Philadelphia Audience Picks Centennial Competition Winner


Kevin Beavers
Kevin Beavers
Photo by Lorin Burgess

At the intermission of the October 5th Philadelphia Orchestra concert, after hearing three recent compositions by young American men, audience members completed ballots to help choose the winning work in the Orchestra’s Centennial Composition Competition. The winning piece, Sinfonia by Kevin Beavers, was performed again in Philadelphia on October 6 and 7 and was given its New York debut on October 10, as part of the Orchestra’s first appearance at Carnegie Hall during the 2000-01 season.

The three pieces performed on October 5th under Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch‘s direction were: Totem by Keith Fitch (written in 1993), Three Pieces for Orchestra by Huang Ruo (two sections were written 1998, with the final section added early this year), and Sinfonia (1997) by Kevin Beavers.

Philip Blackburn, Program Director of the American Composer’s Forum, attended the October 5th concert. “It was a remarkable occasion,” he commented in an interview. “The Academy of Music [made for] a wonderful setting for the three young composers who had come so far.” Blackburn reviewed the three hundred tapes that were submitted to the Forum for pre-selection by a panel that included Aaron Jay Kernis and Libby Larsen. “I really appreciated what it took to get to this place,” he added. Blackburn described the atmosphere in the dress rehearsal as “supportive,” noting that Sawallisch was “extremely well-prepared.”

According to Blackburn, approximately eighty people turned up for the pre-concert discussion with the composers. “People were eager to ask questions,” Blackburn explained. “[The composers] came across as very personable.”

The October 5th concert was the first Orchestra subscription concert, and judging by the number of ballots received, there were around sixteen hundred people in the audience. Blackburn noted that the audience gave the new works “rapt attention.” He feels that this was partly because, in addition to checking a box for their favorite piece, they were also asked to give comments. “[Asking the audience to] actually give constructive feedback [got them] thoroughly engaged,” Blackburn remarked. He witnessed audience members discussing the pieces at intermission, which he sees as further evidence of their involvement, and by extension, the competition’s success.

Eligible voters included all attending audience members and the Orchestra musicians onstage. The results of the competition were “amazingly close,” Blackburn reports, with only 180 votes difference between the first- and third-place winners. He claims that when Simon Woods entered the ballot-counting room near the end of the second half, he was amazed to see that the stacks of ballots for each candidate were the same size.

Competition winner Kevin Beavers described the reaction to both Philadelphia concerts as “overwhelmingly positive.” Beavers observed with pleasure that Sawallisch was highlighting different aspects of the score than he had at the previous performances, and that he had developed a closer rapport with the players. On the question of whether the 76-year old German actually managed to “swing” in the last movement, he responded with an overwhelmingly positive “he was doing it, man!”

In addition to the performances in Philadelphia and New York, Mr. Beavers received a $10,000 cash prize for writing the winning work. The other two finalists received $2,500 each. All three were recognized by Philadelphia Orchestra Chairman Peter A. Benoliel during a brief presentation onstage at the conclusion of the October 5th concert.

Blackburn feels that the Competition was successful in “making living composers more visible” and in bringing some new music out of the “new music ghetto,” both of which are goals of the American Composer’s Forum. The collaboration between the Orchestra and the Forum was the brainchild of Artistic Administrator Simon Woods, who attended Cambridge with Blackburn and now serves on the Forum Board. Blackburn headed the administration of the competition, and also worked with Woods on refining the Orchestra’s selection criteria.

There are plans for the Orchestra to collaborate on a similar competition in 2003, this time including a live Web cast and online voting. Blackburn is pleased with the partnership, and hopes that other ensembles will consider using their organization to administer similar events in the future.