Interview with Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon is one of the cherished names in contemporary American classical music. At 55, she is one of the most widely performed living composers in the United States. Among her most popular works are the symphonic poem blue cathedral, her opera Cold Mountain, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto, written for Hilary Hahn.

Higdon has had quite a year so far. Her Viola Concerto won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition—an award she previously received for her Percussion Concerto in 2010. Her Low Brass Concerto, commissioned by the Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia orchestras, received its world premiere on February 2nd in Chicago, followed by performances in New York City, Palm Beach, and Philadelphia. Her next work—a Tuba Concerto written for Craig Knox—will have its world premiere in Pittsburgh on March 16th.

Despite her busy schedule, the composer readily accepted my invitation for an ArtsComment interview to discuss her recent work, contemporary favorites, and the upcoming premiere of the Tuba Concerto.

First, I’d like to congratulate you for your recent win at the Grammys for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for your Viola Concerto. How does it feel to have won twice now, for both the Viola Concerto and your Percussion Concerto in 2010?

It’s quite an amazing feeling! I must admit that I’m still adjusting to the idea, it feels so big. But truly an honor! (And violists are excited because it was for a work for their instrument.)

You recently stunned Chicago, and subsequent New York and Philadelphia audiences, with the premiere of your Low Brass Concerto—to my recollection, the first piece of its kind. We don’t normally think of concerti as existing in the lower registers of the orchestra, to say nothing of a low brass quartet (two tenor trombones, bass trombone, and tuba). Was it a challenge for you to keep the solo writing clear and concise when dealing with four low-register brass instruments?

It was absolutely a challenge. Part of it was the writing of the lines so that they would be clear, and part of it was the fact that there weren’t other scores to look at, to figure out balances between the soloists and the orchestra. Spacing between the low brass voices was key. But after talking to the low brass players in all of the co-commissioning orchestras, I had an idea of the general characteristic of the piece… all of the performers were interested in making sure there was soft lyrical materials, as most people don’t associate that type of playing with low brass; so this helped me in figuring out a shape to the concerto and the way it would unfold dramatically.

Your concerto for bluegrass trio Concerto 4-3 is a favorite of mine and another case of one of your works sounding completely unlike anything I’d heard before. It’s also one of the most single-mindedly American pieces of recent memory—a welcomed departure from so much of the standard European sound. Do you have any plans to shake up the classical repertoire with experiments like this in the future?

Since I work to try to fulfill commissions according to the requests by the commissioners, I am constantly readjusting my language and design to suit the performers. Concerto 4-3 was fun to write, but very challenging, because it has such a bluegrass element to it. I have to admit I never think about shaking up the repertoire; I just try to write the best music that I can for whatever the occasion might be. I feel extremely lucky that someone asked me to do that piece (I’ve had the opportunity to use bluegrass elements in a string quartet and in my opera [Cold Mountain] as well).

Since its premiere in 2000, your tone poem blue cathedral has gone on not only to be your most-performed work, but one of the most-heard pieces of new music in American concert halls altogether. Has the success of this work come as a surprise to you? Why do you think it has resonated so well with audiences while so much new music festers in obscurity?

The success of this piece has been a huge surprise… somehow, it never occurred to me that this could happen to any piece by a living composer. But I would also call it a wonderful miracle to have a work that feels so personal to me be something that touches other people. I’m not sure what to attribute the success of the piece to… I tend to not think about pieces much after I’ve written them, usually due to the fact that I’ve moved on to other works and so I live in their musical worlds of the next composition.

You’ve often spoken about early influences from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, etc., and also a later fondness for American masters like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. What of your contemporaries though? Are there any living composers or musicians whose work particularly resonates with you?

Oh yes, I’m constantly listening to new recordings and performances of my contemporaries, both established and up-and-coming. In a year, I’ll probably listen to 300-500 new works by my colleagues (which thrills me because that means there is so much new music being actively made out there). A few of the composers that I’ve listened to in the past month: Du Yun, Kristin Kuster, Joan Tower, Nico Muhly, Caroline Shaw, Zhou Tian, Aaron Kernis, Ginastera, Shara Worden, Jeremy Gill, Missy Mazzoli, and the Hamilton soundtrack.

I see your new Tuba Concerto will have its world premiere in Pittsburgh on March 16th. Was it difficult coming up with fresh ideas for tuba coming so hot on the heels of your Low Brass Concerto or was this a welcomed chance to expand into new directions for the instrument?

First of all, I’m excited to have had the chance to write for Craig Knox. I actually wrote this concerto before I wrote the Low Brass Concerto. The premiere order of these pieces came about because that’s when the orchestras decided to schedule them. And when I got down to writing both works, they kind of had different demands and thought processes. The good thing with the Tuba Concerto was the fact that there were other works I could study in order to figure out balances. And I felt like writing it first helped me to “warm up” for the Low Brass Concerto. I write on a really consistent basis (daily) and I always try to trust my brain to come up with ideas that work well for the respective combination of instruments. Craig feels the piece sits well on the instrument, which is always a relief to hear. So we’ll find out soon if it all works together!

What’s next for Jennifer Higdon? These have been an exciting few months to say the least, so I’m eager to know what else you have up your sleeve.

I’m completing another concerto at the moment (3 concerti written in 15 months): a Harp Concerto, which will premiere in Rochester in May. I also have chamber premieres with MATA and Network for New Music, both in April. My composing schedule has a string quartet next, based on musical materials from my opera Cold Mountain, and then I have a chamber opera for Opera Philadelphia. After that is an orchestral suite from Cold Mountain, a double percussion concerto, a flute concerto, and a mandolin concerto. There are also a few other projects in the early stages of development. I’m definitely going to be busy for the next several years, but it’s making music, so it’s a good kind of busy.

(Photo credit: J.D. Scott)

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