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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]

Ned Rorem, the teacher/mentor of Jennifer Higdon says: ‘If I had to name twelve important American composers today, four of them would be women - and Jennifer Higdon is the best of them.’ High praise for this Atlanta-born but Philadelphia-based musician.

Her instrument is the flute and, on the evidence of this disc, she thinks in terms of melody and colour rather than thematic interplay. This much is confirmed by the vaunting and leaping exuberance of the first movement of her Concerto for Orchestra, a work premiered in Philadelphia where she is on the Faculty of the Curtis Institute. The five movement piece was commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s centennial in 2002. She seems most at ease where the music is rhythmically active. Voluptuous activity is tempered with polyphonic restraint. Unlike Messiaen she does not pile on orchestral lines ad infinitum. As a result her writing achieves richness without muddying clarity. She writes in a tonal language allied to that of Bartók and early-mid Tippett. There are none of the wilder extremes of Penderecki still less of the fractioning processes of George Crumb - another of her teachers. That said, there is a Crumb-like passage in the delicate web at the start of both the third and fourth movements. The long third movement - a keystone to the rest of the arched structure - is meditative, prayerful, sorrow hinted at not indulged. It develops momentum, wings and uproar - for a few moments pounding out an insistent rhythm typical of William Schuman and then fading down to a light-suffused Tippett-like meditation. From this yearning sunrise emerges a tramping rhythmic passage of a monolithic Harris-like power. Not once does Higdon let go of a sense of forward movement. The percussion-dominated fragmentation of the fourth movement failed to convince me but the return of the tumbling and turning activity of the finale returns us to magnetic north. It is satisfyingly exciting evincing a rhythmic flair seemingly learnt from Harris and Schuman.

Higdon's Cityscape is in three movements: Skyline; River sings a song to trees; Peachtree Street. Though born in Brooklyn, the first ten years of her life were spent in Atlanta. City Scape and Peachtree Street are full of rhythmic life like an American echo of Petrushka with infusions of the dynamic Copland (El Salon Mexico). Skyline raises expectations of the dynamic virility of the John Williams score for the opening titles of Towering Inferno. I wondered whether Mr Spano took this movement at quite the speed it should go. I felt the music wanted to accelerate to the headlong rate that Bernstein might have given it. I am sure that the City of Atlanta has an even greater power than this. Or perhaps I have missed the point. The second movement, the longest of the three at 17.39 shivers and shimmers amid the greenery and blossom of the Atlanta linear parks. It is to Higdon's great credit that this movement achieves such beauty transcending the concrete and brick boundaries that hem in the subject of her inspiration. The majesty of the natural world in the city rises in a coursing and completely confident wave of greenery and unrepentant life. The Peachtree Street movement is about dynamism and life again.

These are world premiere recordings.

This is an SACD but I have only reviewed the standard non-SACD tracks of this disc.

Higdon’s music is well worth encountering. Look out for the next CD of her music.

Rob Barnett

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