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USF, The Florida Orchestra Partner to Give Student-Composers Invaluable Career Preparation Opportunity

It’s a Friday morning at the University of South Florida School of Music  Concert Hall. The Florida Orchestra is on stage. The lights dim. Conductor Michael Francis taps his baton, and the space fills with sound.

Violins sing. Bassoons moan. Drums boom. 
And with each note the musicians play, the musical scores of five student-composers come to life. 

“It’s so exciting to be standing here next to Michael Francis and interacting with these incredible musicians and hearing them play my piece,” said Francesco Sclafani, a resident of St. Petersburg pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music composition, after his “Deconstruction of Anger” was performed. 

“To have this experience, it gives me the confidence to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s just incredible.”

The Florida Orchestra performed original student compositions during an event Feb. 10 at the University of South Florida School of Music Concert Hall.

During “First Impressions: USF Composer Readings,” The Florida Orchestra “read” — or played — five USF student compositions. Now, Francis and a panel of judges will select a composition that will be refined and ultimately performed during The Florida Orchestra’s Masterworks Series in May. Never before has The Florida Orchestra premiered a USF student’s original work.

“It’s a program that also includes Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, so no pressure,” quipped Francis, who is also music director of The Florida Orchestra.

Though there will be only one winner, the reading offered invaluable professional development opportunities for all five students. Francis gave feedback on the compositions as well as the students’ interactions with both him and the musicians.

"This is one of the most complicated rhythmic pieces I’ve seen … what you’ve written is exceptionally difficult,” Francis told Zachary Konick, a Tampa resident studying for his master’s degree in music composition and composer of “In Principio.”

To achieve Konick’s desired “Stephen Hawking discovery of the universe” ending, Francis suggested a few orchestral tweaks.

“How we finish the piece is what the audience is going to go home with,” Francis said.

Michael Francis, conductor and music director of The Florida Orchestra, right, works with Zachary Konick, a graduate student and composer of "In Principio."

As Konick took the stage to give his suggestions to the musicians, Francis reminded all the student-composers to “be prepared with your notes … rehearsal time is limited.”

“Maestro Francis is a genius,” Konick said after his critique. “He gave me some great feedback that will help me be much more aware of the structural organization of the pieces.”

After the musicians played Hoàng Phó’s “White Night,” Francis suggested he “thin out the texture,” allowing listeners to hear the details of his musical climaxes. Phó is also a graduate student studying for his master’s in music composition.

Also participating in the reading were undergraduates Logan Barrett, composer of “Proportions,” and Bradley Mikesell II, composer of “Analog.”

A general tip of use to all five student-composers, Francis said, is to pay attention to page breaks in their music.

“You don’t want a page turn in a spot requiring a lot of concentration,” Francis advised.

In addition to Francis’s insights, each of the students also received a recording of The Florida Orchestra playing his piece.

“They will be able to submit their recordings to future opportunities,” said Baljinder Sekhon, assistant professor of composition at the USF School of Music, who helped to organize the reading.

“Usually, young composers have to try to make electronic renditions of their works. To walk away with a recording of their piece being performed in a live setting, and to have the ability to work with an orchestra at this stage of their education, is excellent preparation for their careers. Even students at the most prestigious conservatories often don’t have these experiences.”

The reading was part of a burgeoning partnership between USF and The Florida Orchestra, Sekhon said.

The Florida Orchestra will announce the winner of the reading within a month.

Story by Rachel Pleasant, Video and Photos by Sandra C. Roa