By Samantha Brandbergh and Gianluca D’Elia
When senior music composition major John Franek was 12 years old, he came home from school to learn that his parents signed him up for piano lessons. After taking lessons for three years, Franek found his “first love” in the notes of the sheet music.
That passion led him to pursue music in college, recently becoming a finalist in a composition competition for the Siberian State Orchestra.
The competition showcases undergraduate and graduate students’ original pieces, and the finalists’ compositions will be premiered at the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic Hall in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, on Nov. 25.
This is the first year the competition was open to students outside of the Russian Confederation.
Franek first heard about the competition from composition professor Jay Kawarsky.
This past spring, Kawarsky had a piece entitled “Episodes” recorded and then premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia. Vladimir Lande, music director and conductor for the Siberian State Orchestra, asked if Kawarsky had any students interested in submitting their work for the competition.
“I asked [Lande] the due dates for the score, who the judges would be — Russian composers — the length of the piece and the size of the orchestra,” Kawarsky said. “I suggested to [Franek] that he write his first truly large orchestra work and submit it.”
When Kawarsky told Franek about the competition, Franek did not hesitate to enter “Mithridates,” a project he had worked on for four months.
“I was working on this for the tail end of the summer and at the beginning of the semester, and then when I was putting in the final markings, Kawarsky brought up the competition, and I knew right then which one I was going to enter,” Franek said.
Franek took inspiration for his piece from King Mithridates II of Pontus, the modern Black Sea region of Turkey.
“A bunch of [composers] have operas after him because he had a very fascinating life of being one of the greatest rulers in any of the ancient Greek kingdoms,” he said.
Franek described his composition as having a fast tempo, which is in line with the finales symphonies have held since the Baroque era. According to Franek, the piece will contain a wide range of orchestral instruments, including flutes, oboes, horns, a clarinet, a bassoon, trombones, a tuba, full strings and bass.
“I wanted every instrument in the orchestra, particularly percussions, [to have] parts that they would love playing,” he said. “I love giving musicians music that they also love to perform themselves; it makes the music-making process that much more enjoyable, and it’s the best feeling in the world.”
The submission process was different for Franek compared to the Russian students, as he went through “pre-screening,” he said. He sent his piece to Lande before officially entering into the competition on Sept. 12.
After not hearing any updates on the competition for almost a month, Franek was starting to believe he wouldn’t become a finalist.
“I even told my mom, ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’” he said. “Composition competitions are tricky, it’s very subjective. So, I put that on the back burner and got to work on other projects.”
On Oct. 17, however, Franek woke up to an email saying he was chosen as one of the finalists. After the initial shock, a feeling of humility came over him as he thought about the people who helped him reach this point in his career.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without my private instructors for composition and piano,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.”
According to Kawarsky, Franek has been privately studying composition with him for the past three years, crediting him and the other professors at Westminster Choir College for giving him the tools to succeed in music composition.
Due to travel time and a busy concert season at Westminster, Franek is unable to go to Russia to hear his piece premiered.
“We will follow the competition and see where his composition goes from there,” Kawarsky said. Franek, however, hopes to hear the symphony from beginning to end in the near future.
“I can’t wait for the day I can hear it straight through, and I’m going to work my very hardest to make that happen,” he said.
Franek added that, while he has written over 100 original pieces and premiered about 30, debuting this symphony in a foreign country has provided him with an “amazing and unique” situation.
“This is really it. It’s given me a whole other wave of energy and inspiration I get to put into my work,” he said.
Printed in the 11/01/17 edition.