Monday, April 12, 2010

Listening to Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto


Which actually sounds like it could be a title of one of Jennifer Higdon’s works but it was my initial reaction to hearing her Violin Concerto when it was first broadcast on-line from the BBC with the performance by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The soloist was Hilary Hahn, the violinist for whom the work was composed, and that performance – officially the European premiere, as I recall – was recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and is scheduled to be released in September 2010, paired with the Tchaikovsky concerto.

Earlier today, it was announced that Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2010!

You can read her own thoughts on winning a Pulitzer, posted at the New Music Box, here.

Going through some old files in my computer, I came across this unfinished post about the Violin Concerto which I'd started last June. I had blogged about it when it was announced the concert in England would be broadcast on-line - you can read it here - and it includes a video clip of violinist Hilary Hahn interviewing composer Jennifer Higdon about the piece.

Though I was unable to make the performance in Baltimore, I did get a chance to hear the British performance twice while it was available on-line at the BBC. And the following observations describe some of the most memorable passages of the work. Without a score, I'm guessing how things might be scored: she has a knack for finding ingenious sound-combinations and ways of writing something that blossoms (or explodes, depending on the tempo) from something that might seem “easy to figure out.”

The opening of the Percussion Concerto is a case in point. Low tremulous chords on the marimba gradually expand as other similar percussion instruments are introduced – without seeing the score or watching the performers, you might think “how is he DOING that?!” when in reality, it's part of an artful ruse. But it also incorporates the soloist into the orchestra – and vice versa – in ways that traditional concertos didn't always seek to explore. Traditionally the idea has been more often one of a “contest in sound between the soloist and the orchestra.”

The Violin Concerto is another such approach from its magical opening to the expansion of the soloist's cadenza back into the full orchestra before the first movement ends, through a gorgeous slow movement before ending with a driving finale that must be as close as a violinist can get to riding a racehorse to the finish line.

Here are my observations from last June's broadcast of Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Vasily Petrenko:

- - - - - - -
... the toy-shop opening with the soloist’s harmonics and the (I’m guessing) glockenspiel (sounds like it’s being played with knitting needles, a very delicate wind-chimey sound, something I definitely wanna crib)

... I love how she creates a sound-world that draws you in without being adamant or narcissistic about it. The Percussion Concerto opened up in a similar way, with a low tremolo in the lowest register of the solo marimba – just the kind of sound to make you sit and go “what? How’d she do that?”

... under this, a long flowing line in the solo violin (so who’s playing the harmonics?) emerges and expands rhapsodically as more instruments join the texture – more with lines and sustained notes, but then the opening harmonic pattern becomes a backdrop in the woodwinds and percussion

... this being a concerto and one by Jennifer Higdon (whom one early critic described as “Bartok on speed”), it soon becomes rhythmic and lively, but still growing out of that opening sound and fabric, building gradually and taking you with it. She may alternate between these two moods, but however she Her timing is impeccable.

... However you view modern tonality versus modern non-tonality, one of the things I love about her style is not being afraid of spiky dissonance but always conscious of what makes standard classical music (whether it’s 18th Century classicism or 19th Century romanticism) move forward – the presentation of tension (the dissonance) and its resolution, a release that could be a seemingly normal major chord or maybe not but always moving further ahead under its own innate logic.

… there’s a passage at the end of the cadenza I’m wondering if it’s all in the solo violin part – playing over a sustained drone on a low string, I hear what would have to be left-hand pizzicatos alternating with an occasional bowed artificial harmonic, all set up in a rhythmic pattern that could be played by one person but sounds like 3 lines of different sonorities. Just when I thought “maybe it is possible – after all it’s part of a cadenza,” the solo violin extends into a long rhapsodic line with the sustained drone, the harmonics and the pizzicato notes all, clearly, played by other players and instruments, leading into a nocturnal rumination that brings the movement, for all its virtuosity, into a peaceful rhapsodic close, not unlike its opening.

...first movement is almost 15 minutes long. It's given a subtitle, “1726,” which seems like it must be commemorating some event in that year but in reality refers to the address of the Curtis School of Music on Rittenhause Square in Philadelphia where Ms. Higdon teaches and Ms. Hahn was a student.

…the ending of the slow movement is another of those moments: after long lyric lines surge to a climax as different strands begin to build a linearly dense texture, its resolution begins with an ascending line in the violin against descending block chords in the winds. This eventually settles on a sustained mid-range A Major triad while the violin pulls slowly higher through an A Minor scale to cadence on a high E, another jaw-dropping bit of magic worthy of a composer as sensitive as Schubert.

... the second movement, subtitled “Chaconnie,” is about 13 minutes long. The finale, subtitled “Fly Forward,” goes by quickly in slightly under 5 minutes.

(You can hear a 3-minute excerpt on NPR's web-site, here.)

As it turned out, I originally put this post aside to come back to it again the next day and listen to the music again, but between some mild computer trouble and then being unable to get the BBC clip to play the next day, the file was no longer available to listen to, so I was unable to finish writing about the concerto... Bummer! I am certainly looking forward to hearing the recording when it comes out this fall.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

It's no secret I'm a big fan of Higdon's music, ever since I first heard her Concerto for Orchestra back in 2002 when it was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra during their Centennial Celebration. When she got the call asking her if she'd consider writing such a piece, she at first thought this was a joke: but it was very real and they were very serious about it. To add more pressure, it was scheduled for a concert that was to be attended by representatives from orchestras all over the country who were in town for the American Symphony Orchestra League conference (at some point, perhaps even before then, it changed its name to its current name, the League of American Orchestras).

Noting the passionately supportive audience response (long standing and cheering ovations at each performance) and the dazzling critical acclaim it was met with, many members at the conference took this news back to their orchestras and within the year, seven other orchestras were scheduled to perform Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, something very rare in the life of a new work, even by a major composer.

She quickly went from being a respected teacher at Curtis not well known outside the area to becoming the closest thing to a Superstar new music has had in decades.

I have since attended additional Philadelphia premieres of her Percussion Concerto and a concerto for violin, chorus and orchestra called “The Singing Rooms.” However, I was unable to make it Baltimore to hear the Violin Concerto when it was given its East Coast Premiere last June, nor could I make it to Washington to hear her Piano Concerto when it was premiered, either.

In Central Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg Symphony has played three works by her, most recently 'SkyLine' from “CityScape,” the Percussion Concerto and, before that, “Blue Cathedral.” The Lancaster Symphony gave her their Composers Award in March of 2008 and performed the middle movement from “CityScape,” called “river sings a song to trees.” This past January with Market Square Concerts, Harrisburg heard the Cypress Quartet play the string quartet she'd written for them called “Impressions.”

From her website, you can tell – just by looking at these three commissions – she is not resting on any laurels. She's certainly one of the busiest composers on the planet.

“Jennifer Higdon is writing a concerto for the group eighth blackbird and orchestra. The work, On a Wire will be premiered in June by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting, and will also be featured by the ASO during the 2010 National Conference of the League of American Orchestras. Other commissioning groups will be announced soon.

“The Grand Tetons Music Festival, Donald Runnicles, Music Director, has commissioned Higdon to write a work to be premiered during the 2011 Festival.

“The San Francisco Opera has commissioned Higdon to write an opera to be premiered in Fall of 2013.”

And those are just a few of the pieces on her desk for the near future...

- Dr. Dick

Photo credit: Candace DiCarlo

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