Each year, the Bach Society of Saint Louis, dedicated to performing choral works by Johann Sebastian Bach and other classical and contemporary composers, hosts upcoming artists in its Young Artist Awards program. The nine-month experience gives up to four career-oriented singers the chance to serve as understudies, perform as soloists and learn from industry professionals. LN chatted with Bach Society executive director Melissa Payton, who was a Young Artist herself, about this program and the upcoming Young Artist Recital on Sun., Jan. 17.

How and why did the Young Artist Awards get started?

Our music conductor Dennis Sparger started it in 1989. He wanted to do a scholarship program – an opportunity for us to give excitement to performers under 30 years old. The goal each season is to have one of each voice part. Sometimes we might end up with only a few. The artists have to have completed at least two years of undergraduate schooling, so they’re usually in between finishing undergrad and grad school. For classical singers at that age, their voices are still growing and developing through their 30s. This time is critical for them to get experience; it’s really valuable.

How are the performers chosen?

They audition. The audition includes sight reading, tonal memory, scales and three vocal selections. The vocal selections include an operatic aria in a foreign language, a concert aria in any language and an operetta or light musical theater piece.

What does a typical schedule look like for the chosen performers?

We start rehearsals at the end of August, depending on the last concert of the season. They receive a stipend each month and attend rehearsals each week. They also help with other programming, like when (Sparger) gave a program at the Missouri History Museum, the Young Artists came to give examples of music.

How has the program changed over the years?

The Young Artist Recital wasn’t always part of it; it’s new just within past five years. One artist said it’d be great if we could put on our own performance. That’s evolved into great opportunity for them to perform. We’re listed as part of (The Bach Society’s) music series. As we get further away from where this program began, we can look back and see where these singers have gone. They now perform all over the United States.

What can people expect from the Young Artist Recital?

The four young artists will be accompanied and will be singing some of the songs they love. They’ll also talk about why they’ve chosen to perform their selections. It will encompass classical and light, fun songs in solos, duets and trios.

Why is it important that the Bach Society nurture young artists?

Where else are you going to have this opportunity unless you’re in school? The experience is invaluable. You’re really learning all these little things you have to know to be a professional, like learning to be confident, talking to the conductor and singing with an orchestra. It’s hard to get that anywhere else at a young age.

From your personal experience, what was the best part of being a Bach Society Young Artist?

For me, it was probably the amount of performance experience – getting the opportunity to get up and sing in front of people is amazing. When you’re in the in-between stage between undergrad and grad school, you have this incredible opportunity. Some of my greatest memories were singing in front of 2,000 people at Powell Hall. Nobody else really offers that at that age.

The Young Artist Recital will take place at 4 p.m. Sun., Jan. 17 at the Second Presbyterian Church in the Central West End. To learn more, visit bachsociety.org.