About this Recording
8.559823 - HIGDON, J.: All Things Majestic / Viola Concerto / Oboe Concerto (Díaz, Button, Nashville Symphony, Guerrero)

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962)
Viola Concerto • Oboe Concerto • All Things Majestic


Jennifer Higdon is a major figure in contemporary classical music: she received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a GRAMMY® Award in 2010 for her Percussion Concerto. Over the last decade, she has established herself among America’s most frequently performed composers, and her piece blue cathedral is one of the world’s most-performed contemporary orchestral works. Her works have been recorded on over five dozen CDs.

Born in Brooklyn, Higdon came to the world of classical music relatively late. She grew up in Atlanta and in the East Tennessee town of Seymour, with much exposure to country, rock, and—thanks to her parents’ involvement with the visual arts—avant-garde art happenings. At age 15 she decided to teach herself flute and became a performance major at Bowling Green State University.

The idea of composing, Higdon recalls, emerged almost by chance after a few years of study, when her flute teacher asked her to write a short piece. “I found arranging sounds to be fascinating,” she says. Soon the desire to compose became unavoidable, taking over her life. Now, with commissions pouring in and her music in high demand, Higdon is frequently on the road yet still maintains the discipline to compose several hours every day of the week. Higdon also holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

The concerto format figures prominently in Higdon’s catalogue. Examples include an acclaimed Concerto for Orchestra, a bluegrass-styled concerto for string trio, Concerto 4–3, and concertos for piano, violin, viola, soprano saxophone, and percussion, as well as On a Wire, an innovative concerto for the chamber ensemble eighth blackbird. Higdon’s Viola Concerto was premièred by the Curtis Chamber Orchestra at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in 2015. She composed the piece expressly for the celebrated Chilean-American violist Roberto Díaz, who also serves as director of the Curtis Institute of Music.

The composer has had a long association with Díaz. Her first major engagement with a professional orchestra was a performance of her Concerto for Orchestra by the Philadelphia Orchestra, in which Díaz took part. “I know his sound well and his personality, and I have heard him play a lot,” she observes. “As a composer, when you have heard a musician playing an instrument, you tend to keep that sound in your head in a way that resonates. It can be partly the things they choose to play when they are soloing in a chamber situation or with an orchestra, but it’s also the personality of the individual. Roberto has a presence about him that is charismatic: an energy I was thinking about when I started the Viola Concerto.”

In preparing for this composition, Higdon says, “I noticed that pieces for the viola were all very dark and kind of heavy. So I decided to make a piece that is more celebratory and has a real swing to it. Each movement has an American rhythmic drive, with almost jazz-like rhythms that are tricky for the orchestra. They fit together like a little puzzle, where everything is tightly woven. But you also want to think about the gorgeousness of the instrument. The viola sounds great playing long lines.”

As a consequence, she veered away from the conventional fast-paced first movement: “I put my slowest movement first. The second movement is a little faster, and the third one is very fast. The architecture was determined by the fact that the viola sounds good doing certain kinds of lines. Overall, it’s distinctly an up concerto.”

Higdon adds, “Musicologists and critics have often written that my musical language sounds American, and, while I don’t know exactly how to define that, I am sure that they are right. Since the lead commissioner of this work is the Library of Congress and the co-commissioners are all American institutions of learning and performance, it seemed natural that an American sound would be the basic fabric.

“I have always loved the viola… my first sonata was written for this expressive instrument. It is my privilege to add to the repertoire of an instrument that has moved from being embedded within ensembles to playing a prominent role at the front of the stage.”

Jennifer Higdon’s Viola Concerto was commissioned by The Library of Congress, in honour of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Library’s concert series. This commission was made possible with the generous support of the Baird Family in honour of Jane and Cameron Baird, and with the support of John J. Medveckis. The work was co-commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music (with support from the Musical Fund Society), The Aspen Music Festival and School (Robert Spano, Music Director) and Nashville Symphony (Giancarlo Guerrero, Music Director). The concerto was performed on the Tuscan-Medici Stradivari Viola.

The prospect of tailoring a concerto to a particular artist’s personality, notes Higdon, stimulates her creativity—and this is certainly the case with the Oboe Concerto, which was commissioned by the Minnesota Commissioning Club. The work is inspired by the playing of Kathy Greenbank, principal oboe of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “When I met with the Minnesota Commissioning Club,” Higdon recalls, “I remember them talking about how even her tuning note sounds like ‘butter.’”

While other orchestral works such as blue cathedral have at times drawn from the impetus of imagery, Higdon points out that no imagery lies behind the composition of the Oboe Concerto: “The music is written so that it should speak to the audience, without them having to have an explanation.”

She continues: “This Oboe Concerto gives the instrument a chance to highlight its extraordinary lyrical gift. The beauty of the soaring line intrigued me as a starting point, and then the realization that the oboe makes a great partner for duets within an orchestral texture sent me in the direction of creating interactions with other instruments in the supporting ensemble.

“This instrument’s playful quality in quick-moving passages set the tone for the faster sections. I have always thought of the oboe as being a most majestic instrument, and it was a pleasure to be able to create a work that would highlight its beauty and grace.”

All Things Majestic originated in 2011 as a commission from Grand Teton Music Festival to write a major orchestral work commemorating the 50th anniversary of the festival, which takes place over seven weeks each summer in Jackson Hole, along the border of Wyoming and Idaho. Apart from that specific occasion, All Things Majestic also represents a musical response to Higdon’s deep love of nature, which she cultivates through her passion for hiking.

Higdon refers to herself as an “avid fan of the National Park system, which comes from having hiked so much of the Smoky Mountains. When asked by the Grand Teton Music Festival if I would compose a work to commemorate the festival’s 50th anniversary, I jumped at the chance,” she says. “All Things Majestic is a tribute to the festival, the musicians, and its home, the Tetons, and to the majesty of all of our parks.”

As a way of getting into the mindset for this project, Higdon undertook a hike of the Grand Tetons in the company of conductor Donald Runnicles, the festival’s music director. The result is a four-movement suite reflecting various facets of this landscape of complex beauty. “I thought a lot about the richness of the land, the fact that you have mountain ranges, plains, rivers, lakes and so many details,” she explains. “Essentially, the piece involves a lot of really big sounds, which I associate with the majestic quality of the landscape.” At the same time, Higdon focuses on particular sections of the orchestra, foregrounding different colours in each movement.

“In this work,” she continues, “each movement represents a musical postcard: the first, the grandeur of the mountain ranges, with their size and sheer boldness, and the solidity with which they fill the ground and air; the second, the lakes and the exquisite mirror-quality of reflection upon their serene surfaces; the third, the rapid flow and unpredictability of the rivers and streams… ever-changing and powerful, yet at times gentle; the final movement pictures the experience of being in the parks, as in a vast cathedral… the beauty of small details such as flowers and plants, within the larger picture of forests and fields… every part contributing to the sheer majesty.”

Thomas May

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