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Trio of Awards Showcase Composition Department's Brilliance

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Alex Malinas notched a new record for the Highsmith Award, while Theo Popov took prizes in the Highsmith, Pankonin, and Choral Composition awards.

June 10, 2024 by Alex Heigl

SFCM's Composition Department has plenty of reasons to celebrate the start of summer, with auspicious competition wins—and records being set.

Junior Alex Malinas (studying with David Garner) was selected as the winner of the annual Highsmith Competition for Orchestral Composition and secured a record as the youngest-ever winner in the award's history with his piece Hear Her Sing. 2024 master's graduate Theo Popov (studying with Composition Chair David Conte) took second place in the competition with his work Toys of War.

"Hear Her Sing's material comes from a folk-inspired song written by Matvey Blanter in 1938 about a woman on a riverbank singing about waiting for her loved one to return from war," Malinas explains. "It became a very popular patriotic song during WWII for the Soviet Union and many different countries have their own translated versions of it; the Hebrew translation is very popular in Israel. I was using it to express my very complicated feelings as a Russian Jew in the current political climate where both the Russian and Israeli governments are saying they're doing these horrible actions for you and your people."

"The piece was very intricately planned out," he continued. "The first opening motif of the song outlines a minor third, and so I took those and made the large key areas surround a fully diminished triad, because it's built off minor thirds. Almost every motif that's in the piece comes from the folk song originally, and in fact in one section, all the bass movement is just the notes of the melody slowed down, so each melody note became the grounding for the harmonic development."

Garner has high praise for Malinas, whom he calls "one of the hardest working undergraduates I've taught for quite some time." He continued, "his sense of orchestral color and texture, along with his concision of form, make their music sound as if composed by a much older student. Alex is an enthusiastic and eager learner, more than willing to take suggestions and most importantly, willing to take risks."

Popov, meanwhile, has had a busy season of accepting awards: Aside from his runner-up finish for the Highsmith Award, he was one of the winners for the eighth annual Kristin Pankonin Award, and also took third place in the Conservatory's 16th Biennial Choral Composition Competition.

Popov's Toys of War "is a triptych," he says, "each movement of which is based on an imagined toy belonging to a child in a war zone. I was trying to juxtapose the stark innocence children have against these horrible situations we throw them into."

His piece for the Pankonin competition draws its title and content from Christina Rossetti's 1862 poem "Goblin Market," about a young girl who finds goblins in the forest selling fruit, but returning the next day for more, she's unable to locate them. Still craving the fruit to the point of illness, her sister has to rescue her by tricking the goblins into giving them more fruit. "I was inspired by some of the problems San Franciscans are facing with drug addiction," Popov said, "so I abridged the poem in a way to emphasize the journey from temptation to addiction to rehabilitation and recovery."

Lastly, his Choral Competition piece was a tribute to a departed collaborator, Popov says. "This text for this piece was written by Kate Light, who was an accomplished poet, violinist and librettist; we wrote an opera together before she passed away in 2016. A 'zeugma' is a poetic device where a word applies to two others in different senses, like, 'He stole $5 and the stage.' So her poem was called 'Zeug-o-Matic' and was entirely composed of zeugma phrases."

"As happens more frequently these days, Theo came into our MM program a bit older and with significant professional experience, and this has served him very well in being competitive for a number of awards," Conte said. " He has shown himself to be remarkably versatile as a composer, winning prizes in the Choral Composition Competition and the Pankonin Art Song Award, and his piece Toys of War is a compelling program piece that as Highsmith runner-up will receive a one-hour recording session next spring.”

Part of the Highsmith Award wins is a performance of the winning piece by the SFCM Orchestra during the 2024-25 season for Malinas and an hour-long reading and recording by the SFCM Orchestra during the 2024-25 season. The Pankonin and Choral Competition prizes are monetary.

The Pankonin Award is also uniquely collaborative; Popov's collaborators were 2024 grad Chea Kang (a soprano from César Ulloa's studio) and pianist Tommaso Saturnia, also a 2024 grad from Garner's studio. The other winners in the Choral Competition were first-place winner Tyler Kinnaman, a junior in Elinor Armer’s studio, and Jarron Carlson, a second-year master's student also in Conte’s studio.

Kristin Pankonin was a collaborative pianist at the Conservatory who passed away in 2014. Her friends, family, and fans established a fund in her honor to support the creation of new vocal music at the Conservatory each year. The Highsmith Award is endowed by Jim Highsmith, who passed away in 1986, while the Choral Competition has, since 2008 been funded by a generous gift from Samuel and Hannah Thomas; this years’ competition was funded by David Chacko and Hannah Thomas.

Learn more about studying composition at SFCM.