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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Concerto for Orchestra (2002) [34:58]
City Scape (2002) [30:52]
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
Rec. Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 12, 14 Sept 2003. DDD
TELARC CD-80620 [66:17] 

Experience Classicsonline

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 of 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. Two comments that she made then stuck particularly in my mind. One was related to the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra and 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.

The Concerto 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 and, 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 no less.

City Scape 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 impact.

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 down.

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 musical notation.

Very highly recommended.

John Quinn

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Guy Rickards


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