Monday, April 27, 2020

Winners: COMPOSERS (pops / light music division), 2019-20

The American Prize wishes everyone safety and health during this difficult time.

The American Prize Nation Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts, David (Volosin) Katz, chief judge, is honored to announce the winners, runners-up and honorable mentions of The American Prize in Composition, 2019-20, in the pops/light music division. Congratulations!

Complete listings of finalists and semi-finalists in The American Prize competitions may be found elsewhere on this blog. Please use the chronological tool in the right-hand column to find specific results.

QUICKNOTES: Although The American Prize does not usually provide written evaluations to semi-finalists, some semi-finalist composers will receive in their certificate packets short comments, suggestions or overall impressions made during the judging. We hope they will prove valuable. All finalists receive written evaluations from a member of The American Prize judging panel.

COVID EXTENSIONS: Because of the current national and international situation, many rules have been changed and requirements eased to make it easier to apply for The American Prize 2020-21. In addition, application deadlines have been extended. We will accept applications from COMPOSERS, CLASSICAL VOCALISTS, PIANISTS, CHAMBER ENSEMBLES and INSTRUMENTAL SOLOISTS postmarked or emailed by Wednesday, September 9, 2020. Applications from CONDUCTORS, STAGE DIRECTORS, CONDUCTED ENSEMBLES, ARTS ADMINISTRATORS (arts marketing, arts education) and in the performance of American Music (BACON AWARD) will be accepted until Wednesday, September 9, 2020. Further extensions may be granted pending the most current information about the virus. Visit for complete contest information.

Please make us aware of any misprints:

The American Prize in Composition—Pops/Light Music Division (professional division), 2019-20

The American Prize winner:
Penka Kouneva             
Tujunga  CA     

Penka Kouneva              
Los Angeles-based composer Penka Kouneva is known for her "exceptional talent" (Billboard). Her orchestral music has been called "breath-taking" (NPR) and "luminous" (Forbes.) She has composed the music to the NASA attraction Heroes and Legends at the Kennedy Space Center, the iconic video games Prince of Persia and League of Legends, the primetime TV series Pandora (with composer Joe Kraemer), a 2020 Oscar contender in Foreign language films (Aga) and multiple feature films. Her orchestral music has been performed at the Hollywood Bowl by Los Angeles Philharmonic and at Lincoln Center (Amy Andersson's Women Warriors). The top soundtrack label Varese Sarabande released her orchestral albums Woman Astronaut and Rebirth of Id  to rapturous press. Penka's chamber music for the concert stage has been commissioned by Lark and Ciompi Quartets & Elixir Trio. Her awards include a Sundance Composer Fellowship, Distinguished Duke Alumna, Meet the Composer Fellowship and Recognition Award from Game Audio Network Guild. In 2019 Penka's orchestral commission "Betrayal of Technology" was premiered by Sofia Philharmonic to great critical acclaim. Penka received the first-ever Ph.D. in composition at Duke University where she studied with the renowned American orchestral composers Stephen Jaffe and Scott Lindroth.

2nd Place:
Heather Niemi Savage              
Wood River Jct  RI     
Daughter of the Stars

Heather Niemi Savage               
Heather Niemi Savage studied composition under Dr. Larry Bell and Howard Frazien.  In composition, as in life, she explores the interaction between the old and the new, tradition and innovation, examining every nuance and implication of her experiences and musical ideas. Composer Walter Saul has described her work as “stunningly resourceful with scant material.”

Heather’s works have been performed in a variety of contexts including the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers; the 2016 Rhode Island All-State Festival; the 2017 New Music Festival in Fitchburg, MA; and commemorative events at local churches. Her work, Daughter of the Stars, was premiered in Manhattan by the North/South Consonance chamber orchestra.

Heather resides in Rhode Island, where she is also a collaborative pianist, the music director of Carolina Free Baptist Church, and maintains a private teaching studio. More of her works and further information can be found at

3rd Place (there was a tie):
Jennifer Bellor              
Las Vegas  NV       
High Resolution    

Jennifer Bellor               
Described as "evocative" (Jazz Weekly), "lyrical," and "mesmerizing" (textura), the music of Las Vegas-based composer Jennifer Bellor has been presented by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, American Composers Orchestra, Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra, Wuhan Philharmonic Chamber Series, Las Vegas Philharmonic, Lviv Philharmonic, Transient Canvas, UNLV Wind Orchestra, Clocks in Motion, Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, Eastman Saxophone Project, Elevate Ensemble, and many others in the US and abroad.

Bellor's recent album “Reflections at Dusk” was released by Innova Recordings November 2019, and showcases instrumental music inspired by the Nevada sunsets. The album has been described as “crepuscular,” “mystical,” and “magical.” Textura stated, “She's also that rare composer whose music manages to be instantly listenable and emotionally resonant without any compromise to its sophistication.” High Resolution was one of the pieces featured on the album, and was premiered at Carnegie Hall by the Clark High School Symphony Strings. The New York Concert Review described the work as “atmospheric, dream-like quality. It is an effective work that is worthy addition to the repertoire.”

Bellor holds a PhD in music composition at Eastman School of Music, a Master of Music degree in composition at Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in music at Cornell University. She is on the composition faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and artistic director of the new music series Nextet.

3rd Place (there was a tie):
Jonathan Graybill            
Baltimore  MD     
Winter Celebration 

Jonathan Graybill             
Jonathan Graybill garners his influences from nature, field recordings, history, and the legends and stories of the indigenous people of North America in his music. Currently, Graybill is invested in an ongoing project, the Ancient Language of Birds, which consists of a series of works that pair a solo instrument with field recordings of the songs and calls of single avian species from North America. The birds are connected to stories of Native Americans origin, exploring the cultural meanings and early names of these birds. His music has been recorded on Ablaze and Navona Records. More info at:  

Finalist Honorable Mention: 
M.L. Daniels              
Round Rock  TX     
Mysterious Journey 

M.L. Daniels               
Nationally renowned composer Dr. M.L. Daniels received his doctorate at the University of North Texas where he studied composition with Samuel Adler.  He served as chairman of the music department for 15 years at Abilene Christian University and taught music theory, orchestration, counterpoint, analysis, and composition.  He has also served as staff arranger for Warner Bros. Music.

Dr. Daniels has won the National School Orchestra Associations composition contest five times.  He has over 100 published compositions including works for brass ensemble, solo wind instrument and piano, full orchestra, string orchestra, band, and string quartet.

Dr Daniels is the Composer-in-Residence for the Williamson County Symphony Orchestra.  So far, the Orchestra has played over twenty of his compositions, many of them premier performances.  He currently has 42 pieces listed at Luck’s Music.


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