These are the first pieces by Jennifer Higdon that I’ve
heard and I’m mightily impressed.
Brooklyn-born, she spent her formative years in Atlanta. Her
first musical calling was as a flautist but she has since carved
out a significant career as a composer. Her teachers have included
Robert Spano, the conductor on this recording, and the doyen
American composers, Ned Rorem. A couple of comments in the (very
good) booklet accompanying this CD, seem apposite. Robert Spano
himself writes that Higdon’s is “new music whose
materials are familiar but whose effect is fresh.” The
annotator, Nick Jones, writes that she “tends to think
in terms of melody and color when she composes, rather than thematically.
The listener’s ear is not drawn to themes and their development,
but to bright patches of color, exuberant rhythms, and fascinating
shifts of texture.” I think anyone listening to this CD
will find themselves in agreement with both of those comments.
By chance I heard part of an interview that Ms. Higdon gave a
few weeks ago on BBC Radio Three when she was in London for the
UK première of her Concerto for Orchestra
comments that she made then stuck particularly in my mind. One
was related to the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra
I’ll come to that in a minute. The other was to the effect
that she loves writing to commission and is in the fortunate
position of being able to make a living just from commissions
(both the works included here were commissioned). Not many composers
could claim to be able to make a living in this way but having
heard some of her vivid and communicative music I’m not
surprised that she is in such demand from orchestras and ensembles.
was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra
for their centenary and it was they, under their then Music Director,
Wolfgang Sawallisch, who gave the first performance in 2002.
Higdon has acknowledged that Bartók’s similarly
titled work was an inevitable influence. However, in the aforementioned
interview she said that she had consciously avoided hearing Bartók’s
masterpiece throughout the entire period of composition of her
own work. If I remember rightly, that was a period of some two
years and since she admits to loving the Bartók piece
very much that must be counted as a great example of self-denial.
The work is cast, like Bartók’s, in five movements.
None of the movements bear titles, simply a Roman numeral. Movement
I is a driving and dynamically energetic piece. It makes an arresting
and exciting opening to the work. Overall there’s a tremendous
sense of forward movement but there are one or two reflective
oases along the way. The orchestration is most imaginative, especially
the telling use of percussion. The movement’s quiet ending
is very effective.
Movement II is for strings only. At the outset all is pizzicato
once again, the music is strongly rhythmic (and very complex,
I suspect - inevitably, I haven’t seen a score.) Gradually,
the players begin to use their bows. The music is resolutely
tonal and it’s easy to understand that this movement was
written with the famous sound of the Philadelphian string choir
very much in mind.
The third movement, which is slow in pace, is described in the
notes as the “keystone in the work’s overall arch.” It
is the longest of the five and, on the basis of my listening
to date I’m inclined to think it’s also musically
the most substantial. Actually, it was the first part of the
work to be written. It features solos (some of them very short)
for all the principal players and then each section, wind, strings
and brass is featured. The solos are very interesting and capture
well, I think, the character of the respective instruments. However,
the resourceful accompaniments to the various solos are just
as important and imaginative (e.g. the trombones accompanying
the oboe solo). It’s a fascinating movement, containing
more colours than a rainbow.
The fourth movement is scored for percussion only and if the
writing for that section in the first movement could be described
as “telling” here it’s even better. Indeed,
this movement features the most imaginative and varied writing
for percussion that I can recall hearing. It begins with eerie
harmonics and ripples and as the music starts to develop there’s
a hint of chinoiserie
in the scoring. Blocks and crotales
heighten the atmosphere but still the dynamics are subdued. A
huge array of instruments must be involved and I’m afraid
that without a score it’s impossible to identify everything
that Higdon deploys in this fascinating collage of sound. Around
3’30” the pace picks up and the volume begins to
rise at around 4’00” with the introduction of drums,
bongos and the like. As the end of the movement approaches there’s
some real power drumming, leading seamlessly into the finale.
This last movement is a real whirlwind. The tempo continues to
increase until by the end the music is moving twice as fast as
at the start of the movement. This is a huge display piece and
must present a tremendous challenge to players and conductor
- but then I’m sure that’s true of the whole work.
Suffice to say that the Atlanta forces appear to surmount every
difficulty with ease and aplomb. This is music of tremendous
virtuosity and the playing here is similarly expert.
This Concerto for Orchestra
is a tremendously effective,
resourceful and exciting score and I suspect it will quickly
establish a firm place in the orchestral repertoire. It deserves
was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony. Unusually
they asked for a work consisting of freestanding pieces that
could be played with equal validity as a set or individually.
This, it seems to me, is a very innovative approach, opening
up the prospect of more opportunities to play new music than
might otherwise be the case. As the notes make clear, the orchestra
has already taken advantage of this to perform the movements
separately to different audiences. Though it wasn’t a condition
of the commission Jennifer Higdon has responded to the invitation
to compose by writing three pieces that evoke the city of Atlanta
where she grew up, which seems to me to be a very nice compliment
indeed to both the city and its orchestra.
The first movement, “Skyline”, according to the composer “projects
an image of boldness strength and growth.” As my experience
of Atlanta has been limited to the “transitory joys” of
its huge airport I can’t comment as to how accurately the
city is portrayed, either here or in the rest of the work. However,
this is certainly Big Statement music. Again the writing is characterised
by bold colours and pronounced rhythms and, like everything else
on this disc, it sounds to be written superbly for the instruments.
Higdon challenges her players but, unlike some composers, I doubt
she makes ridiculous, unplayable demands on them or their instruments
and I strongly suspect the musicians love it. This movement fairly
teems with life.
The central movement is entitled “river sings a song to
trees” and runs for over half the length of the entire
work. It starts with a tremendously inventive quiet percussion
opening. Then tremolo strings, followed by flute, suggest something
stirring to life at dawn. There’s some very evocative wind
writing and as the full string complement is added to the texture
an increasing amount of light is shed on the musical landscape.
There are several very impressive climaxes along the way but
Higdon varies the textures and the dynamics with great inventiveness.
Thus she sustains her argument and the interest of the listener
over a long timespan. This is a highly successful and impressive
tone poem in its own right and one that makes a strong and immediate
The final movement, “Peachtree Street”, is a rondo
that celebrates Atlanta’s primary artery. The music is
bold, confident and sassy. All sections of the orchestra are
given their head - yet again the writing for the percussion is
splendid. The work ends with a Big Finish to bring the house
This is one of the most communicative and enjoyable discs of
new music to come my way in a long time. The music is accessible
and enjoyable but that doesn’t mean for a second that it’s
facile. Jennifer Higdon is clearly a composer who is determined
not to leave her audience behind her; on the contrary, she wants
to communicate with them very directly.
It’s hard to imagine the pieces obtaining better advocacy
than they receive here from Robert Spano and his fine orchestra.
The recorded sound is superb; it’s detailed and atmospheric.
There are very good notes, amply interspersed with comments from
the composer who clearly uses words as articulately as she uses
Very highly recommended.
see also reviews by Rob
Barnett and Guy