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Emerging Black Composers Project Winners React to Awards

Trevor Weston wins inaugural prize; additional honors awarded to Jonathan Bingham, Shawn Okpebholo, and Sumi Tonooka

June 16, 2021 by Tim Records

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), in partnership with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and the SFCM President’s Advisory Council on Equity and Inclusion, announced today that Trevor Weston will receive the first commission of the annual Emerging Black Composers Project. The San Francisco Symphony, led by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, will give the world premiere of his new commissioned work in the fall of 2022.

Weston, who is professor of music and chair of the Music Department at Drew University in Madison, NJ, said, “Winning the first Emerging Black Composer Project is an immense honor and wonderful recognition.This is an incredible opportunity to develop my music with the mentorship of internationally acclaimed musicians and institutions.”

As winner of the Emerging Black Composers Project, Weston will receive a $15,000 commissioning fee, mentorship from committee members, and resources to workshop his piece with SFS, along with its premiere there.

The selection committee—headed Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan, SFCM Music Director Edwin Outwater, and Salonen as well as leading musicians and composers John Adams, Elinor Armer, Carmen Bradford, Anthony Davis, Germaine Franco, and Joseph Young—were so impressed by the level of skill and talent in the applicant pool that they selected three additional composers to receive prizes.

EBCP supporters Michèle and Larry Corash agreed that talent should be recognized, and provided the extra funding for Jonathan Bingham, Shawn Okpebholo, and Sumi Tonooka, to each receive a commissioning fee of $8,000, mentorship by a composer on the committee, and workshopping as well as a premiere of their new work during the 2022-23 season. The Oakland Symphony, SFCM, and the National Brass Ensemble will each premiere a piece.

“We are proud to name Trevor Weston the recipient of the first commission from the Emerging Black Composers Project," said Morgan, who served as chair for the committee. “We are also thrilled to spotlight three additional promising artists whose careers we will eagerly follow. They remind us that talent is often more abundant than opportunity, and that music can and should bring people together across those lines.”

“It’s a thrill to be recognized as a finalist in such an initiative. There’s a lot of gravity to it,” said Bingham. “The medium we work in must be diversified if it’s to survive and I’m elated that my work can play a role with these stellar artists and organizations.”

Only 4.3% of conductors and less than 2% of musicians in American orchestras identify as Black, according to a 2014 study by the League of American Orchestras, and composers remain largely white. The Emerging Black Composers Project is intended to spotlight new music from Black American composers as a small step towards reducing some of the barriers that artists face in the field, including those perpetuated by systemic racism.

“I am honored to be selected among such distinguished, imaginative, and innovative artists to participate in this exciting project. I’m inspired and encouraged by the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Oakland Symphony’s commitment to support and program the music of Black composers,” said Okpebholo. “This intentionality is an essential and significant step in engaging underrepresented art and artists, expanding what it means to be a classical composer, and enriching the concert experience through diverse programming. I’m so grateful.”

Tonooka felt that this recognition could not have come at a better time, saying, “Coming out of the pandemic I was starting to question how best to move forward, and whether I could sustain the effort it takes to pursue symphonic composition. I realize that I am among few female Afro-Asian jazz composers who work in the orchestral community, and this special opportunity-grant for emerging Black composers helps me to stay on the path and to know that I can keep going.”

The four prizewinners were selected through an anonymous review process from nearly 100 applications received in this inaugural year of the Project. It is part of a larger action plan at SFCM to create and fund specific commitments that foster an equitable space for Black talent and leadership.

“Elevating Black voices and expanding the canon strengthens our culture of excellence,” said SFCM President David Stull. “Congratulations to this year’s winners. We are grateful for their talent and to our partners for helping deepen their impact.”