Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Meeting Composers: Jennifer Higdon Comes to Town

This weekend, you get to hear a real live composer when she joins the Cypress Quartet for Market Square Concerts, Saturday evening at Temple Ohev Sholom.

So far, mid-state Pennsylvanians have heard Jennifer Higdon's music live with “Blue Cathedral” and her Percussion Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony and the 2nd movement of “CityScape” entitled “river sings a song to trees” with the Lancaster Symphony in the past few years. The opening movement of “CityScape,” called “SkyLine” opens next week's Harrisburg Symphony concert, January 30th and 31st at the Forum. Several of her recordings, including "Blue Cathedral" and the “Concerto for Orchestra,” had been heard on WITF-FM including interviews with her on “Composing Thoughts” and “New Releases.”

The Telarc recording of the Concerto for Orchestra had been nominated for three Grammys including Best Contemporary Composition and won one for Best Engineered Recording. This year, the London Philharmonic's recording of the Percussion Concerto has been nominated for Best Contemporary Composition: we'll find out Sunday night when the Grammy winners are announced. (I'll be posting the winners on my blog, Thoughts on a Train.)

In addition to these two large-scale works, I've also heard the premiere of “Singing Rooms,” a very unusual combination of violin concerto and choral work. This past year, there've been two new concertos premiered, a Piano Concerto and a Violin Concerto (written for Hilary Hahn, which I heard in a radio-internet broadcast from the BBC when it was performed and recorded in London). There was a concerto for the cross-over group, the classically-trained Bluegrass string trio calling themselves “Time for 3,” a work she called “Concerto 4-3.” She's writing another concerto for the new music ensemble, “eighth blackbird,” which is set to premiere this June and there's an opera on her work-desk, due for a premiere in San Francisco in 2013!

Judging from that list of works, all composed within the past 8 years, you might be surprised that she writes a lot of chamber music, too. And that's how we'll hear her this weekend.

Jennifer Higdon is one of the most performed living composers writing today. Ellen Hughes described her as “the busiest composer on the planet” when she announced Jennifer Higdon's string quartet “Impressions,” written for the Cypress Quartet, will be on their program when they perform with Market Square Concerts – and not only that, the composer, despite her busy schedule, will be here to talk with the audience about the piece, what it was like writing it.

That program is this weekend – January 23rd, Saturday evening at 8pm, at the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg, located on Front Street a few blocks above the Governor's Mansion.

Claude Debussy and Samuel Barber, whose quartets are also on the program, regret that they will be unable to attend.

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You don't often get a chance to hear a live composer talk about the music he or she has written (well, true, you never get to hear a dead one, either, but you know what I mean). With music from the past, there are people who've written about the composer, about the music, about the times they lived and created in. But they can't usually tell us what was going on in composers' minds when they were composing those pieces.

New music – and “Impressions” was written in 2003 so that certainly still qualifies as “new” in the Art World – usually takes a few years or generations before that body of “context” can be... well, for lack of a better word, “historicized.” The context for New Music is all around us: it was written in our own time, times most of us have experienced and remember, it reflects things going on in our world (either artistically or historically) today.

In many cases, composers can be an esoteric bunch and there can be very little more boring for most people than listening to a composer talking to other composers about the “expert” details that lie beyond the comprehension or interest of most listeners. It would be the same, though, if you wanted to hear about space travel from a famous scientist who's come to town and ends up talking to other scientists about the finer points of physics. For most of us, the mind would probably quickly glaze over. (Actually, that happens to me when I hear “experts” talk about baseball, but hey...)

One of the things that I've always liked about Jennifer Higdon since I first met her back at the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra in 2002, is how genuine she is as a person and how direct she is as a communicator, both reflected in the way she writes her music and in the way she talks about it.

(As an example, you can watch this video in which she and Hilary Hahn talk about the Violin Concerto.)

There is none of this scholarly mumbo-jumbo meant to impress other experts nor is it so vague (as others try to peel away the mystery of creativity) as to be pointless. Her music appeals to a broad range of listeners without being difficult enough to leave people wondering what they're listening to nor simplistic enough (as we expect genuinely popular works to be), empty of intellectual content for someone who wants something to sink their brain into.

If the role of an artist is to make it look easy, making us forget how much hard work and talent (not to mention luck) goes into what they do, listening to Jennifer Higdon talk about how she composed a piece of music might even leave you thinking, “Hey, I could do that!”

And she'd tell you, “you know, you're right!”

If only...

True, we all have the spark of creativity within us – it just takes some coaxing to bring it out and turn it into something. But there is still something intangible about turning it into something so tangible as a work of art.

So I hope you'll take this opportunity to come hear one of the best composers I know and one of the most talked about and performed composers today – you'll hear her music and find out that she hasn't so far, like so many dead composers, been turned into a marble bust fit only for reverence. She's just another normal human being. Who happens to write incredible music.

Dr. Dick

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