Reality Talent Show for Young Composers

Just like The Voice or American Idol, Young Composers have an outlet to be judged, mentored and showcased with their winning compositions. The National Young Composers Challenge takes place yearly at Dr. Phillips Center with the next event happening this weekend.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 edition of artsLife magazine,

Most people go to the movies to see actors breathe life into a story. When Sterling Maffi heads for the nearest multiplex, he’s more interested in hearing background music do much the same thing.

Movie scores have a stronger hold than movie stars on the 18-year-old college freshman, a budding composer who lives in Artesia, Calif. “I love the sweeping melodies and frantic action motifs I can use in this genre,” he says. “There is such a lushness of texture in this type of music.”

Maffi, who plans on studying composition and film scoring at a California conservatory next year, has been composing music on his own in the meantime, sometimes humming the melodies that come to mind, sometimes using a software program that simulates the sound of musical instruments.

But there’s nothing like the real thing: hearing your composition played by an orchestra, with a flesh-and-blood conductor and a full complement of professional musicians. That’s the experience that awaits Maffi and seven other composers ages 13 to 18 at the ninth annual National Young Composer’s Challenge Composium, held October 18 at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

The free event, which is open to the public is held in the Walt Disney Theater, was created in 2007 by Winter Park philanthropist Steve Goldman, a one-time software executive and the 21st century definition of a Renaissance man, to discover -- and nurture -- the next generation of composers.

“What it really amounts to is a dragnet for talent,” says Goldman, who was once a young composer himself, as a student at Maitland Middle School and Winter Park High School. Recognizing his potential, conductors at both schools agreed to lead the school bands in playing his compositions.The composium that Goldman invented offers a similar experience on a much grander scale. There’s no other event quite like it in the country -- or, for that matter, the world. Here’s how it works:Every year, novice composers are invited to create a composition of five minutes or less and submit a score and an electronically created sound file, to be judged by a four-member panel of musical experts. The judges listen to every piece, send every entrant a recorded critique and select the winners.

Composers of the top three orchestral pieces get $1,000 each, while composers of the top three chamber ensembles get $500 each. At least, that’s how it usually works. This year, due the generally high caliber of the record-shattering 117 entries received – a more typical number is 40 to 50 entries -- five ensemble winners were selected.

But the stipend, while nice, is the least important part of the prize package. All of the winners are invited to Orlando for the composium, where they’ll work individually with world-renowned conductor Christopher Wilkens, previously musical director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and now musical director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and the Akron Symphony.

Wilkens and a team of professional musicians hired by the composium’s organizers rehearse the winning compositions, which are then performed and recorded before a live audience. Attendees get a chance to see a never-before-performed piece of music brought to life. For rookie composers, it’s the musical equivalent of a fantasy baseball camp.

All of this happens in one dizzying afternoon, from 1 to 5 p.m. During the first hour, the winning chamber ensemble compositions are performed. Each composer is then interviewed by Wilkins and comments are offered by the judges and musicians.

After a brief intermission, the full-orchestra session begins. Each performance begins with an audio excerpt from the young composer's computer-generated score. Next, the composition is rehearsed, discussed then performed and recorded – all while an audience watches.

“I remember, one year, there was a winner who really got carried away as his piece was performed,” says Goldman. “I guess it put him into a trance of some sort. When the conductor turned to him and asked him how he liked it at the end, he just sat there in a daze.”

Well, who wouldn’t?

“I’ve never had a professional orchestra play my music,” says Maffi, whose winning submission, The Water Phoenix, is a full-orchestra score written to accompany a story he envisioned about a creature that rises from the sea to save a harbor town from a tempest. “Most of my time writing is spent locked alone in my room. The outside world has a habit of disappearing on me.”

Other winners that year include:

In the ensemble category, Fantasy for String Quintet, by Justin Zeitlinger, 14, of Dumont, New Jersey; Ignis Fatuus, by Emil Ernstrom, 18, of Palo Alto, California; String Quartet in G Minor, by Daniel Aretskin, 18, of Irvine, California; Polarity for String Quartet, by Avik Sarkar, 14, of Chestnut Hill, Maryland; and Sextet, by Evan Kauffmann, 15, of New York City. In the full-orchestra category, Fractured Night/Blue Stars, by Paul Novak, 14, of Reno, Nevada; and Outbursts of Joy, by Robert Tindle, 18, of Miami.

Wilkins, who has been involved with the composium from its beginnings, will again be working with musicians that include many of his former Philharmonic colleagues. “It takes somebody with the right personality to do this,” says Goldman. “Chris is very engaging. Now and then he’ll turn around to the audience and ask: ‘What do you think?’ ”

The young composers sit on stage during rehearsal of the orchestral pieces and have the opportunity to become critics themselves, making technical suggestions about how their music should be played. During one particularly meticulous critique, a droll Wilkins turned to the audience to note: “This is the problem working with living composers.”

The composium and the Dr. Phillips Center are a perfect matching, sharing a mission to educate young artists. On another educational front, Goldman has also invented and bankrolled a series of animated videos,, designed to assist students who are taking mathematics courses on the K-12 and college levels.

The composium is supported by grants and in-kind donations from the Dr. Phillips Center, the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, Full Sail University and the Goldman Charitable Foundation.

This year, as usual, the Young Composers Challenge entries were judged by Goldman; Jeff Rupert, director of jazz studies at the University of Central Florida; Keith Lay, department chair of music technology at Full Sail University; and Dan Crozier, associate professor of music theory and composition at Rollins College.

The four met earlier this year over the course of several evenings to listen to the submissions in a glass-walled, second-story office in Goldman’s 10,000-quare-foot modern minimalist home on Lake Maitland in Winter Park.

There, surrounded by Goldman’s collection of luminous Chihuly Persians and other priceless art glass sculptures, the judges squinted at the printed scores and took notes while listening intently to each piece, weighing everything from modern abstract compositions to traditional, Blue-Danube type waltzes.

Then they passed a microphone back and forth so that each could record feedback, meticulous but always encouraging, to be sent to each hopeful, bedroom-based novice. Comments included:

“You really made full use of the orchestra, but you wander around a bit. Pick out one or two themes and stay with them.”

“I really like how you’re out-of-the-box with your melodic lines.”

“Think about the articulations, especially the woodwinds.”

“You should listen to Mozart, to Hayden. Listen to the base lines, the chords.”

“Nice accumulation of tension at the end.”

“Beautiful use of tubular bells. But a little overused. You don’t want to put too much spice in the dish.”

“Just one thing: You don’t have that many cellos in the orchestra.”

Although judges had to work through a record number of submissions this year, they only seemed to gather momentum as their afternoon sessions stretched later and later into evenings, so bemused and inspired were they by the enthusiastic creations of young composers from Cady, Texas to Montclair, New Jersey.

“Wow,” said Rupert one evening, after listening to a 13-year-old’s vertigo-inducing entry, entitled Multi-Rotor Drones, “I’d like to meet this kid.” On another occasion, after listening to an uneven but wildly inventive whirlwind of a composition, Lay grabbed the microphone to provide feedback for its creator. The first words out of his mouth were both high praise and, appropriately, a challenge:

“You have to be a composer!”