Reviews and Rejections: The Same Piece!

Part of my work as a composer involves preparing my scores and submitting them to calls for scores in hopes of securing ensembles to perform my pieces. This means I am not only the composer, but also the primary cheer-leader, of my pieces. I work to bring attention to them and get them performed so I can earn royalties from the performances. Last summer, I entered a call for scores hoping to snag a West Coast premiere of Daughter of the Stars, my piece for string orchestra.

Daughter of the Stars had already done well, taking second place in the 2020 American Prize for Composition (pops/light music division), and I was able to include that information when I sent it in to the call for scores. Yet, it didn’t even make the first cut. In fact, based on the information given to everyone who submitted, Daughter of the Stars didn’t receive even the ONE vote necessary to move to the next round.

I was so flabbergasted I wrote back to ask if I was understanding correctly that my piece didn’t get even one vote. The piece that came in second in The 2020 American Prize, the same piece that was chosen by Ablaze Records on their Orchestral Masters Volume 7. Yeah, that piece. Not one vote.

Obviously both The American Prize and Ablaze found my piece worth listening to – more than once. And since Ablaze is trying to actually make some money from album sales, they thought my piece would be something many people would want to listen to again and again. Yet, the ensemble I sent it to didn’t want it, which meant no West Coast premiere and no performance royalties for this piece for the foreseeable future.

The ensemble in question turned it down, but I got notice on Friday that the Society of Composers, Inc. has chosen my recording of Daughter of the Stars for inclusion in the national conference, which will be streamed online this year, due to COVID-19, in May!

No members of the ensemble in question gave my piece a thumbs up, but Colin Clarke, who reviewed Orchestral Masters Volume 7 in the March/April issue of Fanfare Magazine, had nothing but glowing remarks for my piece! His review was the first review of any of my works in a formal publication, and I had tears in my eyes reading it. This is what he had to say:

Moving from orientalism [in the album’s previous piece] to the warmth of Heather Niemi Savage’s Daughter of the Stars is like stepping into a welcoming bath. Second prize winner in the 2020 American Prize in Composition, Daughter of the Stars includes a setting of “Shenandoah” (which word itself alludes to “daughter of the stars”). As the well-known theme emerges naturally from the texture, that sense of warmth is at least doubled (if not squared). The piece is less than five minutes in duration, but makes its point well; and the Czech players [Brno Philharmonic] make a convincing case in their delivery of Americana.

I have to admit I am a bit bewildered. How is it that my piece can get such high praise from national organizations and music reviewers yet get rejected in a call for scores? I don’t have an answer for that.

I don’t think it is a matter of taste, since the ensemble in question said all aesthetic styles were acceptable. There were also no thematic guidelines or regulations against previous performances or awards. I don’t think it is a matter of difficulty because David Katz of The American Prize said it was well within the reach of many ensembles. I have made mistakes in pieces before that I later discovered after a rejection, but in this case I know with certainty there’s nothing wrong with the piece. In fact, it has been deemed excellent several times.

All I can do is shrug my shoulders. A lot. I think that ensemble, and it’s audience, are missing out on presenting the West Coast premiere of a great piece. That’s really too bad.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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