63rd Annual BMI Student Composer Award Winners Announced

Published: 05.18.2015
2015 BMI Student Composer Award winners and officers: (Front, L-R) Permanent Chair Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Avik Sarkar (Carlos Surinach Prize), Joseph Meland, Tonia Ko, Benjamin Wenzelberg, BMI President and CEO and BMI Foundation Honorary Chair Mike O’Neill; Back (L-R) BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick, Patricia Wallinga, Thomas Kotcheff, Daniel Silliman (William Schuman Prize), Matthew Aaron Browne, Max Michael Grafe (William Schuman Prize).
Subito Music Corporation’s Deborah Horne reviews 2015 Student Composer Joseph Meland’s winning work entitled FAUVE, for chamber orchestra and rock band.
BMI Foundation President and Director of the Student Composer Awards, Deirdre Chadwick, shares opening remarks.
Pulitzer Prize- and three-time BMI Student Composer Award winner (1994, ‘95, ‘98) Kevin Puts, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, BMI Student Composer Award winners Eric Ewazen (1973) and D.J. Sparr (1995, 2000).
Composer Laura Kaminsky, BMI Student Composer Award Winner (2002, 2004) David T. Little, Bill Holab of Bill Holab Music.
BMI Foundation executive team: Samantha Cox, Rich Garza, Deirdre Chadwick, Antonella DiSaverio, and David F. Bills.

Photos by: Melissa Dispenza

The BMI Foundation, in collaboration with Broadcast Music, Inc.® (BMI®), has announced the nine young classical composers, ages 14 to 26, who have been named winners of the 63rd annual BMI Student Composer Awards. Renowned American composer and permanent Chair of the Student Composer Awards, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, BMI President and CEO and Honorary Chair of the BMI Foundation Mike O’Neill, and BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick, announced the decisions of the jury and presented the awards at a private ceremony held on May 18, 2015, at the J. W. Marriott Essex House Hotel in New York City.

The 2015 award winners are:

  • Matthew Aaron Browne – age 26, studies at the University of Michigan
  • Max Michael Grafe – William Schuman Prize, awarded for most outstanding score (tied this year with Daniel Silliman) – age 26, studies at The Juilliard School
  • Tonia Ko – age 26, studies at Cornell University
  • Thomas Kotcheff – age 26, studies at the University of Southern California
  • Joseph Meland – age 21, studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Avik Sarkar – Carlos Surinach Prize, awarded to the youngest winner of the competition - age 14, studies privately in Boston, MA
  • Daniel Silliman – William Schuman Prize, awarded for most outstanding score (tied this year with Max Michael Grafe) – age 22, studies at the University of Southern California
  • Patricia Wallinga - age 20, studies at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
  • Benjamin P. Wenzelberg – age 15, studies at The Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division

Two composers also received an honorable mention in the competition: Luis M. Ruelas Romo, a 23-year-old student at New England Conservatory, and Lauren Vandervelden, a 15-year-old private music student in Boise, ID.

Deirdre Chadwick, BMI Foundation President and Director of the Student Composer Awards commented, “These young composers are on the cusp of a professional life in music. This is such a special night for all of us at BMI, to watch them take the next steps towards their future, and shine a light on them as they do so. I hope winning this award helps them trust their instincts, take chances, and move forward with confidence.” The distinguished jury members for the 2015 competition were Matthias Pintscher, José Serebrier, Joan Tower, and Barbara White. The preliminary judges were Alexandra du Bois, Hannah Lash, David Leisner, and Sean Shepherd. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a former winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music, is the permanent Chair of the competition.

The BMI Student Composer Awards recognize superior musical compositional ability. Winners receive scholarship grants to be applied toward their musical education; awards this year totaled $20,000. In 2015, more than 700 online applications were submitted to the competition from students throughout the Western Hemisphere, and all works were judged anonymously. BMI, in collaboration with the BMI Foundation, has awarded over 600 grants to young composers throughout the history of the competition.

About the Award Winners

Matthew Aaron Browne Barnstorming Season for symphony orchestra

Composer Matthew Browne was born in 1988 in Burlington, Vermont. He strives to create music that meets Sergei Diaghilev’s famous challenge to Jean Cocteau: “Astonish me!”, through incorporating such eclectic influences as the timbral imagination and playfulness of György Ligeti, the shocking and humorous eclecticism of Alfred Schnittke, and the relentless rhythmic energy of Igor Stravinsky. His music has been described as “compelling” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and “beautifully crafted and considered” (What’s On London).

