Like many composers of my generation, I didn’t learn to write music by working with live musicians, or even at a piano; I learned to write at a computer, clicking in one note at a time and hearing it played back by a laughable digital approximation of a musical instrument. The sounds have gotten substantially better over the years, but a computer playback can’t (and never will) come close to the thrill of hearing your music played by a full orchestra. As useful as technology can be, I can’t help but wonder if some composers have become too disconnected from the hand-on aesthetic of live music, of asking a flesh-and-blood musician to make sense of their music. For this reason, if no other, the Pittsburgh Philharmonic’s Young Composer Contest is a much needed corrective.

But it is, of course, also much more than that. For starters, this isn’t a professional orchestra made up of union musicians, but a group of talented volunteers, amateurs in the best possible sense, who are playing music for the sheer joy of it. Make no mistake, that joy is contagious. I would defy any composer to leave a reading session with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic without feeling simultaneously blessed and challenged; blessed because they got to be a part of something truly special, and challenged because of how much they learned through the process.

The Young Composer contest is, in other words, much more than a contest, not unlike the way the Pittsburgh Philharmonic is much more than an orchestra. It is nothing less than a gift to young composers, and to music in general.


~Chris Massa


Chris Massa was the winner of the Pittsburgh Philharmonic’s 2017 Young Composer Contest. His winning composition, Three Arguments, was performed May 2017. Learn more about the Young Composer Contest here.