Friday, January 1, 2021

HONORED ARTISTS of The American Prize, 2020


The American Prize National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts, David (Volosin) Katz, chief judge, is delighted to recognize six contest laureates as Honored Artists of The American Prize, 2020.  

Honored Artists are individuals (or ensembles) who have proven themselves to be artists of "sustained excellence" over a number of seasons as laureates in the competitions. 

Honored Artists will be highlighted in a separate section on The American Prize website and on the competition's Facebook pages, will receive expanded listings on The American Prize blog, will be featured in individualized press releases sent to local, regional and national media, and receive a special, framed certificate. 

Honored Artists also receive an application fee waiver for a future competition.

The 2020 HONORED ARTISTS of The American Prize:

Jennifer Bellor, composer, 

     Las Vagas, NV

Gerald Gurss, composer and conductor, 

     St Paul, MN

Wes Kenney, conductor, 

     Denver, CO

Christine Steyer, soprano, arts producer, 

     Chicago, IL

Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra, 

     Peter Wilson, conductor, Waynesboro, VA

Clare Demer, soprano, 

     Tucson, AZ—Career Encouragement Award


Photos and biographies of these artists may be found below.

Several years ago Maestro David Katz, chief judge of The American Prize, expressed a hope for the competitions "to do more" to advance the arts. The creation of the Honored Artist designation is one way the contests seek to bring additional recognition to laureates the organization deems especially worthy. First awarded in 2014, Honored Artists of The American Prize are now an annual part of The American Prize contest activities, presented as New Year's Day honors.  

Previously inducted Honored Artists of The American Prize include: 


   Lee Actor, composer, 
     Monte Sereno, CA

   Donald Appert, conductor, 
     Vancouver, WA

   Jesse Ayers, composer, 
     Canton, OH

   David Avshalomov, composer, 
     Santa Monica, CA

   Robert Butts, conductor, 
     Madison, NJ

   Oliver Caplan, composer, artistic director, 
     Medford, MA

   Peggy Dettwiler, conductor, Mansfield, PA

   Nancy Bloomer Deussen, composer, 
     Mountain View, CA

   Gregory Fritze, composer, 
     Daytona Beach Shores, FL

   Jonathan Handman, conductor, 
     LaGrangeville, NY

   Tara Villa Keith, conductor, 
     Davidson, NC

   Darren Lawson, stage director, producer, 
     Greenville, SC

   Susan Merdinger, pianist, chamber musician, 
     Highland Park, IL

   David Sartor, composer, conductor, 
     Hermitage, TN

   Judith Stillman, pianist, composer, 
     Providence, RI 

   William Vollinger, composer, 
     Woodcliff Lake, NJ

   Robert Wendel, composer, 
     New York, NY


   Allentown Band, Ronald Demkee, music director, 
     Allentown, PA

   "Re-choired Element" Chamber Choir 
     of Linn-Benton Community College, 
     James Reddan, director, Albany, OR

   University of South Dakota Chamber Singers, 
     David Holdhusen, director, Vermillion, SD

Honored Artists of The American Prize are awarded in memory of Maestro Katz's father, Abraham R. Katz, a gifted amateur musician, who died in 1999.


Jennifer Bellor, composer, Las Vagas, NV

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, ShoutHouse, UNLV Wind Orchestra, Clocks in Motion, Sonic Cluster Duo, Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, Eastman Saxophone Project, Elevate Ensemble, and many others in the US and abroad. She is currently the resident Clock Shop Composer for the percussion quartet Clocks in Motion. After a performance of her multi-movement work Of Maker and Movement, Cleveland Classical stated, “The simple, yet detailed beauty of the sounds, some motoric, others melodic, was arresting. Bellor writes ravishingly and imaginatively for percussion.”


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.” The album with many of the works written for harp and percussion, has been described as “crepuscular,” “mystical,” and “magical,” and many of these tracks have been featured on radio shows including Marvin Rosen’s Viva 21st Century marathon, “Feminine Fusion,” Society for New Music’s “Fresh Ink,” among others.


Her music draws on a variety of influences, evidenced in her self-released debut album Stay (2016), which is a melting pot of different music styles largely based on poetry. Stay was featured on NewMusicBox’s 2016 Staff picks, and was praised as having the ability to “maintain a highly individual identity without needing to take refuge in pre-post-genre musical silos.”


