Many of the contestants at the Daren Arts Center's Darien's Got Talent on Saturday, June 29, were still in their teenage years or younger, but their various acts left audience members in awe.
The Collective Jazz Project was the eventual first place winner. The group is made up of Jordan Darefsky, a sophomore at Staples High School, on the piano; Andrew DeNicola, who recently graduated from Stamford High School and will attend the Berklee College of Music in the fall; Eli Koskoff, who is a junior at Staples High School, and plays the guitar; and Will Trautmann, who recently graduated from Darien High School and will attend the University of Connecticut in the fall for engineering, on the drums.
The second place winner was Jeanette Vecchione-Donatti, an opera singer who sang "Glitter and Be Gay," from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." She studied at The Juilliard School on a full scholarship. The third-place winner was Henry Thomas, who performed his own drum piece called "Less is More."
"I certainly didn't see this last year," said Diane Farrell, who handled the publicity for the event. She went on to talk about 10-year-old Shannon Flaherty who sang Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from "The Wizard of Oz," whom she had known since Flaherty was a little girl.
Over the course of the evening, 21 contestants, who had made the cut from the initial 81 auditions, performed their talents for the 800 people in the Darien High School auditorium.
The competition is the art center's only fund raiser of the year. Last year, it took place in the Town Hall auditorium, but organizers realized that the space wasn't large enough to accommodate all of the audience members, according to Farrell.
The night started with a video from the sponsors of the events that began with Scott Pelley, anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News and CBS 60 Minutes correspondent, and ended with a message from actress Jane Lynch.
"And unlike the terror I inspire in my Cheerios," Lynch said, referring to the cheerleaders on FOX's "Glee." "I would like to you inspire you with glee."
After the show, audience members expressed how impressed they were by the talent and the event's turn out.
"I think this is a wonderful example of the talent in Darien," Donna Wyatt of Darien said after the show. She attended to support her friend, Dr. Howard Sauer, who was performing "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3 in Bb Minor" by Franz Liszt.
Sauer is the chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Bridgeport Hospital. He started playing piano when he was in third grade.
Wyatt convinced Sauer to audition for the competition; Sauer has done work with some of the Darien Library plays that Wyatt has directed.
"For me, it's been a love," Sauer said about playing piano. "I had to make a choice at the end of high school: music or medicine. And I chose medicine but have kept music as my life-long love. It's more than just a hobby. I play four nights a week. I have two grand pianos in my home. The pianos take up most of the rooms."
As to how Sauer manages to work full time at the hospital and play piano, "I don't play golf."
Wyatt also said she was surprised at how many of the contestants performed original songs.
Six of the 21 contestants -- James Crawford's "Leaving the Nest;" Oliver Hare's "Impromptu 7;" Thomas Ice and Chris Janson's "Heaven Knows;" Grey Chandler Zeigler's "Leave Her, Want Me;" Henry Thomas's "Less is More;" and Taylor Felt's "Trapped" -- wrote their own pieces.
The Collective Jazz Project came together last year.
"It was weird," said Trautmann, of his reaction to winning first place. "There were so many different types of acts."
The four met in the Stamford Young Artist Jazz Ensemble, DeNicola said.
"Over the summer we were looking for a way to spread our love of jazz," DeNicola said. The group was originally created as a trio -- guitar, drums and saxophone -- until Darefksy was added on piano a month after the group formed. The group has been playing gigs around Fairfield County since October 2012.
Trautmann's parents convinced him and the band to audition for the competition.
"They said there would be famous people judging and it would be good exposure," Trautmann said. This year's judges featured pianist Augie Boehm; dancer Toni DeCarlo; dancer Barbara Goldsmith; talent scout Ceci Kurzman; director BT McNicholl; violinist Asya Meshberg; actor Leo B. Meyer; producer Edwin Schloss; composer Cristina Spinei; and actor Ted Yudain. "It was almost a full house, do it was definitely worth it."
The group was unable to attend most of the rehearsals because they were at other performances.
"That was one of the main reasons we were surprised that we won," Trautmann said.
For each of the members of the group, their love of jazz is in the ability to improvise and still be able to create music. "The interactions between musicians is really cool," Darefsky said. "We're able to make musical decisions together while we're playing."
"The whole conversation between each other is really cool," Koskoff said. "It's cool when you support the soloist and then you get a lot of support, it's really giving and getting."
The four said they like the smaller jazz combos as opposed to the large big bands.
"It's more a personal, communal relationship as well as a musical relationship going on," Koskoff said.
It's that relationship that can be felt while playing and is non-verbal that Trautmann enjoys.
"I love the moment when you know exactly where another player of the band is going to go and they didn't tell you," Trautmann said. "You've just been playing together for so long and so much that you just know their style and know what's happening that you can anticipate what's going to happen."