Matthew has had the honor to collaborate with such ensembles as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Villiers Quartet, the Donald Sinta Quartet, the Tesla Quartet, and the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra. His music has been performed for, and given masterclasses by such renowned artists as Otis Murphy, George Crumb, and the Kronos String Quartet.

Recently, Matthew’s music has received honors such as an ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Award (2014), winner of the New England Philharmonic Call for Scores (2014), winner of the American Viola Society’s Maurice Gardner Composition award (2014), and a residency at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s First Annual Composers Institute (2013). Matthew holds a Master of Music in Music Composition from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and a Bachelor of Music from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is currently pursuing his Doctoral of Musical Arts in Music Composition from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Previous teachers include Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster, Carter Pann, and Daniel Kellogg.

Max Michael Grafe - Kheir fantasy for clarinet and sinfonietta

The music of Max Grafe (b. 1988) has been performed by a diverse range of prominent and emerging ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, the New Juilliard Ensemble under Joel Sachs, the Chelsea Symphony, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, and newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. His work has also been recently featured in the New York City Ballet’s 2015 Choreographic Institute, with choreography by Silas Farley. Current and upcoming projects include works for FLUX Quartet, soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, pianist Mika Sasaki, and Intimate Opera of Indianapolis.

Mr. Grafe has received several prestigious awards for emerging composers, including a 2015 Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2014 Palmer Dixon Prize from The Juilliard School, and a 2007 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award.

Mr. Grafe is currently pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in composition as a CV Starr Doctoral Fellow of The Juilliard School, where he also received a Master of Music degree in composition in 2013. He received a Bachelor of Music degree in composition from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in 2011. Further studies have taken place at Mannes College of Music, the Freie Universität Berlin, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. Mr. Grafe’s principal instructors in composition have been Keith Fitch, Don Freund, Michael Gandolfi, W. Claude Baker, David Dzubay, Aaron Travers, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky.

Tonia Ko - Blue Skin of the Sea for marimba

The music of Tonia Ko has been described by critics as “expansive, meditative,” and containing “an uncertain piquancy.” Born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, her work strives to capture the poetics behind small visual details of everyday life. Tonia’s music has been performed across the United States as well as in Asia and Europe, by ensembles such as the Flux Quartet, orkest de ereprijs, ensemble mise-en, Eastman Wind Ensemble, and New Morse Code. Festivals that have featured her music include Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Tanglewood Music Center, Thailand International Composition Festival, and Wellesley Composers Conference. In 2013, she was awarded a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a residency from the Copland House. Tonia has also received recognition from the New York Youth Symphony, Lin Yao Ji Foundation, New Music USA, and International Alliance for Women in Music.

Her own explorations in the visual arts have sparked a curiosity for interdisciplinary connections— recent projects include an installation for bubble wrap with electronics entitled Breath, Contained, a musical for Perry Chiu Experimental Theatre in Hong Kong, and a piece for Periapsis Music and Dance. Tonia is currently a doctoral candidate at Cornell University, studying with Steven Stucky and Kevin Ernste. She received previous degrees from Indiana University and the Eastman School of Music.

Thomas Kotcheff - that in shadow or moonlight rises for mixed octet

A native of Los Angeles, Thomas Kotcheff (b. 1988) has been establishing himself in Southern California as a successful composer and pianist. His music has been described as “truly beautiful and inspired” ( and “explosive” (Gramophone). He has received commissions from The Aspen Summer Music Festival and School, The Los Angeles Philharmonic Committee, The Argus Quartet, Peabody Camerata, Trio Appassionata, The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and Sandbox Percussion amongst others.

Thomas has been a composition fellow at the Aspen Summer Music Festival and School, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and attended the MusicX festival with new music ensemble eighth blackbird. He has been artist-in-residence at The Byrdcliffe Art Colony, The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and The Studios of Key West, and is looking forward to an upcoming residency at The Hermitage Artist Retreat. Amongst numerous awards and honors, Thomas has most recently been selected as a recipient of a Presser Foundation Award, an award to support the career of a truly exceptional graduate music student who has the potential to make a distinguished contribution to the field of music.

Thomas holds degrees in composition and piano performance from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California, where he is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Music in composition.

Joseph Meland - FAUVE for chamber orchestra and rock band

Joseph Meland is a 21-year-old composer and performer whose music has been described as “often elegiac, waiting until its passengers are lulled, then swerving into oncoming traffic ... an antidote to placidity” (A Closer Listen). He has received awards from the Wisconsin School Music Association and National Federation of Music Clubs, was a finalist in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers Awards for his electro-acoustic composition null cycles., and recently premiered his concerto for rock band, FAUVE, at the prestigious Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

In addition to his compositional achievements, Joseph sings and plays piano for the band Feral States, which began as his own vision and performs his chamber rock compositions. Their first release, Light, was featured as one of the Top 10 releases of 2013 in Champaign by Smile Politely Magazine, and was further praised by Champaign radio station WPGU 107.1 FM for having “excellent composition.” Never satisfied with a single project, he plays organ for Church Booty, a R&B, hip-hop, and rock-influenced band, and produces for his pop duo, Boycut. He has written over 60 songs for his various groups.

