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'MasterChef For Composers:' VSO Launches Composition Competition For Student Music Makers

An image of a person with long blonde hair smiling at the camera.
David Leyes
Film score composer and musician Suad Bushnaq is collaborating with the VSO on a composition contest for young Vermonters.

On the lookout for aspiring composers and music makers, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra has launched a statewide music composition competition for Vermont students.

It's called "Masterclef," and it's a competition riffing on the cooking reality show MasterChef.

Young music composers are invited to write an original piece based on the melody of a new cello concerto, written by award-winning film composer, Suad Bushnaq.

View the notation here and listen to the five-measure theme below.

VSO Masterclef theme by Suad Bushnaq

Vermont students in grades 6-12 are encouraged to submit original pieces.

The entries must include the five-measure motif from Bushnaq's cello concerto, "Samson's Walk On Air."

Bushnaq recently spoke with VPR's Mary Engisch about the VSO competition. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Suad, in a moment, I'd love for you to share more about your own musical background. But first, the VSO's competition — it's called MasterClef. Tell us the inspiration behind that name, and then more about the whole contest.

Suad Bushnaq: A very fun and, you know, piece of information to share is that exactly one year ago, I casually talked about this during an interview with Michael Ibrahim, who's the founder of the National Arab Orchestra. I just told him that, you know, if I ever were to run a TV show, I would love to have a "MasterChef for composers," with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and they need to come up with a masterpiece based on that theme.

So, exactly a year after I said that on air, here we are today, with the VSO doing exactly that!

Tell us more about what exactly the VSO when you are asking these young composers to do?

Well, if you think of the cooking show, MasterChef, and if you combine that with another cooking show called Chopped, where contestants are given the same ingredients, but asked to come up with an innovative dish, using these ingredients, transforming these ingredients, while still preserving the integrity of these ingredients and the final products.

Meaning we still need to taste these ingredients and it can't be just complete mush. This is exactly what the competition is. We have a theme. Because composing and cooking are exactly the same.

You have ingredients that you can transform into anything you want based on your own vision and creativity.

So we're using the main theme from the concerto that I composed as their main ingredients that any aspiring composer in any genre — be it hip-hop, classical, house, EDM, spoken word — any genre of music.

We are asking these aspiring musicians and composers to use these ingredients — the theme of the concerto — and come up on the other side with a one-to-three-minute-long song or piece of their own concoction that uses that theme.

"We are asking these aspiring musicians and composers to use these ingredients — the theme of the concerto — and come up on the other side with a one-to-three-minute-long song or piece of their own concoction that uses that theme."
Suad Bushnaq, composer

The judging process will be based on how how creatively they used it, how much they transformed it, is it still recognizable somewhere? These are the criteria that we're going to be using when judging the finalists.

And so are those handful of measures that musical motif we played at the beginning of our conversation? Here they are again. (music plays) This is from your own composition. It's a concerto for cello titled, “Samson's Walk On Air,” and this is what you want the students to riff off of and make their own take us into the original piece.

So the concerto in and of itself, which is a celebration of life, celebration of the life of Frank Samson, as requested by his wife, Pat Samson, who commissioned the work for the VSO.

The concerto is a three-movement concerto that actually also employs the same theme in each of the three movements.

So the concerto in and of itself is an example of how one theme can be transformed into different things because each of the movements is based on that on these five bars that we are sending the composers.

So, in a way, after the contestants come and we have the masterclass in Burlington, and when they come and attend the concert, they will see how I played with that theme.

So in a way, it's like a, that would be my contribution to the competition. That's the idea to attend a concert after a competition to see the many differences you know. They will see how their peers use the theme, but then they will see how I used it.

How did you find your way into composing film scores?

So, I'm a classically trained pianist. I started learning the piano when I was five.

And when I was 16, I realized that I enjoy improvising on the piano way more than learning already existing music.

And I've always watched films and listened to film scores and my aim was always like, since that age was to become a film score composer.

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I want to thank the VSO for really stretching the boundaries of what a classical orchestra does. We are very used to classical orchestras playing the same repertoire over and over again. It's always Beethoven, Mozart, you know, Tchaikovsky and just just appealing to a specific class of people and a specific section of society.

Whereas, the VSO is making classical music so accessible, and the fact that they would suggest something as big as a competition and as exciting as a competition to engage young composers is incredibly exciting, and something to you know, tip our hats off to because it's a unique move.

I personally don't know of other orchestras who have done that. And I really hope that any aspiring composer would apply and you know, see what they can see, what they can do and let their imaginations run loose.

The application and submission deadline is Tuesday, Oct. 12.

Contestants and the public can attend a masterclass with Bushnaq on Oct. 29 at Contois Auditorium in Burlington, where winners will be announced.

For more on how to submit a piece, the masterclass, the VSO concert and winners, visit the VSO Masterclef website.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or tweet us@vprnet.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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