Arts & Culture

Award a chance for Wichita State professor and composer to promote arts in Kansas

Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, Wichita State University’s assistant professor of composition, music theory and technology, finds himself among an elite group of performing artists. Earlier this month, he was awarded the 2013 American Prize in composition for his saxophone concerto “Fireworks.”

He’s quick to emphasize that the honor is about more than his talent or ambition, though; he sees it as an opportunity to promote the richness of cultural arts in Kansas and as a way to highlight the abilities of the Wichita arts community.

“It’s always nice to be recognized doing good work and for offering something up that is of a higher artistic value,” he said. “That for sure is a nice part of it, but the more exciting thing is what it means for Kansas. There has been a stigma that if you are going to be a successful artist, you need to be on the East Coast or the West Coast. You can be an artist anywhere, though. My hope is that it will bring more attention to Kansas as a place where there are serious artists who are making real art.”

Sternfeld-Dunn’s sentiments about the award’s implications for Kansas are particularly relevant to his personal story. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he said that Wichita was not on his radar as a possible place to relocate, simply because he never perceived the Midwest as being an epicenter for the arts. Educated on both coasts, he received his master’s degree in music composition from Washington State University and earned his doctorate from the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn. He returned to Washington after his course work to teach but was in a non-tenured track position.

When a position opened at Wichita State that offered more stability, he applied after hearing positive things about the city’s arts scene from a colleague who had ties to Kansas. Sternfeld-Dunn received offers from other universities but chose Wichita as the city in which to relocate himself and his family. That was in the summer of 2011, and he is now about to start his third academic year with the university.

The origins of this award have their roots in one of Sternfeld-Dunn’s first forays as a Kansas educator. Shortly after his hire, Victor Markovich, Wichita State’s director of Winds and Percussion Studies, wanted to showcase the talent of his newly minted faculty. He asked Sternfeld-Dunn and Robert Young, who had recently joined the music department as assistant professor of saxophone, to put together a concerto that would be performed at the upcoming Kansas Music Educators Conference. Six months later, in February 2012, “Fireworks” debuted to critical acclaim and enthusiastic accolades.

Reflecting on that experience, he said that initially it was stressful having to put together a work of substantial length in that short of a time frame. He did, however, have a solo clarinet piece that was about a minute and a half long that he had wanted to develop. That was called “Firecracker,” and it became the framework for building the “Fireworks” piece. The name alludes to the style of the music.

“The piece itself is pretty high energy,” Sternfeld-Dunn said. “Robert is a very technical player; he can do a lot of flashy and then really fast up. When I wrote the piece, it was really custom made for his playing style and ability. It features a lot of fast passages, a lot of virtuosic techniques. People reacted well to it because it had a very high energy feel.”

Sternfeld-Dunn said the piece is a fitting example of how he approaches wind music creatively.

“There are two characteristics that are predominant in my music: it’s very rhythmic and very melodic. Those two things tend to dominate the style of most of my pieces. It demonstrates a contemporary model. My music doesn’t really sound anything like Mozart.”

The American Prize was started in 2009 as a way to encourage and highlight emerging artists and as a means to spotlight creative talent across multiple areas in the performing arts at both the professional and student level. The annual award is administered by the Hat City Music Theater, a nonprofit organization based in Danbury, Conn. Winners are selected by a panel of judges through recorded performances submitted by applicants. Winners receive cash prizes and an award certificate.

Sternfeld-Dunn said it was his first year to enter this competition, and that he was surprised to learn he had won. He’s quick to point out that he has gotten far more rejections than awards, something he wants his students to be mindful of. Perseverance and a love for the creative process are the keys to success, he says. He thinks this honor is particularly important for them because it’s extremely important for students to see that their teachers are active in their fields and on the front end of creative developments that are happening.

“A lot of people who care about this competition will see that the winner came from Wichita, Kansas. Hopefully it will bring attention,” he said. “I’m from the West Coast, but I’m in Kansas. This award was given to a Kansas artist who works for a Kansas institution who performed a work for a Kansas conference. My hope is that more artists will make their impact, so that Kansas is a place where the arts are taken seriously and where they thrive with a community supporting them.”

Learn more about Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn at

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