Music Monday: Higdon: Concerto for Orchestra

However things play out in Atlanta over the coming years, the recent end to the lockout there seems a fitting occasion to highlight the work of Jennifer Higdon, a member of the so-called Atlanta School of American composition. Unlike other schools of composition named after places (the Second Viennese School being perhaps the most famous example), the members of the Atlanta School don't all live and work in Atlanta, nor did they all study with one influential composition teacher*. Instead, they take their name from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which, under the baton of Robert Spano, premiered and recorded many of their works, including a slew of releases in the mid-2000s. (The most famous other members are Christopher Theofanidis, Osvaldo Golijov, and Michael Gandolfi, tho if you widen the net to include everyone writing in a similar style, you'd catch a pretty large portion of the contemporary American concert compositional landscape.)

In addition to all being promoted by the ASO, all of the composers in the Atlanta School share certain compositional sensibilities, including accessible harmonies, generally melodic writing, and vivid attention to orchestrational detail. (They're sometimes described as neo-Romantic composers, tho I have reservations about that term that aren't worth going into here.) Die-hard modernists sometimes trash them for being pandering and popular, but just because something's popular doesn't mean it isn't also good, so we'll leave the modernists to their spectral ponderings and continue on our merry way.

Getting to the composer at hand: Jennifer Higdon (born 1962) is unlike the vast majority of composers in that she didn't actually receive much extensive musical training early in life. She taught herself flute and played in her high school band, but she had little exposure to the wider world of western concert music until college. (She didn't start composing until she was 21, which is honestly a source of great comfort. If it's possible to have a career as phenomenally successful as hers without having started as a wee young thing, there's hope for us all.) Once she started, tho, she didn't stop: She earned advanced degrees from Curtis and the University of Philadelphia, wrote blue cathedral — which has quickly become one of the most-performed works by a living American composer (at this point, it's been done by more than 400 orchestras, which doesn't include repeat performances) — won a Grammy and a Pulitzer . . . basically, she's taken the American concert music scene by storm, and this doesn't show any sign of letting up. She currently lives with her partner, Cheryl Lawson, in Philadelphia, where she teaches at Curtis, and is set to have her first opera premiered in San Diego in 2015.

Despite the seemingly contradiction, there are a lot of pieces under the title "Concerto for Orchestra". (Unlike in a traditional concerto that features one solo instrument, a Concerto for Orchestra treats the entire orchestra as the soloist.) I have fourteen in my iTunes library, and know (or at least know of) several more**. It's hard to say much about them as a genre — each one is pretty unique — but they do tend to be virtuosic on every level, displaying compositional dexterity and orchestrational brilliance, and calling for impressive feats from all the players, both individually and as a group. Higdon's fits right into this mold; it's a tour de force from all involved.

Opening with brusque cadential gestures in the percussion and scurrying violin figures, the first movement hits the ground running, a tense ball of nervous energy. (Strangely, the recording with the ASO itself isn't on Spotify, but this one is also quite good.) About two and a half minutes in, the texture clears and we get a dainty, singing interlude with hints of an enchanting music box. This opens into a tender brass chorale, which leads right back into the twitchy opening material. The other material comes back in turn — tho deepened, expanded, never quite the same — and the movement ends with a quiet release of breath. The second movement, scored for strings alone, picks up with this mood of quiet relaxation, but builds and builds over its duration until it's at a fever pitch of insistence in the final bars.

Next is the longest movement of the five, which opens with tentative, playful little gestures before a mysterious, faltering line for the solo flute. The playful opening motives keep returning, like thin rivulets of water between mysterious islands partly obscured by fog. Gradually, these islands begin to gather momentum, rolling forward into a wild rush. At the movement's midpoint, we fall back into a foggy daze, but the brass gradually warm things up until we're back to the jittery intensity, a mood that once again does not last. Most mysterious of all is the quiet fourth movement, full of gentle, cryptic percussion ostinati. At several points, these rush forward into a new tempo, seemingly heralding some advent we never quite get. Never, that is, until the last one launches us without pause into the raucous finale. It starts with nervous, claustrophobic gestures that can't quite seem to come together into a coherent whole, but echoes of earlier movements quickly emerge, and after yet another rushing forward, the movement seems to find its feet. From there, it's all a rush, including dancing lines in the winds and strings, glowing carillon moments in the brass, and disruptive poundings from the percussion until the whole orchestra comes together for the triumphant, explosive ending.

*I'm sure one could write a great deal about the implication of geographic dispersal on lines of artistic influence in an age when we can send PDF scores around the world faster than blinking and Skype in to rehearsals, but this post is getting rather long already, so you get this footnote instead. #Fermat

**One of the fastest ways to my heart is to introduce me to a Concerto for Orchestra that I don't already know about. Bonus points for extra bassoonery!