Born and raised in Northern NY, Bellor earned 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. Her primary composition teachers included David Liptak, Bob Morris, Andrew Waggoner, Sally Lamb-McCune, and Steven Stucky. She is on the music composition faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and artistic director of the new music series Nextet. Please visit her website

Gerald Gurss, composer and conductor, St Paul, MN

Dr. Gerald Gurss is Artistic Director of TCGMC. Gerald joined us at the start of our 38th season with over 10 years of experience with GALA Choruses (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses). He was most recently Artistic Director of One Voice Chorus & Sotto Voce Chamber Ensemble in Charlotte, North Carolina and Founding Artistic Director of Midland Men’s Chorus: The Gay Men’s Chorus of Columbia in Columbia, South Carolina.

Dr. Gurss is a native Midwesterner from Kansas. He received his bachelor’s degree in voice at Emporia State University where he studied with Terry Barham. He received his master’s degree in voice with a choral cognate from Miami University, where he studied with William Bausano and Ethan Sperry. During his studies at Miami, he was the assistant director for the MU Men’s Glee Club and prepared a chorus for the Cincinnati Ballet’s production of Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” After leaving Miami, Gerald led a successful music program at the Leavenworth Catholic Schools in Leavenworth, KS.

Gerald received his DMA in choral conducting from the University of South Carolina, where he studied with Dr. Larry Wyatt and Dr. Alicia Walker. His research focus is the inclusion and pedagogy of transgender singers in the choral rehearsal. This research has granted him speaking engagements at Wingate University and the University of South Carolina.

In 2015, Gerald collaborated in the founding of Midlands Men’s chorus: The Gay Men’s Chorus of Columbia, SC and served as its artistic director until 2018. Currently, Gerald resides in Charlotte, NC where he serves as the artistic director for the One Voice Chorus (Charlotte’s LGBT chorus) and the chamber ensemble, Sotto Voce.

In the spring of 2017, Gurss collaborated with Nashville in Harmony to bring the U.S. premiere of James McCarthy’s Codebreaker (The Story of Alan Turning, set for SATB chorus, orchestra and soprano soloist) to the Charlotte and Nashville communities.

In April of 2018, One Voice collaborated with Allen University, an HBCU (historically black college and university) in Columbia, South Carolina, to present the regional premiere of Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the Dream.

During his studies at the University of South Carolina, Gerald has been a finalist for the American Prize in Choral Composition three times (2015, 2016, and 2017).

Most recently, Gerald was appointed as the TTBB Repertoire Chair for the Southern Division of the American Choral Director’s Association. Gerald has been commissioned to write choral work for the following organizations: One Voice Charlotte, The Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte, Providence United Methodist Church (Charlotte, NC), The New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus, The Gay Men’s Chorus of San Diego, The Women’s Chorus of San Diego, The Richmond Men’s Chorus (VA), Turtle Creek Chorale (TX), Sine Nomine (Denver, CO), and the University of South Carolina Women’s Chorus.

Wes Kenney, conductor, Denver, CO

The 2007 Grand Prize Winner of the Varna (Bulgaria) International Conducting Competition, a winner of the Ernst Bacon Memorial Prize for excellence in performance of American Music, and now an American Prize Winner for best orchestral performance in the Youth Orchestra Division, Wes Kenney is celebrating his 17th season as Music Director of the Fort Collins (Colorado) Symphony and Director of Orchestras at Colorado State University. Named in 2004 to an additional post as Music Director of Opera Fort Collins, he currently conducts three professional operatic productions as well as numerous orchestra concerts and dance performances each season throughout Northern Colorado. Wes Kenney is also in his seventh season with Denver Young Artist Orchestra—the premier youth orchestra in the state of Colorado—an orchestra recognized by the city of Denver for outreach, as well as both the 2017 Ernst Bacon Memorial prize for the performance of contemporary music from the American Prize competition.  He has led that orchestra on two European tours and anchored two festivals at Carnegie Hall.

Mr. Kenney’s guest conducting activities include the Acadiana Symphony (LA), Alabama Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, Dubuque Symphony, Lafayette (IN) Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, New Mexico Symphony, Richmond Symphony, Riverside Symphonia, Savannah Symphony, and the Virginia Symphony. International guest conducting includes performances with the Changwon (South Korea) Philharmonic where he will return next June, Vietnam National Symphony (Hanoi), Vidin State Philharmonic, Stara Zagora Opera Company in Bulgaria as well as the Edinburgh (Scotland) Music Festival.

