A composer’s dream is to write a piece that receives its world premiere by first-rate musicians. University of South Carolina School of Music doctoral student, Shupeng Cao, received this opportunity when he was chosen as the first recipient of the newly created Whittaker Composition Commission Fund award.
Barbara and Mark Whittaker are music aficionados. Hailing from Michigan and now living in Chapin, SC, the Whittakers frequently travel the world and enjoy the art of music. In April 2022, they were impressed by the talent of the School of Music students at the Musical Feast. Listening to the USC Graduate String Quartet and other performances in the Koger Center for the Arts inspired the Whittakers to give back to students.
“When we approached the School of Music, we were uncertain of our specific goals,” said Barbara. “We considered commissioning a piece or sponsoring a scholarship. We were amazed how readily Assistant Dean for Advancement Audra Vaz was able to develop a proposal with various alternatives including the composition commission." Thus, the Whittaker Composition Commission Fund was established with a gift from Barbara and Mark.
Commissioning a composition appealed to the Whittakers as it creates a work of art that will live on into the future. In addition, the gift supports the development of students’ creative work and performance. Each year a new student will be chosen to compose a piece, with a different ensemble chosen to play the premiere.
Professor of Composition Dr. John Fitz Rogers said the program satisfies a need for funding that directly supports current students.
“The donation the Whittakers made to our program is incredibly generous and will have a tremendous impact,” said Rogers. “The Whittaker gift helps attract new composition students to our school. It is remarkable that we can now offer professional commissions to our current composition students, something very few other institutions do.”
The Whittaker Composition Commission Fund provides professional opportunities for students to advance their career after graduation.
“It helps support the core mission of our school to advance excellence, student success, and diverse skilled musicians,” said Rogers. “The Whittaker gift both supports and advances this mission by providing a professional commission to a composer each year, as well as performances of that new work at the School and in the community. The composition program is deeply grateful to Barbara and Mark Whittaker for their generosity and vision in making this possible.”
Shupeng Cao is pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts in Music Composition degree. This is his first time composing a piece for a string quartet, which will premiere this spring. The piece, entitled, “A Sliver of Sky” will be performed by the New Sounds Quartet, the School of Music’s graduate string ensemble dedicated to contemporary music.
This kind of opportunity doesn’t happen so early in a composer’s career.
“Writing this piece gave me the confidence that I have the ability to work on a commission project under a strict deadline," said Shupeng. "It helped me develop more efficient ways of composing, learn to manage my time and overall make me more professional as a composer.”
Barbara and Mark both received assistance when they attended graduate school and wanted their donation to focus on an enhanced educational experience for others.
“Although we are not grads of USC, the university has enhanced our lives in many ways,” said Mark. “We have appreciated the variety of performances offered by the School of Music and are touched by the energy and enthusiasm of the students when we attend them. Though we are not musicians, it is music that has brought us together with friends for many wonderful times.”
Music brought the Whittakers to meet Shupeng. “We studied up and listened to some of his compositions before we met him,” said Barbara. “His warmth and creativity were immediately obvious to us.”
Thanks to the commissioning of this piece, Cao was able to try many different ideas and strategies to construct a world of sound he wanted to create. “One of things I experimented with in this piece was, instead of using melody and harmony as the driving force, the organization of musical gestures, texture, and timbre became more important,” said Shupeng. “I’m most looking forward to hearing the sounds, composite gestures, shifting textures, and delicate timbres that I attempted in this piece.”
Conceived by Associate Professor of Violin and Violin Pedagogy, Dr. Ari Streisfeld, the New Sounds Quartet is a specialized graduate string quartet focused exclusively on the music of our time.
“Being the first USC ensemble to be featured as part of the Whittaker Composition Commission Fund is a true honor and meshes perfectly with my vision for the group,” explained Streisfeld.
Contemporary string quartets contain unique challenges for both students and professionals alike. Oftentimes composers will write passages containing new techniques and exploring new timbres. “
The current members consisting of violinists Miguel Calleja and Holly Workman, violist Nicky Moore, and cellist Jordan Bartow, are some of the finest string players the USC School of Music has to offer and are definitely up to the challenges presented in Shupeng Cao's new work,” Streisfeld said.
“A Sliver of Sky” will premiere at the New Sounds Quartet concert on Sunday, April 16 at 6:00 p.m. in the School of Music Recital Hall. The performance is free and open to the public.
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