Jennifer Higdon

Review: Jennifer Higdon | Cliburn Concerts | Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Thoughtfully Composed

The Cliburn at the Modern again presents Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon in an enlightening talk and performance.

published Friday, April 11, 2014


Photo: Candace DiCarlo
Jennifer Higdon with her cat

Fort Worth — The Cliburn at the Modern series brings outstanding composers to the concert hall in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth to discuss their music and the act of creation itself. Curated and moderated by the ever-charming Shields-Collins Bray, those who regularly attend these always fascinating sessions have come to know, on both a musical and personal basis, most of the important composers working today. 


On April 5, one of the most interesting of the lot, Jennifer Higdon, made a most welcome return to the series. She has won almost every award there is to win for composition, including a Pulitzer and a Grammy. She is one of the most-performed of all the living composers and has a backlog of commissions that will take her to 2020 and beyond.

Photo: J.D. Scott
Jennifer Higdon
All this is well and good, but it is Higdon’s charm and surprising honesty that makes her so interesting. She readily admits lack of background in some areas of music caused by her late start and that being a flute player limited her early exposure. For example, she talked about starting her commission for Piano Trio, which was on the program).

“I really didn’t know much about piano trios so I got a bunch of recordings and scores. My concern is always balance and I wondered how to balance three such different instruments [piano, violin and cello].”

As you could tell in the sensitive performance of the trio at the end of the program, she achieved that “balance” quite beautifully. This trio is one of her most successful pieces. In the hands of pianist Bray, violinist Swang Lin and cellist Leda Larson, it was the highlight of the afternoon.

The program opened with Dash, a piece that lives up to its name for clarinet, violin and piano. Bray and Lin were joined by clarinetist Daryl Coad. It is jazzy and full of Hidgon’s trademark virtuoso passagework up and down the instruments. As in most of her compositions, the rests are as important as the notes. Higdon uses silence to separate brief motives so that her fast music is full of fits and starts. In Dash, she also punctuates (exclamation points) with sharp double stop chords in the violin.

Her Clarinet Sonata occupied the middle of the program. She wrote this piece some time ago.

“It started out as a viola sonata in 1989,” she said. “I was still a grad student at Curtis and this was my first try at a sonata. Since I am not a pianist, and knew that the piano is an equal partner in a sonata, I had some work to do.” 

As in the piano trio, she turned to historical president and studied up.

“I looked at the great sonatas by contemporary composers such as Hindemith and Prokofiev.”

Since then, the sonata has been rewritten for a number of instruments, such as a saxophone, and we heard the clarinet version. The long melody that opens the sonata translated nicely from viola to clarinet. The tune seems to be searching for a place to settle and probably sounds lonelier on the clarinet. The stuttering motive probably sounds better on the viola because of the articulation available with the bow. 

“I can hear the young me trying to find my voice,” Higdon said after the sonata ended.

That compositional “voice” is the goal of every composer. You want your music to be recognizable when it is heard out of context—like on a radio program. Higdon uses so many different musical languages that a harmonic voice is nearly impossible. Her influences are as varied as Copland and bluegrass.

“When we are younger, we tend to write like what is around you,” she said. “You can never think ‘I am gong to write this in your own voice.’ You just start writing and it becomes your voice the more you do it.”

She also talked about writing for a specific organization.

“It was very hard for me to write a piece for a student orchestra because I had to keep in mind their abilities,” she said. “It is easier to write for the Chicago Symphony, because you know they can play anything. A student group is another matter. It would be worthless for me to write something that they couldn’t play or make sound good. It is important to always remember who is on the other side of the music stand.”

Her big project now is an opera—her first. It is based on Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain with a libretto by Gene Scheer. It will be premiered in August of 2015 by the Santa Fe Opera, one of the most important summer opera festivals in the world.

“It has taken me two years to write,” she said. “I usually write many pieces in a year so this is on a scale that is completely new to me. I think I will write a book ‘I survived writing an opera’ to get the story out,” she said with a laugh.

Higdon has written for the voice before, but the bulk of her music is for instrumentalists. However, if you look at the songs, her ability to write for the orchestra and at the lyric moments in all of her works, you can begin to see what a Higdon opera might be. For example, the piano trio on the present program has an absolutely beautiful first movement that would grace any opera. 

The premiere of Cold Mountain will be an eagerly anticipated music event. The opera world will turn out in force to hear what she does with the genre. Also, it will be interesting to see what happens next. Once the opera bug bites, composers can become addicted. Thanks For Reading

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Thoughtfully Composed
The Cliburn at the Modern again presents Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon in an enlightening talk and performance.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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