While we may expect a Highsmith Award winner every spring, we don’t expect two. However, that is exactly what has happened this year. The 2019 Highsmith Award, given to a student or alumnus showing great compositional skill and promise, has been awarded to student Nicholas Denton-Protsack ’19 and alumnus Collin Whitfield ’16 in an unprecedented tie. Both students will see their works performed by the SFCM Orchestra in the 2019–20 academic year.
“I am thrilled and honored to be sharing this unprecedented tie with Collin Whitfield, and I am humbled to be wrapping up my six-year experience at SFCM with this achievement,” remarks Denton-Protsack. “I owe this—in so many ways—to the unending encouragement, guidance, and advocacy of my professors, family, and friends.”
Denton-Protsack won for his submission Visions of a Flaxen Sea, a musical portrait of nature as imagined by the composer.
“Vision of a Flaxen Sea is a work inspired by landscapes, particularly, landscapes of rolling hills covered in dry grass and swept with wind,” he notes. “Many such landscapes exist close to where I grew up. In my mind, they have a very literal musical quality to them, and the aim of my work is to communicate that analogous quality.”
Whitfield was chosen to receive the award, as well, for his Eclipse, a work inspired by his viewing the 2017 "Great American Eclipse" in totality in Oregon.
“I am deeply grateful to have been selected for the Highsmith and I am touched to share this honor with Nick Denton,” says Whitfield. “I wish him a warm congratulations on his achievement. For a composer to hear ideas come to life with a full orchestra is an invaluable opportunity that cannot be overstated, and I am thrilled about the experience that lies ahead. As an alumnus, I continue to value the time I had at SFCM. I learned a great deal from all of my professors, and my lessons with both David Conte and Mason Bates continue to inform so much of my professional and creative work.”
Both Denton-Protsack’s and Whitfield’s teachers felt their students were more than deserving of this award.
“Nick's musical voice is complex and process-driven,” says composition faculty member David Garner. “He strives for formal and textural intricacy and is fearless in his present exploration of tonal frameworks partially derived from palindromes and fractals. His music is musically challenging but not technically difficult, a balance not easily achieved in contemporary, 21st-century repertoire.”
“Collin has an ear for melody that comes from a strong interest in vocal and choral music, and his skills as a pianist offer a nice rhythmic complement,” comments Mason Bates. “Both of these talents served him well at SFCM, where he demonstrated a stellar commitment to the larger musical community. He's a fine citizen musician.”
The Highsmith was not the only award handed out by SFCM this spring. The Conservatory’s 8th Biennial Art Song Competition took place in March and saw a host of competitors vie for the top prize.
First prize was given to Aatef Baransy ’20, second prize was given to Shawne Workman ’19, and third prize was given to Patricia Wallinga ’19. Baransy is a student of David Conte’s and Workman and Wallinga both study with Elinor Armer.
Finally, composition student Daniel Zarb-Cousin ’21 was recently named the grand prize winner of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra (PYO) Young Composers Competition.
"Much of my piece was originally written as a sonata for cello and piano, however, it's scope was ultimately too large for that medium and I was inspirited to give over my themes to the full symphony orchestra," says Zarb-Cousin referring to his work. "What followed was many months of taxing and arduous work, of chiseling out what I knew the material had the potential to be. The epiphanies and great truths it seems to realize were done so with me following steadfast behind. The work was finished on my birthday, May 22, of 2018." Zarb-Cousin will receive a cash prize of $2,000 and the PYO will premiere his piece in June.
“This is Daniel Zarb-Cousin’s third win in a competition for orchestra pieces, having previously won twice in the Orlando Philharmonic Competition,” says David Conte, Zarb-Cousin’s teacher. “Opportunities for young composers to hear their orchestral music are not always easy to come by, and Daniel has been lucky to hear his pieces played, and played well. He is an example of the more precocious undergraduate composers that the Conservatory has been attracting in recent years.”