Young Composers Meet The Challenge And Hear Their Music Take Wing

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Christopher Wilkins conducted the Orlando Philharmonic in the National Young Composers Challenge. (Photos: Martin Schiff)

ORLANDO — For more than 15 years, the National Young Composers Challenge has been an incentive for composers ages 13 to 18 to submit a short score that best exhibits their proficiency for the chance of workshopping it with experienced musicians and getting it performed and recorded by a professional orchestra — no small feat for a teenager. Now attracting nearly 100 score submissions a year from across the country, the Challenge is the brainchild of benefactor Steve Goldman, “the world’s oldest young composer,” as conductor Christopher Wilkins quipped from the stage at the 13th “composium” — a concert, rehearsal, and workshop rolled into one, and the Challenge’s culminating annual event. 

Christopher Wilkins interviewed 15-year-old composer Charlie Zhong.

“One of our goals is to facilitate the creation of the 21st-century American composer,” Goldman told me before the April 10 event at the new Steinmetz Hall in downtown Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center. A composer and entrepreneur, Goldman made a name for himself in the 1980s as a pioneer of disk cache computer technologies. Soon after retiring in 2000, he suggested to the Orlando Philharmonic that they start a Central Florida Young Composers Challenge, with a cash price of $1,000 for orchestral pieces and $500 for chamber music. The project eventually expanded its reach to the national level and was incorporated as a nonprofit. 

According to Goldman and Alex Burtzos, the chair of composition studies at the University of Central Florida, the quality of the submissions has improved dramatically over the years in terms of orchestration proficiency and playability, practicality, and idiomatic use of each instrument. “It’s the biggest overarching pattern,” Burtzos told me. “It’s a trend that has accelerated since the founding of the Challenge.”

A panel of four judges — Goldman and Burtzos, with Rollins College composition professor Daniel Crozier and composer Keith Lay, recently retired from Full Sail University — convenes for 10 or 12 long sessions to assess the merits of each submission, looking at the score and the accompanying audio track, usually a MIDI file rendered through instrument sample libraries and notation software. Burtzos said the judges make an effort to let neither a poor MIDI nor inaccuracies in notation influence their appraisal. “Sometimes composers who are not completely familiar with the idioms of musical notation can still write very well. We do our best to evaluate based on the musical merits of the piece. That’s something that occupies a lot of our discussion.” The winners are selected in the months leading up to the composium. 

“One of the things I look for is patience, consistency, and formal integrity,” Burtzos continued. “Something that a lot of young composers struggle with is being patient with their ideas. Sticking with musical ideas and developing them always sticks out to me as the hallmark of a mature young composer.”  

According to Goldman, in the early days most of the scores had a distinctive flavor of video-game music. “We’re not hearing that so much now; we’re getting more pieces that use enhanced techniques. But they’re all over the place. Some are more Romantic, some more abstract.” That variety, including the accented rhythms and heroic outbursts that bring to mind action sequences or fantasy epics, was noticeable at the latest composium. The program consisted of six ensemble pieces performed mostly by musicians affiliated to UCF, including two remarkable string quartets by Jane Meenaghan and Jack Kaiser, and six imaginatively conceived and crafted works for full orchestra performed by the Orlando Philharmonic, of which Wilkins was music director from 2005 to 2013.

Challenge benefactor Steve Goldman, from left to right, with orchestral composition winners: Jacob Evarts (red shirt), Jonah Cohen, Charlie Zhong, Jayden Tiemann, Brendan Weinbaum, and Ian Barnett

In 2019 and 2021 there were 169 submissions. This month’s 13th composium, a six-hour affair, featured the winners from both years, about five minutes each, per the guidelines. (Submissions were closed in 2020 and the composium postponed.) The judges sit onstage at the event; the composer whose piece is being performed and discussed takes the “hot seat” next to Wilkins, while fellow winners listen and follow the score, across from the judges. Presiding over it all is Wilkins, who untangles some of the complexities in the ambitious scores and talks with each composer, with occasional comments from the judges.

The event sheds light on the inner workings of the orchestra and the composition process. Wilkins might isolate a single section of the orchestra and then have the woodwinds join in to demonstrate the effect of the combined forces in contrast to a single instrumental group. Or he might talk shop about how best to notate groupings of eighth notes so the composer’s intentions agree with the way musicians are likely to interpret what’s on the page. He also might suggest the horns and trumpets play a particular passage an octave higher than written, to squeeze in an extra brass wallop.

