Celebrating New Music Awards Week

Details on award recipients in the 63rd BMI Student Composer Awards, the 16th ASCAP Concert Music Awards, and the 75th American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

It has been a week of non-stop new music-related celebrations in New York City this week. Fresh from our own NewMusicBox LIVE and New Music USA Benefit Evening (thanks again to everyone who joined us), we now have time to report on some of the other highlights.

The top half of a BMI Student Composer Award plaque

On Monday, May 18, the BMI Foundation in collaboration with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) announced the winners of the 63rd annual BMI Student Composer Awards. The awards were presented by BMI President Mike O’Neill, BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick, and composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (who serves as the permanent chair of the Student Composer Awards) in a private ceremony at the JW Marriott Essex House Hotel, a lavish Art Deco space facing Central Park that was built in 1931. There were a total of nine awardees who received scholarship grants to be applied toward their musical education totaling $20,000. There were also two honorable mentions, which has happened rarely in the history of these awards.

Mike O’Neill standa at a podium as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Deirdre Chadwick sit to his left.

BMI President Mike O’Neill (right) welcomes attendees as composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (left) and BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick prepare to announce the award winners.

Two composers—Max Michael Grafe and Daniel Silliman—tied for the William Schuman Prize, which is awarded to the most outstanding score among the submissions. Grafe and Silliman chatted with us and each other about sharing this honor.

(Later in the week, Silliman’s award-winning work, strain for cello and orchestra, received an ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award and Grafe received a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. More on those award ceremonies below.)

More than 700 online applications were submitted to the competition from student composers throughout the Western Hemisphere in 2015. One of the 2015 winners, Tonia Ko, described her steadfastness in applying for this highly competitive prize. She told us that she has been submitting scores for ten consecutive years; it finally paid off.

Another awardee, Joseph Meland, described the genre-defying piece he submitted that fetched a prize, a composition for chamber orchestra and rock band; Meland feels equally comfortable in both idioms.

The jury members for the 2015 competition were Matthias Pintscher, José Serebrier, Joan Tower, and Barbara White. Alexandra du Bois, Hannah Lash, David Leisner, and Sean Shepherd served as preliminary judges. Below is a list of all the 2015 BMI Student Composer Awardees and their award-winning compositions.

Matthew Aaron Browne (b. 1988): Barnstorming Season for symphony orchestra
Max Michael Grafe (b. 1988): Kheir for clarinet and sinfonietta
Tonia Ko (b. 1988): Blue Skin of the Sea for solo marimba
Thomas Kotcheff (b. 1988): that in shadow or moonlight rises for mixed octet
Joseph Meland (b. 1993): FAUVE for chamber orchestra and rock band
Avik Sarkar (b. 2001): Mirror for chamber symphony
Daniel Silliman (b. 1993): strain for cello and orchestra
Patricia Wallinga (b. 1994): Dreams in War Time for tenor voice and piano
Benjamin P. Wenzelberg (b. 2000): Maelström for orchestra

Sarkar additionally received the Carlos Surinach Prize, an annual award given to the youngest winner in the competition. Imágenes de Guanajuato, a composition for cello and guitar by Luis M. Ruelas Romo, a 23-year-old student at New England Conservatory, and Prelude and Tricotee for violin and piano by Lauren Vandervelden, a 15-year-old private music student in Boise, Idaho, received honorable mention. (Sarkar and Vandervelden’s pieces also received Honorable Mention in the 2015 Morton Gould Awards.)


As they have done annually since 1942, academicians and award recipients sit on the stage of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Auditorium awaiting the commencement of the Ceremonial.

As they have done annually since 1942, academicians and award recipients sit on the stage of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Auditorium awaiting the commencement of the Ceremonial.

On Wednesday, May 20, the American Academy of Arts and Letters held its Ceremonial in the 730-seat auditorium of the second of the three landmarked Beaux Arts buildings it owns in northern Manhattan. An annual tradition since 1942 (the very first ceremonial took place in 1941 on the main stage of Carnegie Hall but it has taken place in their own 156th Street space since the year following), the event is one of the few times in American cultural life that visual artists, poets, novelists, and composers share a stage to honor achievements in a broad range of disciplines. And the reception following the Ceremonial, which—when it’s not raining, and sometimes even when it is (luckily for once it wasn’t!)—is one of the great spring parties in New York City, was a great opportunity for people across disciplines and generations to connect with one another.

The official seal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters

The coming together of these disparate artistic practices felt even more meaningful during this year’s event because several of the awards in one discipline were announced by practitioners of other disciplines; this was perhaps most poignant when composer John Harbison presented a Gold Medal, the Academy’s highest honor, to poet Louise Glück, whose verse he has set to music three times thus far–in one of the movements of his Symphony No. 5 for soprano, baritone, and orchestra (2007), The Seven Ages for mezzo-soprano and Pierrot sextet (2008), and most recently in his 2013 composition Crossroads for soprano, oboe, and strings. Composer Yehudi Wyner, who is the academy’s current president, described how difficult it has been to build bridges between the artistic disciplines but stated that it is something the academy has been steadfast in its efforts to do.