He is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree in composition/theory from the University of Illinois.

Avik Sarkar - Mirror for chamber symphony

Avik Sarkar is a fourteen-year-old pianist, cellist, and composer, studying composition with Alla Cohen in Boston, MA. His piece Mirror for chamber orchestra won an honorable mention at the 2015 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers competition. Avik’s piece for string quartet, Polarity, was awarded first prize at the 2014 Robert Avalon International competition and honorable mention at the 2014 ASCAP Morton Gould competition and was among the four runners-up at the 2015 Tribeca New Music Young Composers competition. He has had works performed by students at the New England Conservatory, at Keller and Brown halls. His piece For the Whale was premiered by cellist Nancy Hair, and his orchestral work Las Playas de Cancún por la Noche was performed by the NEC String Chamber Orchestra.

Aside from composition, Avik has won many piano competitions including second prize at the 2015 New York International Artists Competition, first prize at the 2014 Forte International Music Competition, and third prize at the 2014 Louisiana International Piano competition. He has won first-prizes at several other regional and state competitions including NEPTA, MMTA, and Steinway Society of Massachusetts piano competitions. Avik has played at Cadogan Hall in London UK, Symphony Hall in Boston, and Carnegie Hall at New York City, and was recently heard on WGBH Radio, NPR, Boston. Avik is also an avid chamber music player and plays cello in the NEC Junior Repertory Orchestra. He is an eighth grader at Buckingham Browne & Nichols.

Daniel Silliman - strain for cello and orchestra

Daniel Silliman (b.1993 Syracuse, NY) is an American composer currently based in Los Angeles. In the spring of 2015, he completes undergraduate studies in composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, where he counts among his current and former mentors Donald Crockett, Stephen Hartke, and Andrew Norman. In addition to various recognitions for academic and musical excellence at USC, he is the recipient of several awards and grants from organizations such as Access Contemporary Music Chicago and ASCAP, and recently his work has been nominated for recognition by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He has pursued additional composition studies as a participant in the 2013 Atlantic Music Festival in Waterville, ME, as well as studies with Derek Bermel and Samuel Adler at the 2014 Bowdoin International Music Festival, where most recently his three pieces for solo cello were premiered at the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music.

Patricia Wallinga - Dreams in War Time for tenor voice and piano

Patricia Wallinga (born 1994) is a composer, mezzo-soprano, double bassist, and new music advocate in her second year of undergraduate studies at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where her principal teachers have included Claude Baker and Don Freund. She specializes in vocal and operatic composition and new music performance. As a member of the NOTUS Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, she has premiered and recorded works by Claude Baker, P.Q. Phan, Zachary Wadsworth, Aaron Travers, and Dominick DiOrio and toured with the ensemble to Carnegie Hall in New York City and the American Choral Directors Association National Conference in Salt Lake City. She also premiered her own piece Portraits of Wartime with the ensemble in March 2014, as the winner of the 2013 NOTUS Student Composition Contest. In addition, she has had numerous instrumental solo, chamber, and large ensemble works performed and recorded by members of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras and students at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the DePaul School of Music, the Northern Illinois University School of Music, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Music. She is also a member of Jacobs School of Music’s student entrepreneurial program Project Jumpstart, and she works as a performer, orchestra manager, and impresario for Bloomington student opera initiatives New Voices Opera and University Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Originally from Naperville, IL, she currently resides in Bloomington, IN.

Benjamin P. Wenzelberg - Maelström for orchestra

Benjamin P. Wenzelberg is very honored and proud to win a BMI Student Composer Award for the second year in a row, this year for his orchestra piece Maelström, and in 2014, along with the Carlos Surinach Prize, for his three-movement piece for piano trio, Midnight Tides. A 2015 National YoungArts Foundation Merit Winner for Composition, Benjy was named by the Tribeca New Music Young Composer’s Competition as a “2015 Emerging Young Composer,” and was commissioned by the Juventas New Music Ensemble in collaboration with Puppet Showplace Theater for the world premiere of his piece From the Cave. His song cycle, Dreamland Imaginations, is a 2015 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Finalist. Benjy’s new opera for family audiences, The Sleeping Beauty, won a 2014 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and Charlotte V. Bergen Scholarship Prize for its piano/vocal score and its orchestrated excerpts. He is proud that his opera was read in its entirety for the first time this winter at The York Theatre in NYC and at the Eric Brown Theater in New Jersey as part of developmental staged readings that he produced to benefit music programs in his town’s schools, as well as a local performing arts school. He also served as music director, and was excited to conduct as he accompanied from the piano. Also this winter, his piece Dancing Tree, a fantasia for flute and piano, won the NJMEA grand prize, and his triptych of songs, Dreamland Imaginations, based on poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson, was a finalist.

