The music of composer Jennifer Higdon communicates with the audience. It is just one reason why her orchestral piece, Blue Cathedral, will receive 20 performances this year.
Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon has entered the concert music big leagues with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's recording of her City Scape and Concerto for Orchestra (Telarc). The album, conducted by Robert Spano, has garnered four Grammy nominations, including "Best Classical Album," "Best Orchestral Performance" and, for Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, "Best Classical Contemporary Composition." An impressive achievement for any composer, yet all the more surprising to Higdon, who cheerfully admits to growing up in rural Tennessee ("one county over from where Dolly Parton is from") with no connection to concert music until her late teens. "My dad, an illustrator, worked at home and there was always a lot of rock music playing –the Beatles, Bob Marley, Simon & Garfunkel," Higdon remembers. "There happened to be a flute laying around the house that I picked up when I was fifteen and I taught myself to play. I'd always been involved in the arts in some form, but it was drawing and painting and, with my brother, experimental films. Discovering music was amazing for me."
Wasting no time, Higdon quickly won the flute first chair in her high school marching band and went on to a flute performance major at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, "still unfamiliar with works like the Beethoven symphonies." She credits her flute teacher at Bowling Green with "changing my life by opening me up to composing and conducting." Another turning point during her college years was meeting future Atlanta Symphony conductor Robert Spano, who was then beginning his career. Higdon studied conducting with him. It was Spano who urged her to attend Philadelphia's Curtis Institute to study composition.
Higdon "loves exploring new works - my own pieces and the music of others - in a general audience setting, just to feel a communal reaction to new sounds." She credits her ability to relate to the audience to her early and continuing interest in pop music. "I probably hear music the way most people in the United States do – because most of us don't grow up around classical," she says, adding, "I'm very aware that I'm taking the audience's time. How can I make it a memorable experience for them? I consider it a pretty serious responsibility." Among her most performed works is the gorgeous Blue Cathedral, an orchestral piece she composed in memory of her late brother. More than 20 performances of the work are scheduled for the coming year. She has also been greatly influenced by the music of Aaron Copland, which she believes accounts for "my American sort of sound."
While Higdon occasionally performs on the flute with chamber groups and orchestras, she is the first woman to teach composition at the Curtis Institute. She spends the great majority of her day — "I write for hours and hours," she says, happily — composing works commissioned by various ensembles and organizations. She is currently working on an oboe concerto for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and a percussion concerto for the Philadelphia, Dallas and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestras, among other projects. Higdon also serves as a member of the ASCAP Symphony and Concert Committee and as a judge in the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composeer Awards. She credits The ASCAP Foundation Commissioning Program with her first major orchestral commission, Shine, a work written in honor of Morton Gould for the Centennial of the Oregon Symphony in 1995. "That's the one that started it all," says Higdon. "I feel really, really lucky. It's not often that composers get to do something all the time that they really want to do."