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Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Concerto for Orchestra (2002) [34.58]
Cityscape (2002) [30.51]
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
Rec. Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 12, 14 Sept 2003. DDD
TELARC SACD-60620 [66.17]


A ‘new’ American woman composer who has avoided becoming hemmed in stylistically is Jennifer Higdon. Her principal teacher and mentor was Ned Rorem and I suspect that stroke of good fortune is a major factor in her being rather more at ease with herself as a composer. She came to wider prominence with the orchestral blue cathedral, but has since capped that work with her Concerto for Orchestra, composed for the Philadelphia Orchestra to celebrate their centennial in 2000. Like Bartók’s famous example, Higdon’s is cast in an arch-like five-movement form with a central slow movement (the expressive heart) framed by two intermezzo-like scherzi – or scherzo-like intermezzi, one for strings, the other for percussion – in turn framed by two much weightier Allegri. The first of these (there are no movement-level tempo markings, just numeric designations) opens with a dynamic, chiming figure which unleashes a brilliant orchestral momentum setting the festive tone for the work yet which also – unlike many similarly celebratory scores – possesses a musical strength that raises it above the level of the ordinary. The remaining four movements live up to the promise of the opening and it is no exaggeration to suggest that this can bear comparison with the finest orchestral concerti, by Bartók, Lutosławski, McCabe and Petrassi.

Unlike other women composers from North America – such as Beth Anderson, Margaret Brouwer or Gloria Coates (all subjects of recent releases on the New World label) — Higdon’s style is clearly American in sound, though for all the reminiscences of, say, Copland there are as many of more international figures, not least Tippett in some of the string writing. Combined with some quite brilliant wind and brass writing, the idiom is not unlike that of the British composer – and expert concerto-writer John McCabe (whose own marvellous 1982 Orchestral Concerto has been issued by ClassicO, CLASSCD384). A more American sound, more redolent of William Schuman and Walter Piston in orchestral texture, is apparent in City Scape (2002), a three-movement sequence of tone poems descriptive of Atlanta, Georgia, where Higdon spent some of her childhood. The opening movement, Skyline, evokes the thrusting tower blocks of downtown with remarkable gusto but it is in the long central span, river sings a song to trees, that Higdon’s powers of orchestral painting attain Respighian heights. As one who has looked south towards downtown across the Chattahoochee Valley from the vantage point of the commercial centre of Wildwood, I can vouch for the fact that Atlanta is green. Higdon’s river may be the Peachtree Creek (Peachtree Street is the focus of the finale) but it is no less apt for other quarters of the Georgian capital’s metropolitan area. Each movement of City Scape, commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony, could be self-sufficient, although the suite as a whole works remarkably well. Robert Spano directs thoroughly convincing accounts of both works and Telarc’s sound is excellent. So why does Higdon’s music seem so much more invigorating and appealing than, say, Beth Anderson’s pastel modality or Margaret Brouwer’s misfiring aesthetic? Kyle Gann, the apologist for the former, would no doubt suggest this is due to my twenty-first-century attitude valuing complexity for its own sake. I disagree: I believe Higdon’s style is as straightforward as Anderson’s but Higdon’s artistic horizons are broader and her harmonic language much more developed and subtle. Higdon can also clearly think in long spans as well as for the moment whereas Anderson’s longer movements (still quite modest) do not convince. A Higdon symphony would be a thrilling proposition; one from Anderson would necessitate a considerable reworking of her compositional methods.

Guy Rickards

see also review by Rob Barnett

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