This classical music competition changes lives. Can it also put Central Florida on the map for new music?
The National Young Composers Challenge returns this weekend
By Beth Kassab
Robert Tindle was just 14 when he first entered the National Young Composers Challenge, now a part of UCF’s annual arts celebration every April.
The score he submitted back in 2011 as a high school student in Miami was long shot.
“I wrote something for orchestra, which was quite a stretch because I had never written for strings before,” he said.
But the result was life-changing.
Tindle was selected as a winner, which meant his piece was played in front of a live audience by the Orlando Philharmonic and workshopped in real time with conductor Christopher Wilkins, now music director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and the Akron Symphony.
“It was my first chance to really see somebody interacting with my music on that level of professionalism so it made a huge impact on me,” Tindle said. “I then realized this is something I really, really like doing.”
Today, more than a decade later, Tindle is 26 and working as a professional classical composer. He is finishing up a violin concerto to be premiered by an orchestra in Iowa next year and he wrote other recent commissions for orchestra and wind ensemble. He earned a master’s degree in 2020 in instrumental conducting from Wichita State University in Kansas.
“I’m still working with orchestras and large ensembles to this day and a lot of that can be traced in some way back to the connections I made at the National Young Composers Challenge,” he said.
This Sunday there will be two more 14-year-olds (along with two 17-year-olds and two 18-year-olds) on stage when the challenge returns to Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and helps kick off UCF Celebrates the Arts 2023.
This time the youngest composers are from Maine and Minnesota with other winners from New York, Michigan and Florida.
But the founders and judges of the event hope the result will be the same: More young people like Tindle encouraged to keep pursuing their passion.
“To have your music performed by 60 or 70 people in an orchestra and an audience hear what you have to say? That makes a very powerful impression,” said Alex Burtzos, assistant professor of music, endowed chair of composition at UCF and a judge for the competition.
Burtzos understands that feeling on a personal level. He won a composing competition as a 15-year-old high school student in Colorado.
“They are experiencing what it’s like to be in that sphere and that can be kind of intoxicating, you know?” he said.
This year the challenge, which started in 2007, received more than 100 entries from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. In addition to UCF, the event is also sponsored by Rollins College, Full Sail University and Timucua Arts Foundation.
Winter Park resident Steve Goldman, a composer and philanthropist who founded the competition, said he is impressed each year with the increasing level of complexity and sophistication in the entries.
“The goal is to make Central Florida a national center known for new music,” said Goldman, who is also a financial supporter of the Winter Park Voice.
While industry observers have noted how classical music audiences are disappearing across the country, there are more career paths for composers today in the age of endless streams of on-demand media.
“One of the jokes in the orchestra business is people think they are coming to listen to music by dead white European males, but it’s really a living and breathing art form and there is so much good stuff out there now,” Goldman said.
Burtzos agreed, noting the 12 spots in UCF’s composition program are highly competitive, with 35 applicants this year for just five open seats. A previous winner of the challenge is now enrolled in the program.
More television, films and video games mean a greater demand for new music, which is integral to storytelling.
“As a result of more outlets than we have ever seen before, it’s more realistic to consider a career as a composer,” Burtzos said.
The event on Sunday is free to the public and will feature live performances of the pieces by the six winners.
In addition to Goldman and Burtzos, judges include Dan Crozier, an accomplished composer and professor at Rollins and Keith Lay, who has taught at Full Sail, written music for commercials and film and whose orchestral works have been played all over the world.