Pacific Symphony Audiences Choose Their “American Idol”



Mischa Zupko’s Canter Into Black was the audience’s choice at the American Composers Competition

The winner of the Pacific Symphony‘s American Composers Competition was announced on March 14th, after two concerts featuring short orchestral works by three emerging composers at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Audiences for both of the concerts were given ballots to vote for their favorite piece and people at home listening to the radio broadcast of the second concert on KMZT-FM could call in with their choices. The top honor, a $5000 prize and a commission to write a work for the orchestra’s 2003-04 season, went to Mischa Zupko for his piece Canter into Black. The other two finalists John Kaefer (Mosaic) and Ryan Francis (The Straits of Anian) were awarded $1500 each. The three finalists were chosen from a pool of 198 composers from around the country.

But more than the cash prizes, all three composer participants were given something even more valuable: the opportunity to work intensively with a professional symphony orchestra very early in their careers. Pacific Symphony Artistic Director and Conductor Carl St. Clair conceived of the competition as a way to give young composers a chance to gain important experience working with professional musicians, but also as a way to get the audience personally involved with new music and living composers. Forsyte, president of the orchestra, applauded St. Clair’s advocacy of new music and young composers, noting that the competition was a success with concertgoers. “The standing ovations, cheering audiences and joyous smiles from the composers were all very gratifying.”

Zupko agreed that the experience as a whole was incredibly rewarding. “All three concerts were very well attended and many members of the audience came forward to share their thoughts and reactions with us, which was greatly appreciated.” He was also impressed with his company. “The other two pieces on the program were fantastic works and I was thrilled to be a part of the concert with them… John, Ryan and I formed a close bond with each other.”

In fact, interacting with the audience seemed to be an equally important experience for the composers as having the chance to work with the orchestras during rehearsals as well as the opportunity to hear their pieces performed three times (the orchestra played all three works again after the winner was announced). The concerts featured pre-concert and post-concert talks as well as short talks with each of the composers before the pieces were played. “The three of us had the great opportunity to interact with the audience on several occasions, which I think helped to create a real excitement around the event,” Zupko said.

As for the piece that Zupko will be composing for the orchestra next season, his ideas have not yet solidified. According to the composer, the piece will be approximately ten minutes long and will share a program with Mozart‘s Requiem and Stravinsky‘s Symphony of Psalms, (“two of my absolute favorite pieces”). He wants his piece to somehow relate to these two works on an aesthetic level, a task that is by no means easy. “I’m not sure yet exactly how I will approach this, but I know I will have to dig very deep in the coming months.”