First Music 23.24 Winners

From top left: Alex Berko, Christian Quiñones, Grace Hale, Kian Ravaei,
Kevin Zapata, Benjamin Beckman, Kurton Harrison III

The New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) is pleased to announce the winners of its First Music commissioning program for the 2023/2024 season. The seven selected composers, all under the age of 30, represent some of the most promising new voices of their generation.


Orchestra: Alex Berko (Grand Prize Winner), Christian Quiñones, and Grace Hale will write new orchestral works to be premiered by the NYYS Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium / Perelman, led by new Music Director Andrew Kim.

Chamber Music: Kian Ravaei (Grand Prize Winner) will write a new work to be premiered by the NYYS Chamber Music program, led by Dr. Lisa Tipton, at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in May 2024.

Jazz: Kevin Zapata (Grand Prize Winner), Benjamin Beckman, and Kurton Harrison III will write new jazz works to be premiered by NYYS Jazz, led by new Director Michael Thomas.

Honorable Mentions: Alistair Coleman, Liam Cummins, and Paul Novak for orchestra/chamber music, and Conway Campbell for jazz.

In partnership with the Interlochen Center for the Arts, the grand prize-winning pieces by Alex Berko, Kian Ravaei, and Kevin Zapata will be presented at Interlochen in summer 2024. This season’s orchestra and chamber music jury was chaired by composer Christopher Theofanidis, and included Eric Stomberg, Joel Thompson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Peter Askim, and Andrew Kim. Mr. Theofanidis remarked, “The applicants for this year’s NYYS First Music competition was one of the strongest we’ve ever had, all of them writing at the highest levels. The three commissions we’ve selected to be premiered at Carnegie Hall will be extremely unique in their own ways. We can’t wait to hear what they create!”
The jazz jury was chaired by Arturo O’Farrill, a pianist, composer, and founder of Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance. Alongside Arturo, the panel also included Andy Clausen and Michael Thomas. The NYYS has commissioned over 170 original works for orchestra, chamber music, and jazz through First Music since 1984, all of which have been premiered by NYYS ensembles at venues including Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. First Music commissions have been awarded to Aaron J. Kernis, David Lang, Kevin Puts, Julia Wolfe, Michael Torke, and Timo Andres, among others. First Music composers have been recognized with 12 Rome Prizes, 16 Guggenheim Fellowships, two Grawemeyer Awards, and four Pulitzer Prizes.


Alex Berko (b. 1995) has been commissioned and performed by the Monterey Symphony, Cape Symphony, Bloomington Symphony, The Crossing, Conspirare, NOTUS Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Miró Quartet, and Del Sol String Quartet, among many others. Mr. Berko has received two ASCAP Morton Gould Awards for his orchestra and choral music. He was also the winner of the 2019 American Prize in Choral Music and received a Regional EMMY® for his work with the Lebron James Family Foundation. Mr. Berko has been additionally recognized by the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Rice University and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has held fellowships or residencies at Ragdale, Big Sky Choral Initiative, RED NOTE New Music Festival, Atlantic Music Festival, Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, California Summer Music, and NYU/ASCAP Film Scoring Institute. Mr. Berko holds a MM in composition from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music where he was a Brown Fellow. He received his BM in composition, an outside concentration in piano, and a certificate in entrepreneurship from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Originally from Cleveland, Mr. Berko received extensive training at the Cleveland Institute of Music preparatory division.

Christian Quiñones (b. 1996) is a Puerto Rican composer who explores personal and vulnerable stories through the lens of cultural identity. From sampling to auto-tune, and to body percussion, Mr. Quiñones is interested in interacting with existing music to create intertextual narratives. Recently, he was selected as a composer in residence at the Copland House, and as a fellow for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Workshop, Cabrillo Festival, and the Bang on a Can Summer Festival. In 2020 he was selected for the Earshot Underwood Orchestra Readings where he worked with the American Composers Orchestra. Mr. Quiñones has received commissions from Dogs of Desire, Transient Canvas, the icarus Quartet, the Bergamot String Quartet, Chromic Duo, and the Victory Players where Christian was the 2018-2019 composer in residence. His music has been performed by Dal Niente, Hub New Music, Loadbang, Charlotte Mundy, Dither Quartet, Unheard-of Ensemble, Victory Players, the American Composers Orchestra, and René Izquierdo. Upcoming projects include works for Alarm Will Sound, Yarn-Wire, and Nois Saxophone Quartet. Mr. Quiñones graduated from the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico (BM) and the University of Illinois (MM), where he was the recipient of the Graduate College Master’s Fellowship. Currently, he is a Ph.D. President’s Fellow at Princeton University.

