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Hearing in Color: Solo Concertos By Pulitzer Prize Winner Jennifer Higdon

photo of Jennifer Higdon standing in front of a colorful wall
Andrew Bogard
/
courtesy of Jennifer Higdon
Composer Jennifer Higdon

She was a late bloomer in a world with a historically high population of prodigies.

Composer Jennifer Higdon started studying music seriously during her years as an undergraduate student at Bowling Green State University – a late start compared to the many classical musicians who begin serious musical training while still in their single-digit years. But Higdon more than made up for lost time, eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize and three Grammy Awards and becoming one of today’s most frequently performed composers. Here’s a look at some of her work.

Higdon has written hundreds of works in virtually all genres of instrumental and vocal music, but her concertos have fared especially well in the awards department. Higdon’s Violin Concerto earned her the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music. The same year, Higdon’s Percussion Concerto won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

In 2018, Higdon’s Viola Concerto also won a Grammy for Best Classical Composition, and both her Viola Concerto and her Oboe Concerto appear on All Things Majestic, the recording of Higdon’s music that won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium. Higdon's Harp Concerto has beennominated for the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Composed between 2005 and 2008, Higdon’s Violin Concerto is a masterstroke of blend – the blend of technically virtuosic violin writing and unashamed lyricism, modern-sounding atonality melting into gloriously indulgent tonal harmonies, tone colors transforming one into another among the solo violin and the instruments of the orchestra, moods moving, as in the first movement, from mysterious to impetuous and bold, to sweetly resigned.

The first movement – “1726” – of Higdon’s Violin Concerto, violinist Hilary Hahn and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko conducting:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=bZfdUI9ZSkw&feature=emb_logo

The second movement Chaconne is a fantasy of the ungraspable neo-romantic harmonies that define so much of Higdon’s music, mixed with an unabashedly lyrical solo violin part swaddled in a bed of warm orchestral sound. This movement has some of the lyrical spirit of Higdon’s most frequently performed orchestral work, Blue Cathedral.

John Storgårds leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral (excerpt):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9fojwuaMY4

The Violin Concerto’s final movement, “Fly Forward,” is in the lineage of the perpetual motion finale of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto. The quicksilver solo violin writing hits the ground running and does, in fact, fly forward in the face of the orchestra’s ominous rumblings, straight to the end.

Nowhere are Higdon’s gifts as an instrumental colorist in fuller bloom than in her Percussion Concerto, which she completed in 2005 for percussion soloist Colin Currie. “My ‘Percussion Concerto’ follows the normal relationship of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra,” Higdon writes in her Program Notes for the concerto. “In this work, however, there is an additional relationship with the soloist interacting extensively with the percussion section.”

The work opens with a meditative solo marimba cadenza, the haunting sounds of which transform into other timbres with the entrance of instruments in the percussion section.

Percussionist Cameron Leach performs Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto in a version for percussion and wind ensemble with the Eastman Wind Ensemble:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qxVCoX5VUA

Over the course of the piece, Higdon’s score dazzles the ear with the tone colors of the extensive battery of percussion instruments in the soloist’s command, and in the interplay between the range of the soloist’s sounds and the colors in the ensemble supporting the soloist.

Higdon’s Percussion Concerto is relatively light in the composer’s extraordinary gift for writing beautiful melodies with unexpected turns. However, Higdon’s Viola Concerto (2014) bursts at the seams with tunes that seem never to end.

The concerto begins with a hushed repeated pitch in the solo viola that soon becomes a meandering melody, an ever-changing thread in a rich tapestry of nostalgically tinged harmonies. The solo viola melody seems like a leaf floating on a river, buffeted gently by currents rolling over rocks, striving to reach home but never quite arriving there. The effect of this never-ending melody is one of extreme longing, and Higdon amplifies it with achingly beautiful harmonies in the orchestra.

The world-premiere recording of Higdon’s Viola Concerto – Roberto Díaz is viola soloist with the Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero conducting:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcgYlRBySTk

Higdon expands the luxuriant melodies of the first movement well beyond the comforts of tonality in the second movement, which sees the solo viola and the instruments in the orchestra punching out snazzy syncopated rhythms with a high-energy groove. The third movement brings back Higdon’s trademark lyricism in the solo viola, this time backed in the orchestra by open harmonies reminiscent of fellow Americans Aaron Copland and Roy Harris.

Higdon’s most recent completed concerto is the Harp Concerto (2018) she wrote for harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. The harp is an instrument capable of making sounds far grittier than the stereotypical angelic gossamer stuff for which the instrument is known. Kondonassis talks about her view of the harp’s tougher side in my interview with her and conductor Ward Stare, music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom Kondonassis made the world-premiere recording of Higdon’s Harp Concerto.

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra perform the first movement of Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto, Ward Stare conducting:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=58&v=ZDtEWWY8sjM&feature=emb_logo

Higdon’s vivid ear for tone color and her innate gift for composing melodies that sound at once familiar and fresh join spectacularly in the first movement of Higdon’s Harp Concerto.

The second movement, Joy Ride, is a fleet-footed romp that shows off the harp’s edgy sparkle and sets the orchestra ablaze in edgy harmonies and twitchy rhythms:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=KdeNUG4ZGaY&feature=emb_logo

In the concerto’s third movement, a lullaby of deepest tenderness, Higdon’s yearning harmonies and angular melodies, coupled with the harp’s glowing tone colors, create a sonic watercolor full of light and shadow:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dTdTWHrlVU&feature=emb_logo

In the fourth movement, Rap Knock, the harp abandons its ethereal image altogether and becomes a drum here and there in this fun and funky finale:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=1HuXyelgOew&feature=emb_logo

There is much more to Jennifer Higdon’s body of work than her solo concertos. But these award-winning works show why Higdon is considered one of today’s finest composers – they revel in deliciously unpredictable tunes, they linger in harmonies that captivate and soothe and they make you hear in color.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.