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Stafford grad becomes a noteworthy composer

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When Dak Van Vranken heard an orchestra perform the song he composed, the 20-year-old was overcome by mixed emotions.

“I felt naked, overwhelmed, inspired,” he said in an email. “My family drove down to hear it, and even they were exposed to sides of me they’d never heard before.”

Vranken graduated from North Stafford High School in 2011 and is studying music composition at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts at Winston–Salem.

Last month, he won the Mary Starling award, which comes with a prestigious prize. His piece “This Hope” was premièred by the Winston–Salem Symphony.

Two weeks earlier, Van Vranken’s song was performed by UNC’s School of the Arts band, which gave the young composer a chance to make several improvements before he turned it over to the symphony.

“Most living composers should be so lucky!” said Kenneth Frazelle, Van Vranken’s composition professor.

Van Vranken is a freshman. While young students like him have won the competition in the past, it’s much less likely, the professor said.

Freshmen usually take a yearlong class to study individual instruments and combine them into a full orchestra piece. But they typically don’t compose their own works; they arrange excerpts from existing ones, Frazelle said.

That’s where Van Vranken differed. After the first few lessons of the class, he told his teacher he was going to go for it and enter the Starling competition.

“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ because he’d only written short pieces for one or two instruments before,” Frazelle said. “He surprised me.”

It’s not the first time Van Vranken’s music has turned heads. Five years ago, for the 100th anniversary of the FBI, Van Vranken composed an orchestral piece titled “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity: A Centennial Tribute to the FBI.”

Van Vranken’s father, Ron, has been an FBI agent for more than 20 years. Dak was 15 at the time, and he wanted to honor agents like his dad, who tracked down bank robbers, kidnappers and the Unabomber.

As soon as FBI officials heard the song, they incorporated it into the agency’s two-week celebration.

Dak Van Vranken is the middle child of Rae and Ron Van Vranken of North Stafford. His siblings, Luke and Olivia, share an interest in the performing arts.

Van Vranken said he learned more by hearing a symphony perform his latest work than he could have in a semester of schooling.

“Honestly, the only way to tell if a piece is good or not is to hear it performed,” he said. “Asking a symphony to perform your work is asking them to expose every flaw in it. [But] how else would I discover my weaknesses?”

He said that’s why his teacher tells composers to “practice for when you’re dead.” In other words, Frazelle stresses that students arrange clear and concise scores, “so that anyone, anywhere can play your music the way it was intended,” Van Vranken said.

Van Vranken plans to continue studying music and either continue his education as a graduate student or enter the world of writing movie scores.

His professor can’t wait to see where Van Vranken’s skills lead him.

“I believe we’ve just seen the beginning of what he can achieve,” Frazelle said.


To hear the overture to “This Hope,” visit this site.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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