Grace Hale (b. 1998) is an American composer of both film and classical concert music. Her contemporary classical works often draw on the filmic tradition. By integrating storytelling, visual arts, stage directions, and/or multimedia in her concert music, Ms. Hale strives to create multidisciplinary immersive experiences that invoke listeners’ imaginations. In 2018, she was recognized as the first prize recipient of the Colorado Collegiate Composition Competition with her piece Rhapsody on a Cityscape for British Brass Band. Her published music includes two piano solos, A Wayward Leaf (2022) and Thorne Miniatures (2020), which were both released by the CCC Music Company. Among notable large ensemble performances, Ms. Hale collaborated with mandolinist Sierra Hull on an orchestral arrangement of her song “Sunday,” which was performed by the Portland Chamber Orchestra and the Walla Walla Symphony, conducted by Jaacov Bergman in 2019. Ms. Hale is currently collaborating with three composers—Hannah Boissonneault, Natalia Camargo Duarte, and Madeline Merwin—on a double-oboe concerto premiering in April, 2023. Ms. Hale is pursuing her Master of Music in Composition at the University of Michigan and received her Bachelor of Arts in Music from Colorado College in 2020. She studied composition under Michael Daugherty, Kristy Kuster, and Ofer Ben-Amots.

Kian Ravaei (b. 1999) has collaborated with performers and ensembles such as Eliot Fisk, Bella Hristova, Salastina, and Juventas New Music Ensemble, and has served as a Copland House CULTIVATE Fellow and a Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Composer Teaching Artist Fellow. Whether composing piano preludes inspired by mythical creatures, flute melodies that mimic the songs of endangered birds, or a string quartet that draws from the Iranian music of his ancestral heritage, Mr. Ravaei takes listeners on a spellbinding tour of humanity’s most deeply felt emotions. In recent months, Mr. Ravaei was featured on an episode of Performance Today, America’s most popular classical music radio program. His string quartet Family Photos has garnered numerous awards, including First Prize in the Spectrum Chamber Music Composition Competition, Second Prize in the instrumental chamber music division of the American Prize, and Honorable Mention in the Tribeca New Music Young Composer Competition. DJs know Mr. Ravaei as the go-to person for creating orchestral versions of dance songs, including Wooli & Codeko’s “Crazy feat. Casey Cook (Orchestral)”. Mr. Ravaei counts celebrated composers Richard Danielpour, Derek Bermel, and Tarik O’Regan among his teachers. He is an alumnus of UCLA and the Curtis Institute of Music Young Artist Summer Program.

Kevin Zapata (b. 1996) is a trumpet player and composer/arranger. Originally from Nederland, TX, he has worked with Catherine Russell, René Marie, Tom Scott, Terell Stafford, the Army Jazz Ambassadors, the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, and the One O’Clock Lab Band amongst others. He attended the University of North Texas studying Jazz Trumpet under Rodney Booth, Tanya Darby, and Phillip Dizack while also studying composition under Rich DeRosa. Mr. Zapata is currently a Master’s student at the University of Miami studying Studio Jazz Writing under Stephen Guerra and is a member of the Frost Studio Jazz Band under the direction of Etienne Charles. His upcoming album “Dark Matters” will be a debut release that delves into the varies darknesses of humanity.

Ben Beckman (b. 2000) is a polystylistic composer, conductor, and pianist who draws influences from a wide variety of music to synthesize a new and unique sound for the modern world. His orchestral compositions have been presented by the BBC Proms, Tanglewood Music Festival, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mr. Beckman has formerly been a recipient of YoungArts, American Composers Forum, and ASCAP Morton Gould awards. Within the jazz idiom, his debut project VOYAGE (a studio-recorded 10-track jazz fusion narrative concept album released in 2021) garnered him an ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. Mr. Beckman is currently a senior at Yale College, where he has served as Artistic Director of both the Opera Theater of Yale College and the Yale Undergraduate Chamber Orchestra (YUCO). Under his two-year tenure, YUCO facilitated the premieres of 21 works by Yale undergraduate composers. He also sings in the Yale Schola Cantorum and freelances regularly as a collaborative pianist and harpsichordist.

Kurton Harrison III (b. 2000) is a fourth-year jazz and contemporary composer, and musician minoring in Africana Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory. He wrote his first piece in middle school, a 12-bar blues called “Albert’s Hat”. Mr. Harrison attended the Detroit School of Arts High School, majoring in Jazz. His second 12-bar blues, “The Smart Blues” was written under the direction of Terrence Blanchard and Scott Gwinnell in 2017. The piece was mentioned in Billboard online after being performed at the Detroit Jazz Fest. His third major piece of work titled “The Flame” was performed at Cliff Bell’s in Detroit by Scott Gwinnell and his jazz orchestra. The piece was performed again during Mr. Harrison’s first year at Oberlin. During high school, he composed for contemporary classical ensembles such as the Akropolis Reed Quintet as well as a flute ensemble called the Beta Quartet. While at Oberlin, he worked with many notable musicians and composers all of whom have helped him grow. Now, he is composing for African Drums under the direction of Weedie Braimah. To date, Mr. Harrison has composed and arranged more than 20 pieces of jazz, classical, and orchestral works with many more to come.

Join Our Newsletter

Ways to Support

Donate today and help support our students continue their journey and become a part of our community of musicians and change the landscape of what the musical world look like today.


Unparalleled Performances

Experience all the hard work, practice and rehearsals that our students take on and show up to see them perform at one of our many concerts throughout the season.

Get Tickets

Apply Today

Take the plunge and give yourself an opportunity to become a part of our amazing community of musicians, songwriters, composers and conductors.

Apply Today