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Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Viola Concerto (2014) [21:57]
Oboe Concerto (2005) [18:10]
All Things Majestic (2011) [22:40]
Roberto Díaz (viola); James Button (oboe); Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. live 7-9 January 2016 (Oboe Concerto); 25 & 26 March 2016, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee / DDD
NAXOS 8.559823 [62:47]

Some years ago I was very impressed by a disc that coupled two pieces by Jennifer Higdon: City Scape and Concerto for Orchestra (review). Unfortunately, since then no opportunities to review any more examples of her work on CD have come my way so I was keen to audition this new Naxos disc.

Her Viola Concerto was written for the Chilean-American, Roberto Díaz who is director of the Curtis Institute where Higdon holds the Rock Chair in Composition. Thomas May’s useful booklet notes include a quotation from the composer in which she says that she sought to avoid writing a “dark and heavy” piece, preferring instead to compose “a piece that is more celebratory and has a real swing to it. Each movement has an American rhythmic drive, with almost jazz-like rhythms that are tricky for the orchestra.” The concerto is cast in three movements and the basic pace of each one is faster than its predecessor.

The work opens promisingly with a soulful long melodic passage for the viola, lightly accompanied. Immediately, it seems. Higdon is setting her stall out to tell us that this will be a composition that emphasises the singing quality of the solo instrument, and so it proves. The first movement is the longest of the three and almost throughout the orchestral scoring is restrained – there are only two loud passages, both of them brief. That’s not to say that the orchestral writing is not active in nature. In fact there is ample incident in the accompaniment and this together with the persuasive cantabile writing for the viola held my interest throughout. I must admit that I didn’t discern much evidence of jazzy writing for the orchestra but that’s amply rectified in the much shorter second movement, which is sprightly and dancing in nature. The finale begins with a slow introduction but around 2:21 the pace picks up. What follows is cheerful and extrovert, the music characterised by energy and strong rhythmic impulses. Yet even so Higdon does not neglect the soulful, singing quality of the solo instrument.

The Viola Concerto is a most attractive work and Roberto Díaz is a persuasive and accomplished soloist, He receives excellent support from Guerrero and the Nashville orchestra.

The Viola Concerto was written specifically with the playing of Roberto Díaz in mind and the Oboe Concerto similarly was written for a particular player, in this case Kathy Greenbank, principal oboe of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra. Here the soloist is the Australian-born James Button, since 2011 the principal oboist of the Nashville Symphony.

The Oboe Concerto is cast in one movement. Once again Higdon exploits the singing, lyrical qualities of the solo instrument. As with the Viola Concerto this work commences with a fine lyrical melody for the soloist against an accompaniment of chamber-like delicacy. Around 4:00 the music begins to accelerate and also becomes louder and more spirited. Here the writing for the oboe is nimble while the accompaniment darts and flickers. Just before 9:00 the pace slows and in the passage that follows the plaintive quality of the oboe is exploited for a couple of minutes. The music then becomes perkier and quicker but even so the soloist’s line is a singing one. The tempo becomes broader around 14:25 and at the start of this episode we hear the solo oboe in duet with the orchestra’s cor anglais. In the passage that follows the solo oboe is cast rather in the role of primus inter pares with other wind and brass instruments. It is in this more reflective vein that the work continues until the concerto achieves a gentle conclusion.

This is another winning concerto. James Button plays it splendidly and one readily senses a true partnership with the Nashville Symphony and Giancarlo Guerrero. I enjoyed this very much.

All Things Majestic reflects Jennifer Higdon’s love of nature and the American National Parks. The piece was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grand Teton Music Festival which is held annually in Jackson Hole, a valley on the borders of Wyoming and Idaho. (Jackson Hole is also noted as the venue for the prestigious annual economic symposium hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.) As part of her preparation for writing the piece Higdon went on a hike in the nearby Grand Teton Mountains accompanied by the conductor Donald Runnicles, the music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival since 2006. The resultant four-movement suite lies very firmly in the tradition of music celebrating the Great American Outdoors.

The work takes the form of a suite in four movements and in the first three of these prominence is given to particular sections of what I take to be a pretty large orchestra. The first movement, Teton Range is all about the grandeur of peaks and it’s no surprise to find that chorale-like brass writing is called upon. The music is big and expansive. There follows String Lake and, appropriately in view of the title, this is for strings only. Higdon says that the music illustrates “the lakes and the exquisite mirror-quality of reflection upon their serene surfaces.” The music suggests to me pure air and crystal-clear water. The result sounds both fresh and tranquil. The writing for the string choir is accomplished and imaginative and I particularly like the way in which solo instruments are used within the textures. This slow movement is very lovely.

We stay with water for the brief Snake River. Woodwind and brass are to the fore here while the strings contribute pizzicatos. The music is highly mobile and evokes the teeming waters of a river in spate. The last movement, the longest, is Cathedrals and here Higdon “pictures the experience of being in the [national] parks as in a vast cathedral”. You might expect grandeur to be the dominant feature of the music. Certainly there is grandeur here but Higdon goes well beyond that and includes in her writing a myriad of intricate details. In this context she’s evoking the individual flora and fauna that together constitute a great forest but the allusion to a man-made cathedral is just as valid: think of all the tiny details, stone carvings or little pieces within a stained glass window, for example, that you can see if you look round a vast medieval cathedral in an attentive fashion. That said, perhaps it’s inevitable that the majestic aspect of a natural cathedral – or forest – has the last say. Higdon’s orchestration of this movement is colourful and inventive but, then, that’s true of the entire suite.

I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Grand Teton National Park but I have been fortunate enough to visit some of the other Parks in both the USA and Canada. Based on the unforgettable natural sights I’ve seen in Yosemite, the Northwest of California and in the Canadian Rockies I’d say that Jennifer Higdon has translated into music the majesty and wonder of the spectacular North American scenery very effectively and imaginatively. All Things Majestic is an admirable piece.

Throughout this disc the Nashville Symphony offers extremely accomplished and committed playing. The sound quality is very good.

This CD confirms the impression I gained from the earlier disc of Jennifer Higdon’s music. She is a most interesting composer who has a clear command of the modern orchestra, writing most imaginatively and attractively for it. These three works are all appealing and rewarding and I’m very glad to have heard them.

John Quinn



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