Mr. Kenney has also enjoyed success directing opera, ballet and musical theater. Previous positions include Music Director of the Virginia Ballet Theater, Co-Principal Conductor of the Oakland Lyric Opera, and Guest Conductor with Universal Ballet Korea. Since 2004 he has conducted productions of Carmen, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Sweeney Todd, Turn of the Screw, Barber of Seville, Madama Butterfly, Cenerentola, Rigoletto, Tosca, Otello, Die Zauberflote, Die Fledermaus, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Street Scene, La Boheme, Orfeo, Pagliacci, Cavelleria Rusticana, Falstaff, Turandot, Marriage of Figaro, Serse, The Merry Widow, Aida, Don Giovanni, and Tenderland. In addition, he has conducted over one hundred fifty performances of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Firebird, and many other dance works.

In six seasons as the Virginia Symphony’s Associate Conductor, Mr. Kenney appeared more than 350 times with that orchestra where he was responsible for programming and conducting Pops, Family and Young People’s Concerts. During his tenure with the Virginia Symphony, he was also invited to guest conduct the Williamsburg Symphonia, Virginia Chorale, Norfolk Chamber Consort and Virginia Waterfront International Arts Festival.

Named Educator of the Year by the Colorado Chapter of the American String Teachers Association in 2008, Mr. Kenney enjoys working with talented young people in his position as Director of Orchestras at Colorado State University and has served as Guest Conductor with the Alabama, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Virginia All-State Orchestras. Awarded the prestigious Carmen Dragon Conducting Prize in 1992, Wes Kenney is a founder of the CSU Summer Master of Music Education with an emphasis in conducting program, now in its 12th year.

He was recently a guest lecturer at the Conductor’s Institute held at Bard College in upstate New York, teaching alongside the late Harold Farberman and American Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leon Botstein.

Mr. Kenney is a past president of the Conductors Guild, a 2000 member service organization to the conducting profession. He currently is on the Guild’s advisory board. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California and San Francisco State University. Additional studies include three years as a fellow at the Conductors Institute, several American Symphony Orchestra League and Conductors Guild Workshops, and the Sandpoint Festival.  His teachers include Harold Farberman, Hans Beer, Gunther Schuller, Hans Swarovsky and Miltiardes Carides.

Christine Steyer, soprano, arts producer, Chicago, IL

As a performer, the soprano has distinguished herself as an artist of great versatility. In addition to being the recipient of many national performance awards including the American Prize Chicago Oratorio and Opera Award and Johnny Mercer Award, Steyer has received acclaim for her portrayals of the title role in Madama Butterfly and Violetta in La Traviata. Since 2000, she has sung as a chorister and in several small roles in over 40 productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago.


A frequent recitalist, Steyer sang several concerts of Russian and American music with pianist Philip Morehead and concerts of Spanish music with guitarist Brandon Acker. She recently sang in France with The Chicago Paris Cabaret Connexion singing at the Montpellier Opera House, Paris' Salle Olympe de Gouges and the Lapin Agile - Paris' oldest cabaret club. In 2020, she sang the Schubert Festival at Unity Temple where Steyer shared the stage with Lawrence Brownlee and members of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestras, and a recital at The 19th Century Club in Oak Park “Music of Hope and Healing”.


Steyer seeks many innovative ways to keep classical vocal music relevant in today's world. As a proponent of new works, she collaborated with numerous poets and musicians as well as writing her own lyrics to create the songbook ‘Six Songs for Soprano. She is currently collaborating as a lyricist with pianist composer Jean-Claude Orfali on a book of original cabaret songs. 


As a music advocate, Steyer has brought classical music to 23,000 youth in underserved areas with Bellissima Opera Outreach, an organization that she founded. Additionally, Steyer is the President of the new arts alliance, Working In Concert as well as the Artistic Director of one of its major initiatives: Bellissima Opera’s Tales of Transcendence–New Operas for Today Celebrating Those Transcending the Human Divide. The first two operas in the series, On Call: Covid-19 will premiere as a virtual opera this April and the second Future Perfect plans to premiere live in Chicago in June. Steyer serves as librettist on these operas which are both set by composer David Shenton.

