016 graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music.

Katie Hyun, violin
New York violinist Katie Hyun has been soloist with the Houston Symphony, Dallas Chamber Orchestra, and The Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the Busan Sinfonietta and Incheon Philharmonic Orchestra in South Korea. Praised for her “sensitivity and top shelf artistry” (, she is also the founder and director of Quodlibet Ensemble and holds degrees from the Yale School of Music, SUNY Stonybrook, and the Curtis Institute of Music.

Natalia Kazaryan, piano
From Tblisi, Republic of Georgia, pianist Natalia Kazaryan has been hailed by The New York Sun for her “prodigious ability.” She has been awarded top prizes from the Eastman Young Artists International Piano Competition, the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition, the New York Piano Competition, Concours FLAME (Paris), and the Concours international de piano d’Ile de France. She studied at The Juilliard School, Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia, and currently pursues a doctoral degree at the University of Michigan.

Emily Levin, harp
The new principal harp of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Bronze Medal winner of the 9th USA International Harp Competition, Emily Levin has been praised for her “technical wizardry and artistic intuition” (Herald Times). From Denver, Colorado, she has been soloist with the Louisiana Philharmonic, Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, World Harp Congress, and the Jerusalem and Colorado symphony orchestras. She holds degrees from The Juilliard School and Indiana University.

Zhenni Li, piano
Pianist Zhenni Li, from Hunan, China, was the unanimous First Prize winner of the Concours Musical de France, and also received top prizes from the International Russian, Midwest, Kosciusko Chopin, and Heida Hermanns international piano competitions. Called “a magnetic pianist—with fire and poetry” by music critic David Dubal, she holds degrees from The Juilliard School and the Yale School of Music, and is completing doctoral studies at McGill University.

Rolston String Quartet
Currently the Graduate Quartet-in-Residence at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, the Rolston String Quartet is the Grand Prize winner of the Chamber Music Yellow Springs Competition, and also received prizes at the M-Prize and Bordeaux international string quartet competitions. From Toronto, the quartet has been praised for its “caramel blend in tone that only makes you want to hear more.” (Calgary Herald)

Based in Philadelphia, Astral is a nonprofit, national organization that has specialized in developing the early careers of extraordinary classical musicians for nearly 25 years. Astral concentrates its resources on a small number of rising-star soloists and chamber ensembles with the potential to be change-makers and influencers in classical music. Astral provides artists with industry-leading resources, networking, and entrepreneurial tools. Notable Astral laureates include Grammy Award-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux, soprano Angela Meade, bass-baritone Eric Owens, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, and the Chiara and Jasper string quartets.

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