By Thomas May
Jennifer Higdon is not only stunningly prolific but one of the most-performed American composers at work today. Her style offers an appealing balance of the accessible and the imaginative, and it attracts top-flight soloists, orchestras, and chamber ensembles—like Trio Solisti, which just premiered the composer’s Second Piano Trio, Color Through. Higdon, who turns 55 in December, also contributes to musical life through her teaching and residencies at such institutions as the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where she is currently the Barr Institute Laureate
“I was the odd one out because it was a
rock ’n’ roll household and I decided to go into classical music when my mom brought me a flute from a pawn shop.”
On the very day she learned that she’d been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music, in April 2010, Jennifer Higdon pointed out to NPR that she felt “fortunate to work with such great musicians,” referring to Hilary Hahn, for whom Higdon’s Pulitzer-winning Violin Concerto was composed. She similarly hastened to share credit for her success in several other discussions of the honor. She cited a host of colleagues, former teachers, and even her own students at the Curtis Institute as sources of inspiration.
It’s a reaction that follows naturally from the generous artistic personality Higdon effortlessly projects. While her style is sometimes characterized as a kind of American neo-Romanticism, her approach to composition suggests little of the ego-driven self-absorption of Romantic cliché. It seems closer to a Baroque-era attitude, one that appreciates music-making as a shared, praxis-oriented craft. That applies equally to the astonishing range of soloists and ensembles around whose talents Higdon has tailored her commissions, and to her disciplined work ethic.
“I finish a commission one day and start with a new one the next,” the peripatetic Higdon told me in a recent phone conversation from her home base in Philadelphia, soon after completing a new piano trio for Trio Solisti that, at press time, is scheduled to premiere in April, in Tucson. New requests for Higdon’s work come pouring in at a furious pace and overlap, yet even a grueling travel schedule doesn’t prevent her from carving out time every single day to compose.
“It comes to something between six and 12 pieces a year,” she says, “and I have stuff at this point going through 2022.” On her plate at the beginning of 2017 were a tuba concerto that needed some final polishing, a concerto for low brass (“that’s a pretty interesting but scary challenge”), a harp concerto, and several other concertos. “One thing that makes it so worthwhile is that I get to write for players at the top of the field of their respective instruments.”
And there’s a chamber opera in the works, her next foray into a medium that has been the exception in terms of efficiency. Higdon’s ambitious operatic debut—a theatrically vivid adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel Cold Mountain, which Santa Fe Opera premiered in 2015—took more than two years from her schedule to complete. That company’s recording was nominated for Best Opera Recording and Best Contemporary Classical Composition in this year’s Grammy Awards, though the win went elsewhere. But Higdon already has an impressive shelf of trophies, which includes a Best Contemporary Classical Composition Grammy in 2010 for her Percussion Concerto.
Such creative abundance has helped shore up Jennifer Higdon’s position as one of the most visible living American composers. Her breakthrough orchestral composition blue cathedral has racked up a tally of over 600 performances to date. Its premiere in 2000 announced an emotionally direct yet distinctive style that combines lyrical warmth and exuberant energy, and clearly speaks to a wide range of audiences.
Unsurprisingly, concertos comprise a major part of Higdon’s catalogue—from full-scale orchestral concertos to a bluegrass-styled concerto for string trio and the experimental On a Wire, written for chamber ensemble eighth blackbird. This composer especially relishes collaborations with performers she has gotten to know, with musicians whose artistic personalities she can set in high relief.
The new Piano Trio, however—her second contribution to the genre—originated with a commission from Trio Solisti, none of whose members (violinist Maria Bachmann, cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach, and pianist Fabio Bidini) Higdon had met prior to the project. “But I certainly was aware of their playing. In fact during the year when both Leila Josefowicz and Hilary Hahn were in my 20th-century music class [at Curtis], I put more emphasis on violin music and used some recordings by Maria Bachmann.” The commission resulted from Trio Solisti’s admiration for Higdon’s First Piano Trio from 2003, written for the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado.
Despite the time lag between the two trios, Higdon picked up on her use of color in the first as a jumping-off point for the new commission. Simply titled “Piano Trio,” the 2003 work began with the question of whether music can reflect colors. Its two movements, “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red,” comprise a contrast-rich diptych, but each can also be performed as an independent piece. “So I decided it might be interesting to write another piano trio also featuring colors and also involving movements that could mix and match with the movements of the First Piano Trio,” she says.
The new trio is about the same length (14 minutes) and similarly contains two movements: “Wondrous White” and “Brilliant Blue.” Higdon explains that she thought of the prominent part white plays in paintings: “It’s omnipresent. The canvas is frequently white to begin with, and white is often mixed with other colors. So ‘Wondrous White’ is contemplative and even at times ecstatic. ‘Blue’ is a term that can be used in a lot of different ways: feeling blue, but there’s blue sky as a positive quality. ‘Brilliant Blue’ has a much more energetic feel.”
Higdon envisions the four movements of these two piano trios as flexibly programmable, allowing for any combination, order, or number of movements. This is also reflected in the titles, which combined might read “Piano Trio Color Through” or “Color Through Piano Trio.” “I had to be careful that tempi and character, as well as the starting and ending keys, were different enough but could also sound logical if played together, one after the other,” she says.
The composer attributes her fascination with color in part to the fact that she grew up in a family devoted to the visual arts. Her father was a commercial artist and did paintings and experimental film. “I was the odd one out because it was a rock ’n’ roll household and I decided to go into classical music when my mom brought me a flute from a pawn shop, and I taught myself to play around high-school age.”
Even though the flute was her first musical alter ego, Higdon observes that string players have been especially interested in commissioning her to write for them. Roberto Díaz’ request for a Viola Concerto, for example, resulted in Higdon making a new addition to that sparse repertoire (recently recorded by Díaz and the Nashville Symphony for Naxos). “Even though I’m not a string player, something about my musical language seems to fit well on the fingerboard. And I love writing for strings and exploring sounds on the instruments.”
Higdon says she also benefits from the creative stimulation of working with students. Last fall she began her two-year tenure as the Barr Institute Laureate at the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. It entails visits during the fall and early spring. “I’m doing a ton of talks and presentations on topics from history and theory to music business to social issues in music classes, such as the history of gay and lesbian composers and how that has changed over time.”
It’s one way Higdon believes she can contribute to musical life in addition to her work as a composer, pointing to John Williams as a role model. She recalls the impact of the Star Wars soundtracks when she was in high school and just discovering the potential of orchestral coloration. “I consider him a hero because of the colorful way he uses the orchestra but also because he has been such a generous musical citizen.”