Although most of the awards that were given out during the course of the Ceremonial have already been announced, it still feels like a complete surprise to Scott Johnson, who received one of this year’s two Goddard Lieberson Fellowships in Music. He even wore a tie for the occasion!

It is certainly far from anti-climactic for the winners to share the stage with their counterparts in other fields as well as with many of the 250 celebrated composers, writers, and visual artists who comprise the academy’s membership, as composer/pianist Billy Childs, one of four winners of a 2015 Arts and Letters Award in Music, told us:

Another one of the winners, Erin Gee, one of two 2015 recipients of the Charles Ives Fellowship, described how being amidst people involved in so many different kinds of creative endeavors is really inspirational:

Although Emily Cooley, one of six Charles Ives Scholarship recipients, was disappointed that two of her favorite authors, who are members of the academy, were unable to attend this year and so she did not have a chance to meet them:

These awards, however, are much more than an opportunity to hob-nob with luminaries. They also offer important financial support to emerging artists for whom finding a balance between creative work and economic sustenance is frequently a challenge, as Alex Mincek, recipient of the Benjamin H. Danks Award in Music, pointed out:

But aside from how valuable these awards are to emerging and mid-career composers, writers, and visual artists, both in terms of offering peer validation and significant monetary support, they are a rare opportunity to honor achievements from practitioners from many different generations. The academy’s most significant award for an éminence grise, the Gold Medal, two of which are given each year to people who have already been inducted among the 250 Academicians as an honorific, is one of the ways that the academy attempts to establish a continuity between emerging and established creators. In addition to awarding Louise Glück the Gold Medal for Poetry, the academy awarded a Gold Medal in Music to composer George Crumb, who at 85 remains a vital force. Even though he has already received so many important accolades throughout his illustrious career, Crumb seemed genuinely exuberant in response to the academy’s recognition:


The stage of Merkin Concert Hall with a screen projecting "2015 ASCAP Concert Music Awards" and some people in the audience.

The stage is set for the opening of the 2015 ASCAP Concert Music Awards at Merkin Concert Hall.

Finally, ASCAP presented its 16th annual Concert Music Awards on the stage of Merkin Concert Hall on Thursday, May 21. The centerpiece of the ceremony was the formal presentation—by composers Charles Fussell, James Matheson, Lisa Bielewa, and Paul Moravec along with ASCAP’s Cia Toscanini and Michael Spudic—of the 2015 Morton Gould Young Composer Awards which were announced in March (and can be found here). Brief excerpts from recordings of award-winning pieces by each of the composers who were present were played.

We spoke with several of the composers who were in attendance about their award-winning compositions. Scott Lee from Durham, North Carolina, and Paris Lavidis from New York City, described their very different approaches—Lee, in his Bottom Heavy for small ensemble, incorporates hip-hop grooves and other popular music elements whereas Lavidis explores extended techniques in what he describes as a “semi-tonal realm” in his String Quartet No. 2:

Anahita Abbasi, who was born in Iran and is now based in San Diego, described the structure of her composition Distorted Attitudes II/Labyrinth for flute (doubling on piccolo and bass flute), soprano saxophone, bassoon, two violins, cello, and doublebass:

Composer, singer-songwriter, and classical and jazz pianist Gabriel Zucker described spending more than a year creating Evergreen, an evening-length work which he also just recorded for future release:

After opening remarks from the afternoon’s master of ceremonies, composer, conductor and radio broadcast journalist Bill McGlaughlin, ASCAP’s new CEO Elizabeth Matthews, and John Titta, ASCAP’s executive vice president of creative services, composer Alex Shapiro presented J. P. Redmond with the Charlotte V. Bergen Scholarship, which has been awarded annually since 2006 to the top ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer age 18 or under. Redmond then went over to the piano to play the third movement of the work for which he received the award, Northeastern Sonata.

James Kendrick, president of Schott/European American Music, presented Brian Heim with this year’s Leo Kaplan Award, which has been given annually since 1995 to the composer of the score judged “most outstanding” in ASCAP’s Young Composer Awards. Heim’s award-winning piece, Two Portraits After Moby Dick, was inspired by the classic Herman Melville novel as he explained to us:

In addition to all of the awards presented to the emerging composers, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), now in their 10th anniversary season, was honored by composer and former Manhattan School of Music President Robert Sirota for “the virtuosity, passion, and commitment with which they perform and champion American composers.” Composer Timo Andres joined four of the members of ACME—Ben Russell and Caroline Shaw (violins), Caleb Burhans (viola), and ACME’s artistic director Clarice Jensen (cello)—for a performance of Andres’s Piano Quintet, another one of the Morton Gould award-winning pieces. We spoke briefly with cellist Jensen outside Merkin Hall:

Finally, Julia Wolfe was honored by retired ASCAP Vice President for Concert Music and current ASCAP consultant Frances Richard for being awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music as well as the 2015 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. Wolfe spoke with us briefly about how much she enjoys sharing the stage with all these young composers: