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American Record Guide, June 2007

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) teaches at Curtis and appears to have emerged as one of the top composers in the field, though this seems to be only her second major record release. Her big Concerto for Orchestra was recorded by Robert Spano on Telarc and generally well received by Mark Lehman (J/A 2004); it won a Grammy, too. This is her first recorded collection of chamber music, as far as I can tell.

Ms Higdon is somewhat aggressively marketed as an "accessible" composer. Not everything here will necessarily fit that description, but I can't imagine anyone not loving the first movement of the Trio (2003), a truly lovely eight-minute slow movement called, for some reason, 'Pale Yellow'. It is cut from the same American romantic cloth as Aaron Jay Kernis's Air-lyrical, sensitive, and even sublime. The fast, more dissonant toccata that follows ('Fiery Red') is playful enough not to offend the sensitive too badly. These are two apparently unrelated movements (or pieces), and the net effect is therefore not as impressive as it should have been. This was unfortunately recorded in concert at a music festival in Vail: sound is not very appealing.

The earlier Voices (1993) is a more "experimental" string quartet in three continuous "images". The first, 'Blitz', is a cartoon-music­like exercise in clusters and frenetic, parallel dissonance. II, 'Soft Enlacing', works with Ivesian overlay of vibrating tremolandos, hysterical melody, and glassy harmonics. The finale, 'Grace', opens with plaintive recitative-maybe a precursor to the Trio's first movement-and then leads to more impassioned declamation before its symmetrical return to the opening prayer. The overall effect seems more tentative than both later works on the program.

Impressions (2003), also for quartet, is named for the Impressionist movement and its practitioners in painting and music. Ms Higdon is aiming more for commentary on the Ravel and Debussy quartets than outright quotation. The effect is a lengthy, thoughtful homage. One is, of course, forced to think of the originals, which are pretty good and do not suffer by comparison. I ('Bright Palette') proceeds in regular block harmonies, more insistently square than you'll find in the composer's more fluid French models. II ('Quiet Art') has bits of harmonic parallelism and drifts along in aimless blocks of endless melody. III (To The Point') aims for the Ravel scherzo with its opening pizzicato, but its repeating two-bar figures resemble a passacaglia, though the composer says she was going for a Gamelan reference (following Debussy). IV ('Noted Canvas') is cyclical and ends with what amounts to a hoedown.

This is a well-crafted piece of chamber music; it might be of value at summer music festivals in programs with the originals, but I'm afraid it has limited value in itself. Naxos is marketing this with their growing catalog of women composers (Gloria Coates, Joan Tower, Margaret Brouwer, and Marion Bauer are listed at the end of the booklet).

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, May 2007

Sound quality of these recordings is fine throughout, despite their differing provenances. The performances are full of zest and commitment, all contributing to an issue of real interest. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

William Yeoman
Limelight, April 2007

Jennifer Higdon, born in 1962, is one of the most popular classical composer writing today. but here music is far from anodyne. Although largely tonal, it can often be tough and viscerally exciting, much like Bartók’s—though Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra is more suggestive of American masters like Reich and Copland.

This new collection from Naxos’s American Classics brings together three of Higdon’s chamber works. The two-movement Piano Trio has shades of both Copland (the lyrical first movement ‘Pale Yellow’) and Bartók (the spiky, precipitous second movement ‘Fiery Red’) while the second of the string quartets on this disc, Impressions, deliberately follows Ravel and Debussy, as well as being a homage to the Impressionist painters Monet and Seurat.

Higdon is definitely no pasticheuse, however: hers is a vibrant and individual voice, most clearly heard in the other string quartet on this disc, Voices. From the turmoil of ‘Blitz’ through the dreamscape of ‘Soft Enlacing’ to the gentle calm of ‘Grace’, this multi-faceted work seems effortlessly to achieve its maker’s aim: clear communication. All the musicians involved give committed performances; violinist Anne Akiko Meyers is particularly convincing in the live Piano Trio while the Cypress String quartet move through the many colours of Impressions with an almost painterly skill. Higdon provides a commentary on each piece, revealing a little more of herself in the process—not a bad thing at all.

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, March 2007

Philadelphia-based Jennifer Higdon has been getting some attention hereabouts over the last few years, with commissions from the Dallas and Fort Worth symphonies and the Van Cliburn competition. These two new releases give us the opportunity to hear more pieces by one of the most immediately likable contemporary composers.

For one thing, Ms. Higdon isn't embarrassed to give listeners clues to her intentions by attaching catchy names to many of her works. The 2003 Piano Trio on the Naxos disc would seem to be an exception, but the two individual segments have color labels – like a sweater or a lipstick. The opening Pale Yellow delightfully calls to mind the breezy folksiness of Aaron Copland or Virgil Thomson, with more contrapuntal ingenuity than either of them in their populist modes. Fiery Red, the finale, serves up some bracing dissonance in its perpetual-motion busyness.

Surely Voices and Impressions make more evocative titles than String Quartets 1 and 2. Each section has its own moniker, as well. The more recent Impressions makes, well, the best impression. Like the piece Ms. Higdon wrote for the Cliburn, it's a self-conscious homage to impressionism – both to the Debussy and Ravel quartets and to the painters of the movement. All three works are beautifully played by artists closely connected with the works. Anne Akiko Meyers, once the bright young thing among violinists, leads the trio.

