VSO Announces #Masterclef, a Music Competition for Young Composers | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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VSO Announces #Masterclef, a Music Competition for Young Composers

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Suad Bushnaq - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Suad Bushnaq

Teen composers: Roll up your sleeves and tap into your creative zen. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra has announced #Masterclef, a music composition competition for Vermont students in grades 6 through 12, developed in partnership with Suad Bushnaq, an award-winning Jordanian/Canadian composer. Bushnaq will join the VSO in Burlington in October for the world premiere of her new cello concerto for orchestra called ‘Sampson’s Walk on Air.’ 

#Masterclef participants must arrange and perform an original song based on a short five-bar melody from Bushnaq’s concerto. Kids can create their pieces using any musical instruments and with any group size. All genres are encouraged, from classical, pop and rock to indie, house and beyond. The deadline is October 12. One grand prize winner will receive a $250 cash prize; two will each receive $125. All three will walk away with an orchestration notebook and other supplies. Selected finalists will also have the opportunity to work with Bushnaq during a masterclass on October 29.

Matt LaRocca, creative projects chair for the VSO, said in a phone interview that he hopes to see “a rainbow of different styles and types of music” from applicants. He’s excited the competition will celebrate students who are behind-the-scenes creators.

LaRocca, who is also the executive director of Music-COMP, a Vermont organization dedicated to nurturing young composers, notes that a lot of these young artists lead double lives. “They’ll write a string quartet, and then they have an entire electronic music persona that they run on SoundCloud at the same time,” he said. LaRocca explains that Bushnaq’s “ability to work across all different genres and styles of music” creates the perfect springboard for young composers. “She has so many different worlds that she exists in,” he said.

The VSO commissioned Bushnaq to create the celebratory cello concerto for a woman named Pat Sampson in memory of her late husband, Frank, who loved the cello. That led to the idea to use the cello concerto to inspire a youth competition, and the VSO coined it #Masterclef — a nod to the reality cooking show ‘Master Chef,’ in which contestants each get a box of the same ingredients to transform into their own unique and delicious meal. Bushnaq said composing is not so different from cooking.

“You can compose a million pieces based on ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ and each one would sound completely different. You could make a million different dishes from eggs and butter,” she said.

Suad Bushnaq - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Suad Bushnaq

Bushnaq is the daughter of a Syrian mother and a half-Bosnian, half-Palestinian father. She grew up in Amman, Jordan, and trained at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, Syria, for four years before moving to Canada to earn a Bachelor’s in music composition at McGill University. She began composing music for solo piano and then stepped into film scoring for feature films, which have screened at festivals like Hot Docs, Dubai and Seattle, and earned her the Hollywood Music in Media Award for Exceptional Instrumental Performance. 

“I never fully belong. In Jordan, I wasn’t fully Jordanian and in Syria I wasn’t fully Syrian. In Canada, I’m not fully Canadian. Music has always been a way to bring all these ethnic identities into one place," she said in a phone interview. "Music is my home and a place where all these identities can coexist together.”

Bushnaq is one of very few Arab women composers and said the path she took was not clear-cut. While she was building her career as a composer, she even earned a second degree in education and taught math to 4th and 5th graders for three years in North Carolina before making the decision to be a full time composer.  

“In my culture there’s a joke that you either become a doctor or a pharmacist, an engineer or a disgrace to your family. My parents supported me all the way but they were swimming against the current because the norm in that part of the world is that music is a hobby,” said Bushnaq, whose own parents were both pharmacists.

She said the competition combines her love for composing orchestral music, her career as a composer as well as her career as a teacher. 

“I’m hoping that everyone who participates will realize something great about themselves that they never knew before. I hope that each one of these students leaves this competition feeling empowered,” she said. “Sometimes all it takes is one person to listen to your work and to believe that it's up to par. Sometimes, that is all you need as an artist.”