Emerging Black Composers Project Announces Next Winner For SF Symphony Premiere

Opera music
Composer Jens Ibsen Photo: Mike Grittani

The Emerging Black Composers Project, the annual commissioning and mentorship program run in partnership by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the San Francisco Symphony, has named Bay Area composer and singer Jens Ibsen as its second honoree.

The award brings a cash prize of $15,000 and a chance to workshop on a new work, which will then have its world premiere as part of the Symphony’s 2023-24 season led by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen .

“It’s pretty amazing,” Ibsen told The Chronicle. “I had been doing work for 11 years without any recognition, but since 2020 I’ve started to see a lot more interest in my music.”

Ibsen, 26, was born in Accra, Ghana to a Ghanaian mother and an American father. He grew up in Pacifica and Daly City, studied music at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco, and sang with the Vienna Boys Choir, the ensemble’s first African-born member. He holds degrees in music from Pepperdine University in Malibu and the Mannes School of Music in New York.

As a composer, Ibsen has a varied musical portfolio ranging from opera to heavy metal. He was commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival and the Kennedy Center.

As a singer, Ibsen has performed with the Trinity Wall Street Choir and in recital with Bay Area pianist-composer Preben Antonsen. In 2014, he organized a Choir Flashmob at the Embarcadero BART station.

“With the changing tide following the murder of George Floyd, people started reaching out to me more,” he said. “I had to do some soul-searching about it, because I had worked just as hard before.

“Where I ended up is I just need to capitalize on that momentum while it’s here. And who knows how many times I’ve been ignored for to be black? »

The Emerging Black Composers Project was created in 2020 through an anonymous donation of $250,000 to the Conservatory. Michael Morgan, the late music director of the Oakland Symphony, was an early backer of the project, along with Salonen and San Francisco Conservatory music director Edwin Outwater.

The first prize was awarded in 2021 to New Jersey composer Trevor Weston, whose as yet untitled orchestral work is slated for his world premiere Sept. 29-Oct. 2 alongside Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.

In addition to Weston, the committee also gave $8,000 commissions to composers Jonathan Bingham, who holds degrees in composition from Howard and New York universities; Shawn Okpebholo, professor of music composition and theory at Wheaton College Conservatory of Music in Illinois; and jazz pianist and Philadelphia native Sumi Tonooka.

Asked about his plans for the commissioned work, Ibsen said it was too early to know.

“I have an eclectic musical mind. I wear my influences on my sleeve, including Arabic and Indian music and progressive metal. So those can come into play,” he said. “I’m thrilled at the idea of ​​working with an orchestra. Even after several hundred years, I think there are still things we haven’t heard an orchestra do yet.