The American Traditions Vocal Competition celebrates its 25th Silver Jubilee anniversary Feb. 19 to 23.

This annual competition awards more than $40,000 in cash prizes. The nonprofit also provides music education, exposure and performances for locals of all ages.

Twenty-eight contestants compete for the Gold Medal and a place in the final round at 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Savannah Theatre. And according to ATC Artistic Director Mikki Sodergren, this Savannah event is a one-of-a-kind vocal competition you won't find anywhere else.

"We are the only competition that requires specific genres that are all from American composers," she says. "There are 15 genres they get to choose from ⦠gospel to folk, opera, musical theater, rock 'n' roll and more ⦠and songs from Johnny Mercer is a special category."

As a former contestant and Gold Medal winner, Sodergren says the competition forces the performers to do their research on musical styles and American composers.

"There is a difference between music that has become iconic American and what is actually from an American composer⦠The research the performers have to do adds to the educational component we strive to offer. ⦠It can also change your perspective on the music you listen to.

"When I was first applying, I had no idea how I would put all these genres together. ⦠The performers can't repeat genres and they can pick nine genres, so some overlap and some competitors can get creative."

This year's competition also welcomes three new judges and three veteran pianists. Among this year's judges is American composer of art song, opera and musical theater Ricky Ian Gordon. Gospel singer Lynette Hawkins Stephens and soul singer/songwriter Morgan James will also join Gordon at the judges' table.

Gordon says this will be his first trip to Savannah as well as a rare appearance as a judge. He explains he looks at two major things when judging a singing competition - technique and expressiveness.

"First, I want to see, what is the person technically capable of?" he says. "The more in command you are technically, the more expressive you can be. ⦠You want to hear, obviously, the sound of the voice and the technical acumen, and you're looking for expressiveness.

"The ones who make it are the great storytellers. When you have a Judy Garland who has a fantastic instrument with this seamless technique, you see she has the ability to connect to her heart and her inner storyteller. We are looking for a story - everybody is looking for a lullabyâ¦

"I've sat down a million times for auditions - including the ones for my own pieces - and a lot of people don't bring in their whole self to the stage. ⦠They are basically disembodied voices, not connected to the body⦠It's like the whole person is not in front of you.

"It's a really profound thing when a person brings their whole person to the room. It's very exciting, because that's what you are looking forward to. Maria Callas was a whole person and she had something to say from her little toe to the last hair on her head and that's what we are looking for. ⦠You can forgive certain flaws if the person is really communicating the music."

Sodergren agrees that impressing the judges is key, but this year's competition also offers an opportunity for the musicians to make an impression on each other.

She says the new $750 Toian Bowser-Alexander Award is given to the contestant who exhibits helpfulness to others, encouragement and supportiveness, and is voted on by fellow contestants.

"This award creates a unique way to create a nurturing, supportive community⦠in what is usually a very competitive environment."

She hopes the positivity will shine through the entire event and audiences will walk away with a mission to perhaps change their usual musical tastes.

"We'd like to have people to embrace other styles of music⦠You can see how styles can lead into each other and appreciate that this competition is so admired across the countryâ¦

"We want people just to focus on how special the community of Savannah is to support so many art forms and to even host an international singing competition like this."

IF YOU GO

What: American Traditions Vocal Competition

When: Feb. 19-23

Where: Skidaway Island United Methodist Church, 54 Diamond Causeway, and Savannah Theatre, 222 Bull St.

Cost: Varies

Info: americantraditionscompetition.com

SCHEDULE

7:30 Feb. 19: Kick-off Judge's Concert with performances by all three ATC judges; Skidaway Island UMC; $25

4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20 and Feb. 21: 28 quarterfinalists perform three songs; Skidaway Island UMC; day pass $20

4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22: 12 semifinalists perform three songs; Skidaway UMC; day pass $30

3 p.m. Feb. 23: Outreach Master Class; watch the ATC judges work with contestants; Savannah Theatre; free

8 p.m. Feb. 23: Gold Medal competition; Savannah Theatre; $35-$50