Jennifer Higdon ‘Percussion Concerto’: A Technical Triumph!

Dearest readers, I must apologize for having gone awol the past couple of days, life has happened and I’m now catching up on my Female Fortnight Challenge so do bear with me! For day 11 I am writing about the incredibly popular American composer, Jennifer Higdon and her very exciting Percussion Concerto – enjoy!

Born in Brooklyn in 1962, Higdon soon moved Atlanta, Georgia, before then moving again to Seymour, Tennessee. A mostly self-taught music student, Higdon learnt the flute and percussion and started playing in school ensembles. She went on to study flute performance at Bowling Green State University with Judith Bentley, who soon encouraged Higdon to explore composition. She came into classical music much later than most music students at university and says that because of this she was more interested in contemporary music. Throughout university Higdon composed many pieces, and met conductor Robert Spano, who was a champion of her work. Since graduating, she has had an incredibly fruitful career in music and her work has been conducted by the likes of Leonard Slatkin, Christoph Eschenbach and Marin Alsop. Under the tutelage of George Crumb, Higdon earned her MA and PhD in composition from the University of Pennsylvania. She was awarded an Artist’s diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with David Loeb and worked closely with virtuoso violinist, Hilary Hahn.

She currently teachers composition at the Curtis Institute where she holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies. She works with a range of professional orchestras with her many commissions, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her tone poem for orchestra, blue cathedral (2000) was written in response to the death of her brother, and has been one of the most performed modern orchestral works by any living American composer. Higdon has also recorded works for more than four dozen CDs. Her works are largely orchestral and chamber works. However, she has also composed for voice and in 2015 composed her first opera Cold Mountain. Her music is considered ‘neo-romantic’ which show her style to be free from form, with intensity in dynamic and performance markings to portray her musical aesthetic. Her music has been considered to be engaging, accessible and generously rich with textures, timbres and tonality.

Higdon has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts and many other awarding bodies. Most recently she was awarded the Distinguished Arts Award by Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett. Higdon has been featured at many festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood and Cabrillo. Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy award for ‘Best Contemporary Classical Composition’ in 2010. Her Violin Concerto also received the 2010 Pulitzer prize in Music (a very successful year it seems!). Throughout her fruitful career, Higdon has never stopped being commissioned and that really highlights the extent that people want to stretch her creative core. Her Percussion Concerto is one of the most exhilarating works I think I have ever heard and I’ve been so very excited to share it with you in this challenge.

Composed in 2005, Higdon’s exciting Percussion Concerto has received very high acclaim from the media and from audiences around the world. Throughout the 20th Century and beyond, the growth of the percussion section is far more vast than any other section within an orchestra. Higdon writes in her program notes that the concerto follows the standard dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, however Percussion Concerto goes that step further by accentuating the relationships between the soloist, the orchestra and the percussion section. Having the player’s within an orchestra be able to play the same levels as the soloist is very special and Higdon uses this to her advantage and makes the percussion section part of the ‘solo’ part.

This particular concerto was written for percussionist, Colin Currie, and the work is also dedicated to him. Higdon claims that the use of percussion opens up a lot of possibilities for a composer. She uses instruments such as the marimba, vibraphone, drum kit, chimes and cymbals which give many dimensions to the work. The mix of pitched and non-pitched instruments also makes this concerto incredibly exciting as some sections focus on the pitch aspect, for instance when the vibraphone is playing. However, there are some sections which go the opposite direction and focus on timbre and rhythm, for example the drum kit. There is more than just the music in this concerto though, with all of these instruments comes hundreds of decisions from the soloist. What sticks to use, how to move around the many instruments and being able to perfect all of the instruments is such a massive challenge.

The work begins serenely with only the marimba playing. A dialogue is then established between the soloist and the percussion section. Only after this conversation is established does the orchestra enter. With luscious melodies and a menagerie of movements from the soloist, the work goes from being accompanied by a full orchestra, to just being a dialogue between the percussionists. There are many twists and turns within this concerto which is what makes it the most exciting for me. There is a slower lyrical sections, which requires a lot of communication between the strings and soloist. The fast section returns before the outstanding cadenza section, which showcases the soloist and percussion section. The extensive use of non-pitched percussion instruments are used, with the drum kit being at the forefront. An explosion of sounds and timbres are heard before the return of the orchestra, who bring the beginning theme back until the eventual conclusion of the work.

Percussion Concerto was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and was first performed in 2005, with Colin Currie as the soloist. An incredibly diverse, musically rich and exciting work – thank you Jennifer Higdon! I do really urge you all to listen to this work and other works by Higdon as she is an absolutely fantastic composer!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

https://play.spotify.com/user/11101571136/playlist/2Yar9AQYE8RCe14RWHmXqo – There’s a great version on my ‘Classicalexburns’ Spotify playlist!

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