Idyllwild Arts Academy junior Ben Champion is in his second year as a fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Nancy and Barry Sanders Composer Fellowship Program.
Two weeks ago, Ben had the thrill of hearing his three-minute composition, “Migration,” played at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by the full Philharmonic under the direction of Christopher Roundtree in front of an audience of more than 2,100 middle-school students. He both wrote and orchestrated the piece.
“Being part of this program is the first time I have had access to incredible musicians to play my work,” said Ben. “This year, with my piece ‘Migration,’ it was different from last year when the orchestra played my shorter piece ‘Pale Blue Dot’ [named after Carl Sagan’s book]. Last year, I was just caught up in the moment. This year, I knew what to listen for.
“And if I could go back and do it all again, I would make ‘Migration’ longer — to have more chance to develop ideas and make stark contrasts stronger. I thought the sound-scape was maybe too homogeneous.”
Ben talked of hearing in nature and, then orchestrating, the song of the chickadee. “‘Migration’ starts with a big flute solo that signals the start of the migration,” he said. “The [chickadee] song at the beginning is more of a call when they are in danger. As the piece moves on, that theme becomes more distant. There’s a big climactic moment at the end with the brass and all the percussion, and then a softer restatement of the first theme, when the birds come home. The theme morphs into a major chord to express my joy in the birds coming back. It’s a story about survival.”
Each year, four fellows are selected for the Composer Fellowship Program out of more than 20 applicants. Ben is the only fellow not from a Los Angeles County school. Ethan Treiman and Luca Mendoza are from Crossroads School in Santa Monica and Robby Good is from Hart High School in Santa Clarita.
For the last two years, this quartet of fellows has studied with program mentors, Program Director Andrew Norman and CFP Teaching Artist Sarah Gibson. They have had frequent visits with LA Phil musicians for demonstrations and chamber music reading sessions of short assignments pieces they are working on. They attend over 20 LA Phil concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl each year.
In their first year the piece that gets played is 1 1/2 minutes long. And in the second year, it is 3 minutes long.
Ben said his biggest musical influences, as a pianist and composer, are Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin. “Bach is meticulous in his structures and his forms,” said Ben. “Chopin is my first love as far as classical music is concerned. His piano pieces are stunningly beautiful.”
Ben mentioned Austrian composer Anton Webern as an inspiration, primarily for structure. “But if I were to emulate anyone, it would be [Hungarian composer] György Ligeti,” noted Ben. “He really got me to understand that creating is all up to you, to create and be present with your music — that all sounds are beautiful and permissible. Ligeti opened up a whole new world for me.”
Ben began his piano studies with his mother. He also studied piano with Dr. John Walker of South Dakota State University. At Idyllwild, he first studied composition with Kevin Michael Sullivan. He currently studies composition with Mark Carlson of UCLA and piano with IAA faculty Dr. Jeanette Louise Yaryan and Parvati Mani.
His dream is to have classical music be more accessible and embraced by a wider audience. When asked if he views his music as accessible, he hesitated. “Yes, I think some of it is, but when writing, one has to write from the heart, the music that you are, the music that is in you.”
Ben has one more year at IAA and, although the LA Phil Composer Fellowship Program caps at two years, he hopes to take private composition lessons next year with Norman. After graduation from IAA, Ben will attend a music conservatory program.