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Beautiful Music As FL Orchestra Plays USF Students' Original Compositions

Mar 21, 2017

The Florida Orchestra's 2016-17 season wraps up May 19-21 with a trio of concerts featuring works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sclafani.

Now the first two names might even be familiar to people who don't know anything about classical music. But the third isn't that well known - at least not yet.

You see, Francesco Sclafani is a junior in the University of South Florida's music composition program, and his original piece, Deconstruction of Anger, won a recent competition.

Sclafani was one of fourteen entrants in the Florida Orchestra/USF School of Music Student Composer Competition. They each submitted previous works, along with a short clip of a new, original piece. Judges chose Sclafani and four classmates as finalists.

Then, the aspiring composers had their six to seven minute long original works placed in front of the professional musicians of the Florida Orchestra for their debut live performances.

"Those people are so talented and very passionate about the music, so it was very fun," said sophomore Logan Barrett shortly after the orchestra performed his work, Proportions. "Hearing it live is something I’ve never experienced before, having the brass and having it be in the back, things like that, the way they inject emotion into music is really interesting to see."

According to USF Assistant Professor of Music Baljinder Sekhon, there were two purposes to the contest. First, it extends the relationship between the Florida Orchestra, the university and the Tampa Bay community.

"It also provides career training and it provides the students an opportunity to work in a professional environment on their compositions for orchestra, something that’s really unique and something that isn’t necessarily available to composition students and young composers anywhere, in curricula or otherwise," Sekhon said.

Sekhon adds that while it’s one thing for a composer to write a piece for a solo musician or a small ensemble, it’s another when they’re putting an orchestral composition together.

Francis speaks to sophomore Logan Barrett after the orchestra performed "Proportions."
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

“Say they’re writing a violin solo piece or violin-piano, they have performers here at USF who they’re working with closely in trying that out," Sekhon said.

"What that means when they write a piece like an orchestra piece is that they need 60, 70 people in front of them to try something out for them, that’s not as easy to come by as walking down the hallway and finding a violinist in a practice room and saying, “Hey, show me what this sounds like.”

All five finalists were male, but Sekhon said there were three female entrants in the original field of 14.

"Is the field male-dominated?" he said. "Historically, yes, yes it is and we have a lot of effort here to identify and recruit female composers and also to demonstrate that this is something that is not male-only. "

There at least was variety when it came to the ages and experience levels of the finalists, from an 18-year-old freshman to 26-year-old first year masters student Hoang Pho.

"Writing for orchestra is one of the hardest kind of composing because, as a composer, I will have to write music intellectually, with a large number of instruments," said Pho, whose piece was named White Night. "Also, I have to laboriously prepare the performers’ material and, moreover, rehearsing orchestra music has a lot of intricacies that often constrain the ability to be heard. That’s why the opportunity like this is very rare and very helpful."

Music Director Michael Francis leads the Florida Orchestra through one of the student pieces in the USF School of Music Concert Hall.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

One of the amazing things – but perhaps not that surprising based on their skill - was how well orchestra members performed the works on a first reading.

They quickly picked up some of the subtleties in the pieces, like the steampunk influences scattered throughout freshman Bradley Mikesell’s composition, Analog.

"They’re one of the best orchestras in the Southeast United States and they pulled it off better than I could have imagined," Mikesell said, laughing.

In addition to world-class musicians playing their work, the students interacted with Florida Orchestra conductor and Music Director, Michael Francis.

After each performance, Francis would bring the composer to the podium and give them suggestions for improvement. That really stuck with first-year graduate student Zachary Konick, who composed In Principio.

"Maestro Francis gave me a lot of incredible large-scale feedback as far as the form of the piece overall and also small-scale things like, ‘Oh, you can lighten up the percussion near the end to help bring out the climax in the strings,’" Konick said. "Things like that have been really valuable, I’m going to take it to the next project I work on."

Francis said he and the other judges were very impressed by what they heard.

"I think there were five very distinct, clear musical voices, and what I was encouraged by is there was a lot of skill, there’s a lot of thought, a lot of creativity and a lot of expression, so I was pleasantly surprised in a very positive way by how strong the pieces were," Francis said. "With a little bit of tweaking here and there and also the experience of hearing the music being performed live, I’m sure these pieces will be refined into something even better."

Francesco Sclafani, a 23 year old junior, won the competition with his piece, "Deconstruction of Anger."
Credit Connor Murphy / USF College of The Arts

But in the end, only one could win: Sclafani's work, Deconstruction of Anger, which Francis called "vibrant, exciting and compelling."

"I’m grateful that he finds something of merit in my work, at least in this case and that he said that he wants to work on it and I’m, that’s more than any person could ask for," Sclafani, 23, said.

"Not that I needed the confirmation since I always enjoyed it but this proved that I have what it takes to be a composer that people would either enjoy listening to, would find interesting to listen to or be able to react to in some way."

In addition to a $750 prize, the work will be performed at the final concerts of the Orchestra’s Masterworks series in May.

"It’s not the same as Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, those pieces will live forever, but it’s still very exciting to have my music going along with the other two pieces because it’s still a great privilege to be able to have it received by everyone," Sclafani said.

And when asked how he's going to feel in May when the Orchestra plays his piece publicly, Sclafani said: "I am probably going to be excited and apprehensive because at every performance, no matter what it is, there’s always that preparation for the first note and since mine doesn’t start off with a bang, it ends with one, I’m going to be interested to see how the audience will react to the way it starts."

The five finalists in the Florida Orchestra/USF Student Composer Competition: (l-r) Zachary Konick, Bradley Mikesell, Hoang Pho, Francesco Sclafani and Logan Barrett.
Credit USF School of Music

WUSF News invites you to contribute to our Art Populi series. Grab your phone and send us your thoughts and pictures of your favorite student performances or composers. Tweet us @WUSF, or find us on Facebook and Instagram @WUSFPublicMedia. Make sure you use the hashtag -- #WUSFMusic.