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Choral Arts Initiative Premiere | Project Festival Supports Innovations in Composition

Twelve composers will join the Choral Arts Initiative for a three-day festival to develop new work, culminating in a concert with 12 world premieres.

These 12 composers have been chosen to develop a composition in progress or a completed work to be adjusted during their mentoring and workshops during this year's Premiere | Project Festival. Photos courtesy of Choral Arts Initiative

For the past 12 years, Orange County’s Choral Arts Initiative (CAI) has championed the emerging voices of contemporary vocal music, and since 2015 that work has included its annual Premiere/Project Festival. Under the guidance of artistic director Brandon Elliott, the festival brings together composers from throughout the world, matches them with some of the region’s most accomplished vocal artists, and brings these exploratory and innovative choral works to life through workshops and performances.

The culminating performance of this year’s festival takes place at Concordia University Irvine’s Zhang Hall on June 28. The festival’s 12 participating composers represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and are drawn from throughout the world, from China to Gardena, New Zealand to Utah.

“Choral Arts Initiative is Orange County’s only professional chorus solely devoted to new music,” says Elliott. “There’s no other organization in Orange County that has commissioned more or premiered more choral works. If listeners want their finger on pulse of what’s new in the choral world, look no further than us.

“In addition, we’re really committed to community engagement programs like this one. Since its first iteration, it’s been nationally recognized as one of the premier incubators and accelerators for composers, which is great to see internally. We’ve almost dropped our marketing budget because word of mouth brings us way more applications than we can accommodate.”

This year’s festival will be the fifth since 2015. The festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. 

Choral Arts Initiative founding artistic and executive director Brandon Elliott. Photo courtesy of Choral Arts Initiative/Vini Kare

Ironically, Elliott grew up wanting to stay far away from the performing arts. As a student at Irvine High School, he was headed in a different direction before his principal and a sage teacher intervened.

“I found my way into this career by mistake. As a freshman you have to choose between athletics and the arts. I chose cross country, even though I hate running. I had such a terrible time they kicked me off the team and the principal put me in beginning choir. That was the beginning of my next stage of life. I’m still in touch with my choir teacher, Richard Messenger, who started my love for vocal music.”

That detour resulted in Elliott’s commitment to new music and his creation of the festival. More than an opportunity for composers to hear their compositions in performance, the festival is a professional development opportunity, giving them comprehensive support for their careers. The works are developed through a week-long workshop residency, sung by a professional chorus, with mentorship from composition faculty. For those selected, it can be a valuable career boost.

“The composers we select can launch successful careers as composers through their work here,” says Elliott. “We’re the only festival I know of where composers realize an immediate economic benefit. A publication deal that, within 48 hours of the performance, they can go live with their work that anyone can publish and perform.”

The festival, part of CAI’s 12th season, themed “Threads of Connection,” promises to be adventurous both musically and textually. The art of composition is continually evolving, and the creative artists selected for this iteration of the festival are challenging themselves to reach more personal and heartfelt subjects for vocal treatment.

Brandon Elliott facilitates an in-depth seminar on the business and legal aspects of music composition as part of the Premiere|Project Festival in Irvine. Image courtesy of Choral Arts Initiative

“We’re seeing the text selection leaving the dogma of sacred text,” Elliott says. “There’s not as many Kyries, Glorias and Masses. We’re seeing texts that are not even poetry but prose, texts that are speaking to lived experience, that are social justice-oriented, texts about hunger, about people with no shelter, about the crisis in Ukraine. There’s one about gender transition, one about the climate crisis, one about war. It’s a paradigm shift away from what we would normally hear. It’s much more contemporary to lived experiences. the diversity is more vibrant than ever.

“There composers are questioning tuning systems, time and meter itself. We’re seeing extremes. What’s also popular now is more infusion of electronics with voices. It’s been around for a while, but when it first emerged, it was ahead of its time. Now it’s really taking off.”

One of the challenges Elliott faces is the sheer volume of submissions. In its initial year, the festival saw 1,500 applications and provided feedback to nearly 400 composers. With that much interest, how does the festival make its ultimate selections?

“We’re looking at a couple things,” Elliott says. “The application they submit includes a proposal of what they’re going to be writing about, what they would write about if they were accepted. That’s a compelling part of the application to get into the festival. They’re bringing a brand new work, so we’d like to see something as detailed as possible, what they plan to write, how they plan to execute it, other work they’ve executed, a sense of style, salience, that gives a good indication of whether we’re going to accept them or not.

“Also, the fest is informed by diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, so there are no formal education requirements,” Elliott continued. “Many festivals require a B.A., M.A., some even a Ph.D. Some of our composers are in high school, or in their 50s or 60s and want to try composing. They’re from all walks of life, and that’s another exciting part. If you look at our 12 composers from this year, they’re from everywhere, all over the world, all different backgrounds. They’re all pretty different, but almost all are selecting texts that really speak to lived experiences today.” 

Premiere | Project Festival 2024 Concluding Performance

When: 7 p.m. June 28

Where: Concordia University Irvine,  Borland-Manske Center (Zhang Hall), 1530 Concordia West, Irvine

Cost: $30 general admission, $15 students


Who are the 2024 composers?

The composers chosen for this year's festival are:

  • Ayo Awosika of Los Angeles. She is a Los Angeles-based vocalist, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and teacher. She teaches students in locations around the world.

  • Grace Coberly of Boston, Massachusetts. They are a a composer, singer and educator. A student of music and linguistics, they are completing a master's of education at George Mason University.

  • Albert de la Fuente of Barcelona, Spain. Growing up in a family with no musical tradition, he is a self-taught composer who has gone on to win multiple composing awards.

  • Brandon Di Noto of San Diego. He is a conductor, vocalist, educator and composer with degrees in music and business communication. His music interests include blending modern and traditional techniques.

  • Adán Alejándro Fernández of Los Angeles. He is the director of music at Holy Family Catholic Church in Glendale and has a background steeped in sacred music.

  • Lorna Katz of Gardena. A recent Cal State Fullerton graduate, she is studying for her master's degree in composition at UC Riverside.

  • Clark Lawlor of Syracuse, Utah. He is a software engineer and composer. After a long hiatus from music, he rediscovered his passion for music in 2022 when he starting composing again.

  • Nathan Scalise of Cheshire, Connecticut. He is a composer, trombonist, pianist/keyboardist, drummer and choral singer. His compositions blend rhythm, drive and vernacular traditions with classical concert techniques.

  • Austin Scott of Los Angeles. As a guitarist growing up primarily influenced by rock music, which in turn influences his choral compositions.

  • Mark Smythe of North Hollywood. Originally from New Zealand, he is known for composing choral, film and concert music. His score for "The Reef: Stalked" was nominated for multiple soundtrack awards.

  • Peter Walters of Northampton, Great Britain. A doctor and composer, he has been commissioned by the BBC World Service and Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation. He recently retired early from his medical practice to commit full time to composing.

  • Kelly Yixuan Wang of Beijing, China. Now living in Canada, she worked as an arranger and percussionist for the Vancouver Pops Orchestra and Choir.


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