A composition student of Dr. Eric Ewazen at Juilliard Pre-College, Benjy’s percussion piece, The Storm, had its world premiere performed by the NYU Percussion Ensemble last year, and he will be playing the viola as part of a Face the Music orchestra concert at Merkin Hall in June as they perform his string orchestra and harp piece, An Air to Air. Benjy is a classical and jazz piano scholarship student at the 92nd St. Y studying with Dr. Tania Tachkova and Jamie Reynolds and was just awarded a Royal Conservatory Development Program Gold National Medal, as well as Tri-State, NY State, and Manhattan Borough Certificates of Excellence. For earning these awards, he made his Carnegie Hall piano debut this spring. He studies conducting at Juilliard with Adam Glaser as well as with Lidiya Yankovskaya and made his conducting debut at age eleven as part of the Crested Butte, Colorado Music Festival.

A current six-season Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus member singing in Cavalleria Rusticana, he made his solo debut there in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last season. A vocal student of Amelia DeMayo, Benjy is the classical boy soprano singing voice for the lead character Stet in the new film Boychoir, starring Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, and Debra Winger. He was a soloist last month in a concert starring Isabel Leonard and featuring music of composer Glen Roven at Spectrum, with the New York New Music Collective. In September, he sang with Dawn Upshaw and Gil Kalish in Ancient Voices of Children by George Crumb at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He has also performed the role of Miles in New York City Opera’s production of The Turn of the Screw and has sung with Portland Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, The Atlanta Opera, Shakespeare in the Park, Avery Fisher Hall where he performed the role of Amahl with The Little Orchestra Society, Carnegie Hall, Central Park’s SummerStage, the US Open, and was invited to sing in Israel. Recordings include: Charlie Bucket, in The Golden Ticket opera CD from a live performance with Atlanta Opera, as well as being featured on a track of opera singing group Forte’s CD, Silent Night. Benjy is so grateful to all of his amazing teachers for all of their support and guidance.

Honorable Mentions

Luis M. Ruelas Romo - Imágenes de Guanajuato for cello and guitar

A young emerging composer, Luis M. Ruelas Romo’s voice bridges the gap between contemporary language and the folkloric idiom. His works have been premiered in both the U.S. and Mexico, instrumentation ranging from solo piano, cello and guitar suite, string quartet, different forms of chamber ensembles, and a string orchestra. In 2013, Luis was a finalist in the International Music Composition Contest carried out by the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum for the renowned “Festival Internacional Cervantino” in Guanajuato, Mexico.

An active educator, Luis founded TALLER COMP, a composition workshop for beginner students in his native Mexico, in June 2013. With a focus on social activism, this workshop aims to expand and revolutionize the contemporary music field in Mexico while providing a network of support and encouragement for young musicians and music lovers.

Born in León, Mexico, Luis currently studies composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts with Stratis Minakakis and John Mallia. Prior to his collegiate studies, Luis worked with Francisco Javier González Compéan in composition, Ricardo Rosales Castro in counterpoint and harmony, and José Manuel Sandoval Asencio on piano while in Mexico. He also attended the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan in 2010, majoring in composition with Alissa Rossa.

Lauren Vandervelden - Prelude and Tricotee for violin and piano

Lauren Vandervelden, 15 years old, is a 9th grader from Boise, Idaho. She currently studies composition via Skype with Philip Wharton of New York City. Most recently, she received Honorable Mentions in composition from both BMI and ASCAP. She was also the 2014 National Winner for the NFMC Junior Composers Competition and a 2014 National Finalist in the Senior Composition Competition for the Music Teachers National Association. In addition to composition, Lauren studies violin with Craig Purdy of Boise State University. She made her solo violin debut with the Meridian Symphony Orchestra in 2014 and will solo again in the fall of 2015 with the Boise Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, where Lauren is currently concertmaster.

This summer, Lauren will be attending the Castleman Quartet Program and the Curtis Summerfest Young Artist Summer Program for composition and orchestra.