Steyer teaches voice privately in Oak Park and is an adjunct faculty member at Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois.

Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra, 

     Peter Wilson, conductor, Waynesboro, VA

The WSO was founded in 1996 as the Waynesboro Community Orchestra under the baton of Eric Stassen. In its debut concert, 23 musicians performed works by Lully, Bach and Haydn. During the final concert of the 2005-2006 season, which celebrated the orchestra’s 10th anniversary, the organization officially adopted its current name, the Waynesboro Symphony Orchestra. In 2006 Jean Montès  succeeded Eric Stassen, leading the ensemble for a single season. In May 2007, Peter Wilson was appointed the WSO’s 3rd Music Director and continues to lead the orchestra in its 21st Season.

Over the past decade the ensemble has grown significantly, having over doubled its core size and often tripling the original personnel for some repertoire, which now includes works by Beethoven, Copland, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner. The ensemble has consistently programmed more challenging literature with each season, growing a repertoire that includes works from all centuries of the classical tradition.

Highlights from recent seasons include performances of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, “The Emperor,” and 5th and 6th Symphonies as well as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” and more recently, Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Waynesboro’s Schola Cantorum.

The WSO has welcomed members from many communities outside Waynesboro, including Staunton, Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, and Richmond, while also performing concerts in Staunton in partnership with Mary Baldwin University as well as fundraising events in Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater. In addition, the orchestra regularly collaborates with professional soloists while remaining deeply committed to the WSO String School, which provides after school lessons to young string players. The String School now provides free violins and free weekly lessons to local Boys and Girls Club members throughout the school year.

Peter Wilson is an engaging and multifaceted violinist and conductor whose musicianship has been noted as “first-class” by The Washington Post. He serves as Music Director of the Waynesboro Symphony and Richmond Philharmonic Orchestras, Concertmaster of the American Festival Pops Orchestra, and was recently appointed Artistic Director and Conductor for the Youth Orchestras of Central Virginia. Peter is the former senior enlisted musical advisor to The White House, where he performed as a violinist for three decades in support of countless dignitaries and heads of state during five Presidential administrations. He served as String Section Commander for “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, and his distinguished career resulted in his being awarded the Legion of Merit. Highly respected throughout the National Capital Region, Peter has guest conducted the National Symphony and National Gallery Orchestras and is a member of the faculty at George Mason University. He holds music degrees from Northwestern University and The Catholic University of America, where he earned a Doctor of Musical Arts.

Clare Demer, soprano, Tucson, AZ—Career Encouragement Award

Italian-American soprano Clare Demer is a member of the Regular Chorus of the San Francisco Opera. She recently received her Masters degree from the University of Houston Moores School of Music, where she performed Mary in The Ballad of Baby Doe, Gretel in Hansel and Gretel, Paula Jordan in Bolcom's Dinner at Eight, as well as roles in Rota's I Due Timidi and the world-premiere of Robert Nelson's The School for Scandal. 

Clare has participated in many festivals across the United States, Canada, and Europe, including the inaugural season of Teatro Nuovo in 2018, IVAI in Montréal, the Aspen Summer Music Festival and School, SongFest at Colburn, and the Saarburg Festival in Germany. In 2016, Clare was an Art of Song Fellow at the Toronto Summer Music Festival.

She is a graduate of The University of Arizona, where she earned a B.M. in Vocal Performance, a B.S. in Psychology, and a minor in Italian. While at the University of Arizona, she was the recipient of a Creative Achievement Award for the Fred Fox School of Music and won 1st prize in both the undergraduate and graduate levels of the Amelia Riemann Competition. During her time at the University of Arizona, she sang Monica in The Medium, L'Enfant in L'enfant et les sortilèges, and Second Lady in The Magic Flute. With the Arizona Choir she performed Dvorak's Stabat Mater on tour in the Dvorak Hall in Prague and the Musikverein in Vienna.

Clare is the recipient of many awards, including three Encouragement Awards from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, 3rd place in the James Toland Vocal Arts Competition, the Raimondi Scholarship from Casa Italia, 1st place in the Marni Nixon International Voice Competition, and numerous accolades from The American Prize foundation for both art song and opera performance.


Congratulations to all our honorees.  

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