The Verbrugghen Hall at the Sydney Conservatorium has hosted performances by stars from across the musical spectrum. On the stage beneath the shining organ, Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright has beguiled a sold-out crowd of fans. ARIA Award winner Dan Sultan has played stripped-back hits on a grand piano. And the genre-busting Ensemble Offspring have dazzled audiences with their virtuosity.
It is a venue with a daunting pedigree, but it is also a place where young performers learn to shine. Among them are the school-aged musicians of the Rising Stars program. As well as one-on-one lessons from expert teachers, and classes in music history and theory, Rising Stars offers talented students the chance to perform in weekly concerts at the Conservatorium's prestigious venues.
For violinists Victoria Teo and Alicia Poon, Rising Stars is an opportunity to spend time with other young musicians and develop their skills. "You play music with other people and have a lot of fun," says Victoria, 12. "It's a good opportunity to practise being on stage and performing in front of people. It helps you feel a bit more relaxed."
Both Victoria and Alicia, who is 13, are supported in the program by scholarships funded by a bequest from Challis Society member, the late Melba Cromack. The Vic and Melba Cromack Scholarships benefit promising young piano and violin students at the Con.
Victoria's mother, Josephine Cai, says the scholarship has made it far easier to support her daughter's dreams. "It helps a lot," she says. "The strings, all the maintenance for the instrument, even bringing her to the Conservatorium and paying for things like parking in the city – it's a big expenditure. But also, the scholarship is such an honour. She feels that she is supported by all these people and wants to work harder to make everyone proud."
It was clear to Josephine early on that her daughter had a passion for music. Her face would light up when playing her favourite pieces. "She tells me she makes up stories for each piece, and when she plays, it's like telling the story," says Josephine.
Though the girls are still young, both are hoping that their careers will be in music. Victoria adores playing chamber music – something she first encountered through the Rising Stars program – but is also interested in playing for orchestras and working as a soloist.
Alicia likes the sound of life as a performer, but is also interested in teaching. "I can't decide," she says. "But I want to be a musician. Playing music kind of takes me away from all my worries."
Both girls value the companionship of other young musicians that Rising Stars provides. They learn from their peers, as well as their teachers.
That's a crucial part of Rising Stars' success, says Joy Lee, the program's artistic mentor. "These talented kids need instrumental lessons and good teachers, and they need the back-up of performances and musical structure and theory," she says. "But the peer group is also enormously important. They spend a lot of time together and they support each other. I've had kids say it's been the best time of their life."
The program is a decade old and some of its earliest students are beginning to embark upon careers in music. There are Rising Stars alumni who perform with such prestigious groups as the Australia Piano Quartet, the Opera Australia Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra Collective.
For Victoria and Alicia, decisions about the future are still a long way off. They are serious about music, but having fun as they learn.
"Everybody at Rising Stars is like a big family," says Victoria's mother Josephine. "The kids feel so relaxed here. This is their playground."