Higdon Watch: Violin Concerto without Hillary Hahn (concert review and opera update)

“Great Music, Right Here” is the apt motto of the Glens Falls Symphony.  Since the orchestra and its music director Charles Peltz regularly venture into contemporary music, “Right Now” might be an appropriate tag.

Sunday afternoon’s program featured something far better than a risky premiere.  Instead, it was Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, which was written in 2009 and received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music.  That award doesn’t always mean enduring quality but Higdon’s concerto has got the stuff.

One of today’s most widely performed composers, Higdon writes in the current style that might be dubbed post-ugly.  The concerto, like most of her music, is lively, fluent and engaging, but also extraordinarily demanding on the players, both soloist and orchestra alike.

It was written for and recorded by star virtuoso Hilary Hahn, a former student of Higdon’s at the Curtis Institute.  Sunday’s soloist was another Curtis student, 21-year old Benjamin Beilman.  He’s the first performer to take up the work after Hahn and this was his debut in the piece. He delivered with distinction and flair.

The first movement’s cadenza is a genuine tour de force, with a pilling up of themes and showy devices.  Higdon, who spoke before the piece, said she wondered if it was actually playable but Beilman tackled it with ease and confidence

After a stretch of romantic relaxation in the central movement, based on the form of the chaconne, comes the finale, which Higdon likened to a violin in a race at the Olympics.  The hurdles on the track were the colorful explosions from the orchestra.  The Glens Falls players shined in the numerous brief solos.

Beilman’s encore, from Prokofiev’s Sonata, revealed one of his gifts that was largely missing from the hyperactive concerto, a warm radiant tone.

After intermission, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” sounded like a different orchestra had taken the stage. The woodwinds were sour and out of tune at the launch of the first movement and the babbling brook of the second had a meager flow rate.  But Peltz added momentum with each movement and the playing got better for it.

Despite the struggles, or perhaps because of them, it was an engaging performance over all.  In other words, there was always something to listen for, good or bad, rather than just sitting through another accurate but rote account of the familiar classic.

Originally appeared in the Times Union.



The long awaited opera (Higdon’s first) for the San Francisco Symphony will no longer be in San Francisco.  The Sante Fe Opera has stepped up to take on the commission.  After a long search for the right subject, and then a protracted negotiation for rights, the source material is in place:  “Cold Mountain,” the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier.  The Opera Company of Philadelphia is a partner in the commission and production and the premiere is slated for 2015.

Here are more details from the Sante Fe Opera’s press release:

COLD MOUNTAIN – Jennifer Higdon, composer; Gene Scheer, librettist

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  Cold Mountain is Charles Frazier’s powerful account of one soldier, W. P. Inman, who deserts the Confederate army as the war is coming to an end and makes his way back to his home on Cold Mountain.  The novel won the 1997 National Book Award and was made into a film in 2003. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

The Civil War has a special resonance for New Mexicans.  The New Mexico Territory was the site of one of the final and westernmost battles of the Civil War, fought at nearby Glorieta Pass in 1862.  Historians have called it a major event in the history of the Civil War.  The village of Pecos is the site of an annual reenactment of the skirmish.

Cold Mountain composer Jennifer Higdon is one of the most in-demand composers today.   She was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a Grammy the same year for her Percussion Concerto. blue cathedral, written in 2000, on the death of her brother, has become one of the most performed modern orchestral  works.  Her compositions have been performed by leading orchestras throughout the country and she has received commissions from numerous instrumental ensembles.

The versatile American librettist and composer Gene Scheer is the librettist.  Among his many projects are several with composer Jake Heggie, the latest being Moby Dick for the Dallas Opera which was premiered in 2010.  He collaborated with Tobias Picker on two operas, An American Tragedy, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, andTherese Raquin for the Dallas Opera.  He has written songs for singers including Renée Fleming, Sylvia McNair and Stephanie Blythe, and a song cycle, Voices from World War II for Nathan Gunn.

Nathan Gunn, who will sing the role of W.P. Inman, is one of the country’s leading operatic baritones.  He has performed in virtually every major opera house in the world and is admired as an interpreter of new works including operas by Tobias Picker, Daron Hagen, Andre Previn and Peter Eötvös.  He collaborated with Gene Scheer on the opera An American Tragedy, and the song cycle Voices from World War II.  Gunn is also a distinguished concert performer and recitalist.  He appeared in the 1998 production of Berlioz’ Beatrice and Benedict and the following year in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in Santa Fe.  He is currently Professor of Voice at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

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