“One of my favorite things about writing music is the first time the ensemble performs the first notes,” Jonah Cohen, 17, a high school senior at Interlochen Arts Academy and student of Cynthia Van Maanen, said after the event. “It’s a full-circle moment because the very first thing I do is imagine what it would sound like for people to play what I’m working on, but that doesn’t happen for many months because it’s so hard to get performances.” Cohen’s Vis Viva (“living force”), for double-wind orchestra, builds up to a whirlwind of tension and surges of anxiety, structured in shifting meter. The final bars suggest there is more to come.

To encourage participation, in the months leading up to the composium the panel records a spoken assessment of each submission, which is then sent to the composer before finalists and winners are announced.

In their comments on Vis Viva, the judges praised the Michigan composer’s meticulous orchestration and use of variety in his textures; Cohen doesn’t use all the instruments all the time. “There are some sections that have big forces, but the piece starts from humble beginnings, with just a vibraphone solo, and slowly works its way up to that,” the young composer said. He’s currently considering offers from Oberlin, Rice University, and Juilliard to study composition.

Two-time winner Brendan Weinbaum, a student of Dorothy Hindman and Lansing McLoskey at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, received fewer critiques about what might not work in performance for Battle of the Orchestra than he did for his previous submission. Now almost 20 (the newer piece was one of the pandemic-postponed winners), the Atlanta composer has become more pragmatic, more mature. At first, the concept was to pit instruments against each other, as the title suggests, but eventually Weinbaum dropped the idea for the sake of the orchestra: “In a more practical way, I looked at it and said, I don’t want this to fall apart,” he said. “Even if it detracts from the initial idea, it’s going to be a lot more successful onstage.” 

Composer-violinist Yuri Lee won for her trio ‘Mosquito Stars.’ (Photo: composeryuri.com)

For Yuri Lee, 17, a junior in the pre-college program at Juilliard and a student of Manuel Sosa, the event was an opportunity to make connections. She was born and raised in South Korea to non-musician parents and moved to New York when she was 9, becoming attracted to composition by watching music videos. “As a composer, it’s very sedentary work, sitting alone and listening to what’s inside of you and writing that onto the page,” she said. “It’s quite lonely sometimes, and Covid has also been a very isolating experience.”

She traces the beginnings of her winning trio Mosquito Stars, for flute/piccolo, horn, and piano, to a concert held outdoors for Covid safety measures. The idea of pestering mosquitoes flying up to seemingly blend into the starry night sky took hold. Lee, who is a violinist, said that the experience, and rehearsing with the trio to work out articulation details, was “eye-opening.” She’s already working on a piece for orchestra and might submit it for consideration next year.

Like a Single Star in the Night Sky, by Charlie Zhong, 15, was another celestially inspired winner. It explores unusual orchestral sonorities through extended techniques: blowing into the horn with the mouthpiece removed, gently bouncing the wood of the violins bows on the strings, tapping fingertips on the side of the violas, percussively fingering the keys of the woodwinds without blowing any notes. But the subtle way in which those effects are used suggests the hand of a skilled composer.

“The live performance and the MIDI track are completely different because of all the extended techniques that cannot be imitated,” Zhong said. The piece is about the emotional gulf between eyeing a single star in the night sky and not being able to really appreciate its complexity. “Scientifically, you know that it exists, and it’s such a complex thing. I wanted to explore that feeling through music.”

Zhong was born and raised in Shanghai and moved to Brookline, Mass., at age 9 with his non-musician parents. He first tried his hand at composing with the encouragement of his former piano teacher, the composer Tak-Cheung Hui, whom he credits with nurturing his proficiency.

He also acknowledges the influence of the digital age: There are countless online resources today for a young composer (the Challenge’s own website includes several concise tutorials). For his submission, Zhong read up on clarinet techniques and analyzed scores by modern and contemporary composers like György Ligeti and Lei Liang. More than any other work here, Like a Single Star demonstrated the stark contrast between the paleness of the MIDI file and the warmth of a flesh-and-blood orchestra.

For such a young composer, Zhong is levelheaded and careful in weighing options about what’s next for him: Unlike violin practice, he said, where you’re likely to improve your skills as long as you put time into it, with composition it’s not necessarily so. “It comes from inspiration.” He’s not so quick about jumping to big ideas of becoming a media composer, in contrast to some of his fellow young composers, or even of going to conservatory. He might consider applying instead for a dual or mixed program — the hallmark of a judicious young creative mind.

Christopher Wilkins and the Orlando Philharmonic performed winning works in the six-hour ‘composium’ at Steinmetz Hall.