Eighth Blackbird is a Chicago chamber ensemble made up of conventional instruments, often played in unconventional ways. This survey of works written for the group by five composers is hit or miss in interest, but the best pieces are fabulous fun. Ms. Higdon leads the way with the manic and amusing Zaka. Gordon Fitzell's Evanescence sounds just like the bubble-and-squeak electronic music of the 1970s, but this parody using live instruments is laugh-out-loud funny to anyone who remembers the originals. Dennis DeSantis' Strange Imaginary Remix mixes bebop, hip-hop and classical rhythms for a fantastic ride. These three works are prime candidates for loading onto the iPod for frequent listening.

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, March 2007

This is an excellent disc of communicative contemporary music from a composer I want to know better.

Jennifer Higdon apparently enjoys quite a following in the US - enough to be able to earn her living by composing. I know that Telarc has released a couple of well-received discs featuring her orchestral music played by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (Telarc 60620 and 60596).

I had heard and enjoyed her lush and evocative piece Blue Cathedral on the second of those Telarc discs - coupled with Barber’s Symphony No.1, Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the album’s title track, Rainbow Body, by another young American composer, Christopher Theofanidis - but until this disc arrived in the post I had not heard any of Higdon’s chamber music. I think a couple of smaller American labels, such as Albany and Cedille, have recorded some of her chamber music before now, but it is this Naxos disc that has the longest reach, the most tempting price tag and the greatest potential to win new fans.

Higdon’s piano trio is in two movements, and in each she experiments in evoking colour. Whether Higdon succeeds in stimulating your latent synaesthesia to have you hearing yellow or seeing red in the first and second movements respectively is nether here nor there. What is certain is that she evokes mood. The first movement, Pale Yellow is delicate and lyrical, beginning with a gentle wash of chords from the piano that slowly coax the strings to life. Anne Akiko Meyers’ violin tone has a winning sweetness and Adam Neiman caresses the keys of his piano. The second movement, Fiery Red, is an energetic, spiky scherzo. It can sound a bit relentless, but it is certainly fiery. Shades of Shostakovich here.

The performance, recorded live at the piano trio’s première at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, has a feel of excitement and occasion. Unfortunately, the acoustic is shallow and reverberant, so that it sounds like the music is being played in the bathroom next door. As a result, the cello is often obscured, especially in the hectic Fiery Red, and you cannot hear the depth of tone you would expect.

Voices, for string quartet, is the earliest of the works in the programme, predating its disc mates by a decade. Higdon explains in her liner notes that the three movements are intended to illustrate three images. The energetic first movement is entitled Blitz. There is strong flavour of Bartók here and quartet certainly colour Higdon’s writing as if it were Bartók’s. The second movement, Soft Enlacing, though of a piece with the first, is quite different. This is music of ambiguous beauty, and reminded me alternately of Debussy and Adams. The final movement, Grace, is the gentlest of the three. An interesting and evocative piece, well played and recorded.

The final work on the disc is a traditional four movement string quartet, played here by the Cyprus String Quartet, who commissioned it. There is a songful Ravel-like quality to the first movement, which is followed by a second movement of real beauty. The pithy third movement, entitled To the Point, shares the sound world of Shostakovich’s first four string quartets, but with an American accent and veers briefly into Shaker Loops territory. The fourth movement, Noted Canvas, has echoes of Debussy. The recorded sound for this piece is fine.

All of the music on this disc is engaging. My only complaint - other than the sonic one noted in relation to the piano trio - is the playing time of the disc. In fairness, 57:42 of music is not bad value for a bargain priced disc, but this music is so good that I wanted more. Higdon’s voice deserves to be heard and hearing it is a pleasure.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2006

Jennifer Higdon's disc is equally poetic, in a more traditionally pastoral way with feet on the ground, still occasionally echoing the music of Aaron Copland. There's also a sense of antic comedy rarely heard in chamber music.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, January 2006

While Sir Arthur Bliss and Michael Torke have extolled colors in the symphonic medium, American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) now does so with some chamber music. Her piano trio is in two movements subtitled "Pale Yellow" and "Fiery Red." There's a tuneful tentativeness about her shade of yellow that's infectious enough to really get under your skin. On the other hand, Higdon's red is highly energetic with what might best be described as an itching insistency. One could almost fantasize that it's an allergic reaction brought about by the first movement. Do you suppose there's some sort of underlying dermatological significance here? All kidding aside though, it's a very engaging piece that's well worth hearing. That's also true of the next two selections, which are both for string quartet. Voices begins in frenzied fashion much the same way as the trio ended. It then concludes with two more sedate movements, the last of which has a lovely benedictory quality that's most appealing. Ms. Higdon tells us that Impressions is a response to both the artists and composers of the Impressionist period. By her own admission the string quartets of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel heavily influenced her work. Much to her credit though, it has a sound all of its own even if she does utilize the principles underlying their music. The first movement is brightly colored and somewhat assertive, while the second is a lovely meditation. The third is pointallistically prickly and reportedly inspired by the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia. Stylistically the finale comes closest to the French Impressionists, but there's a lilting restlessness that makes it a unique Higdon creation. All of the performances are excellent with the last two works done in the studio and the trio taped live, but the audience in attendance is as quiet as a mouse. The recordings come off sounding a bit dry, but in the case of the trio that's probably due to some close miking designed to minimize any extraneous sounds. Despite these audiophilic quibbles, this is a most interesting release featuring music by one of America's most up-and-coming composers.

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