Elizabeth Kramer
November 28, 2016

The adventurous orchestral work Play by 37-year-old American composer Andrew Norman has earned the 2017 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, according to the University of Louisville, which distributes the $100,000 prize each year.

Norman is the second youngest recipient of the internationally recognized prize after British composer Thomas Ades, who won in 2000 and was born in 1971.

Although Play has been hailed by many music critics as an important work of the 21st century and was nominated for the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Norman said the Grawemeyer Award came as a complete surprise.

“I have so much growing left to do and so much in my writing to figure out, so winning this award is a bit intimidating because it suggests I should have my act together,” Norman said in a telephone call from his home in California.

Norman credits the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for making it possible for him to create Play during his time as the ensemble’s composer in resident from 2011 to 2013. BMOP premiered the piece in 2013 and then issued it on a 2015 recording, which gave the work prominent exposure. It is committed to providing the means for young composers to create large-scale works for performance and recording.

“I was given the chance to write this big, huge work and what an act of faith on their part to give me the time to work with the orchestra and a lot of rehearsal time,” Norman said.

Play received further distinction when the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the first movement last spring and then played it on tour in New York and Europe. This fall, the orchestra performed the entire piece in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Matthias Pintscher is scheduled to perform Play in January.

BMOP artistic director Gil Rose, who conducted the premiere and edited the CD, said Play grabs the listener on the first hearing.

“But it also still shows you different aspects of the piece each time, even the 50th time, you listen to it,” said Rose, who founded BMOP in 1996 and modeled its recording series of the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Records, which was active from 1952 through 1999.

Norman’s intense piano concerto Split is featured on the Louisville Orchestra’s concert schedule in April and Play could be on a future program. In the past several seasons, artistic director Teddy Abrams has shown a commitment to playing Grawemeyer Award-winning compositions. In 2015, during Abrams’ first season in Louisville, the orchestra performed Djuro Zivkovic's 2014 Grawemeyer Award-winning composition On the Guarding of the Heart. This year, the orchestra had planned to perform the 2016 award-winning let me tell you by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen before a contractual issue regarding the piece thwarted that effort.

Norman, who has likened his composing process to the way an architect creates a building, said he composed the three movements of Play by first figuring out a structure for the piece before choosing the notes.

In many ways, Norman said his inspiration for writing Play came from thinking about how an orchestra works.

“I think of the orchestra as a fascinating organism that breathes and flows, but also as a machine-like structure with hierarchical chains of command with elements of submission as well as expression and choice,” he said.

Throughout various performances of Play, including one at Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2014, and by Toronto’s Esprit Orchestra in 2015, Norman has been tweaking the music with rewrites. He said he considers the piece now about 99 percent finished.

Norman grew up in Modesto, Calif., where he developed a fascination with John William’s score to Star Wars that inspired him to pursue music composition. He studied composition at the University of Southern California and Yale University. He is currently working on a commission for a children’s opera from the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic. The opera is set to premiere in Berlin and London next summer.

This week, U of L will name three other Grawemeyer Award winners for outstanding work in presenting ideas for improving world order, in psychology and in education. In conjunction with the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the university also will announce the recipient of the Grawemeyer prize for religion, which is awarded by both institutions. The 2017 winners will present free lectures about their award-winning ideas when in Louisville in April to accept their prizes.