Composers keep score. That’s actually a pun, because “score” is a term for a piece of music when it’s written-out on paper. But composers do keep count and not just of beats. More often than not, they also keep a tally on how many times their music gets played each year. That’s especially the case when it comes to orchestral performances, because if a conductor leads a full orchestra in your music then it means you’ve arrived.
When it comes to living composers played by American orchestras, Jennifer Higdon is a leader of the pack. Her orchestra piece “Blue Cathedral” was written in 1999 and received 19 performances last year — more than any other orchestra piece written in the last 25 years. During the same period, she was the third most widely performed living composer after her more senior colleagues John Adams and John Corigliano. (Statistics from the League of American Orchestras.)
Higdon is a 47-year-old out lesbian who lives in Philadelphia and teaches at the Curtis Institute. She met her partner Cheryl Lawson when they were in high school band together in Tennessee. A few years ago, Lawson abandoned her career in events management to work full time at Higdon’s in-house publishing company. Considering that Higdon’s music receives more than 200 performances a year, there’s plenty to keep the two of them busy.
Lately I’ve thought of Higdon as the Rachel Maddow of the classical music world. Like the MSNBC commentator, she’s good humored and straight talking but doesn’t make a big deal about being out. She’s also kinda butch, with a short no-nonsense haircut and a southern accent. Her music shares some of her personal characteristics — it’s direct, appealing and easy to understand. And like her speaking voice, it usually moves at a fast clip.
To meet Higdon in person, it might be easy to underestimate her she, since she stands about 5 feet 4 inches tall. A few years ago, she told me that at conferences, “other composers will talk over my head and not pay attention to my presence in a room. But the minute they find out who I am, they come over to talk.”
As I said, composers do keep score, and not just of how their own music is doing.
Plenty of Higdon’s music has been coming out on recordings. In 2004, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra released an all-Higdon disc that featured her popular “Blue Cathedral,” and also the powerful Concerto for Orchestra. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the concerto is an imaginative showcase for the different sections of an orchestra. When I heard it at Tanglewood about five years ago, the writing had that rarest of musical qualities — a feeling of inevitability.
Higdon’s latest release is a collection of chamber and solo works for flute, which was her instrument back in high school. The central performer for the new collection on Koch is Susan Glaser.
“Zaka,” the opening piece for flute and four other instruments, has all the best traits of Higdon’s music. It’s colorful and lively, like confetti has been thrown in the air and hangs there dancing around in front of you for minutes on end. “Rapid Fire,” a flute solo, may be Higdon’s most widely performed and recorded work, but not because it’s easy on the flute player. To the contrary, it’s incredibly demanding and full of unusual effects for the instrument. The opening moves like lightning with lines of melody jumping between the different registers so fast that it feels like there’s more than one instrument actually playing. “Summer Shivers” and “Autumn Reflections” are more subdued and lyrical, and thus a welcome departure on this rather hyperactive disc. The set ends with “Dash,” another cheerful and zippy essay.
Higdon has been especially busy during the last few seasons writing concertos for some major soloists. Her Violin Concerto for Hilary Hahn premiered early this year in Indianapolis and the dynamic jazz/improve trio Time for Three is currently playing her Concerto 4-3 all over the place. Higdon’s Percussion Concerto has recently appeared on a disc of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with soloist Colin Currie, for whom it was written. Again with this piece, she keeps the soloist plenty busy and the dramatic finale resembles a trap set solo at a rock concerto — fast, loud and pounding.
The one realm of classical music that Higdon has not yet conquered is opera, but she’s actually on that too. The San Francisco Opera recently announced that they’ve commissioned her first opera, slated for premiere in 2013.
A more thorough portrait of Jennifer Higdon from 2003 is available in my book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.