interview with jennifer higdon

For those of you who don’t know Jennifer Higdon, she’s one of America’s leading composers. Over at NewMusicbox, there’s a great interview with Higdon, as well as a video short that features some of her works in performance as well as additional interviews.

She studied with Ned Rorem at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, as well as George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also an accomplished flutist who still performs at the highest level. Her works for orchestra have been commissioned and recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Atlanta Symphony, and chamber works have been commissioned and recorded by the Cypress Quartet and eighth blackbird.

The Oregon Symphony’s only brush with Ms. Higdon was as one of three composers commissioned to celebrate the orchestra’s centennial season. We played a brief 12-minute work called Shine which was very well written and (always a plus for orchestral musicians) easy to read on the page (but not easy to play!). It was easily the best constructed of the three works, and got the best audience response as well.

I first met Jennifer when I was going to school in Philadelphia in 1991. I was looking (with little success) for some freelance gigs when a composer friend (the composer/conductor Troy Peters) said that the Penn Orchestra was looking for ringers to fill out their viola section. I took the gig and showed up for the rehearsal to find a genial, very smart, and friendly female conductor leading the rehearsal. It was Jennifer. We got along great and when I found out she was a composer, I did what all violists do upon meeting a composer: they ask “have you written anything for the viola?” She did – a very nice Viola Sonata (1990) which had been written only a year before for a Curtis classmate Michael Strauss (now principal violist of the Indianapolis Symphony). She very graciously gave me copies of the parts and the piece remains in my repertoire to this day.

I hope that the Oregon Symphony will program at least one of her newer works in coming seasons – her Concerto for Orchestra (2002)(dubbed Ein Higdonleben by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra upon premiering the work on the same program as Richard Strauss’ titanic tone poem Ein Heldenleben) and Blue Cathedral (1999) are both tremendously well-crafted and engaging works that (especially in the case of Blue Cathedral) are becoming repertory pieces around the country. I think that Carlos Kalmar likes Blue Cathedral quite a bit, so I’m hopeful that it might show up on a program one of these days.

[note: I noticed that both Jennifer Higdon and Charles Wuorinen were photographed with their cats – this might lead to a new distinction of composer photos taken with or without cats, much like the old-school distinction of performers’ photos taken with or without a cigarette – check it out, you’ll never get bored looking a old publicity photos again…]

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