Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Higdon’

vso masterworks concert #2: on a wire

December 5, 2010

eighth blackbird

“This should be fun.”

Those words came from the gentleman sitting behind me at last night’s Vermont Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concert, in the break between the concert opener (Carl Maria von Weber’s dutifully dramatic overture Euryanthe) and the second piece, Jennifer Higdon’s newly commissioned work On a Wire. He was seeing the same thing I was: a piano being wheeled out on stage, risers being set up around it, and a variety of instrument stands arrayed along the entire length of the stage in front of the orchestra. I smiled, convinced he would be right.

When I spoke with Jennifer Higdon last week we talked a lot about the “extended techniques” employed in the new work, a concerto for sextet (the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird) and orchestra (last night, the VSO). She mentioned that the work’s structure was partly inspired by the ensemble itself, and its high comfort level for using their instruments in alternative ways to produce unusual sounds and effects.

And so the concerto began (and ended), with the piano – bowed piano, with each of the six members of eighth blackbird using mallets and strings and finger plucking on the prepared piano wiring to elicit effects that ranged from ethereal to eerie, and whimsically percussive. (In our interview Jennifer mentioned that the piece started with all six of the eighth blackbird members “inside the piano” – true enough!) One of the interesting things about bowed piano technique is that it expands the range of the piano’s voice from its strictly percussive nature to include more nuanced sounds like those more commonly associated with string instruments.

From its unusual opening, the concerto moved into a more traditional concerto grosso form with equal doses of tension and interplay between the smaller ensemble of six players and the larger orchestra. The movements progressed continuously, marked by mood and tempo changed rather than real breaks in the music. Higdon promised a vibrant and rhythmic experience, and the piece delivered. Each of the eighth blackbird members had solo opportunities, revealing the individual strengths that support their collective might. For the most part the sonically complex and technically difficult nuances of On a Wire were navigated proficiently, although the coordination of the slower, dreamlike middle section seemed to drift at one point and create a passing disjunct between eighth blackbird and the orchestra. Under-rehearsal is a likelier explanation than intrinsic structural problems with the piece itself. The concerto concluded with all of the individual instrumental lines converging, a perfectly coordinated musical clock ending precisely – with a visceral “wow!” from the audience. A great success.

On a Wire was jointly commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Akron Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cabrilo Festival, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the West Michigan Symphony, and Vermont’s own Flynn Center for the Arts and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. It will be released by eighth blackbird and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on February 22nd, as the debut release on the ASO’s own label. And while I’m sure I will enjoy the recording there is nothing like seeing creativity like this enacted live on stage! Congratulations are in order for everyone, from those who commissioned the work to Jennfer for writing it and the performers who breathed life into it. In particular conductor Anthony Princiotti for having players behind AND in front of him, and keeping everything moving together in the right musical balance. No easy feat.

The VSO has several holiday concerts and the annual Farmer’s Night concert coming up, and the next Masterworks series concert will be on Saturday, January 22nd.

See also:

eighth blackbird’s website

NPR’s feature on the Bowed Piano Ensemble

hahn and higdon

August 4, 2010

Here’s something a digital download will never do: thrill me, unexpectedly, in the middle of the work day when I walk up to the office and open the mail.

Back in April when this year’s Pulitzer prizes were announced, September seemed so far away. That’s how long we were told we’d have to wait to hear Hilary Hahn’s recording of Jennifer Higdon’s prize-winning violin concerto. Now that September’s almost here, though – what a nice surprise to get a special advance copy in today’s mail. Someone at the record company was listening when I asked to get a copy as soon as possible!

I’ve listened to the recording twice all the way through now and I can tell it’s going to stand up to many, many more listenings. That’s a good first sign. I’ve also been interested enough in each of the three movements to spend time with them individually today, listening first for every nuance of Hahn’s performance and then revisiting each movement to get inside some of the more mechanical and technical aspects. The first movement is cryptically dubbed 1726 (apparently this is a number significant for some reason to both Higdon and Hahn), and it’s a brilliant, sharp, virtuosically flashing introduction to the work. The second movement is Chaconni – a chaconne, or ciaccona – a languid, translucent interpretation of the traditional form of variations set over a repeated bass line. For the grand finale (of around three and a half minutes), we have Fly Forward, a breathlessly athletic excercise partly inspired by the televised Olympic games that accompanied the last leg of Higdon’s composing process with this concerto. It’s an adrenaline rush, alright.

This is a nice article by James Reel from Strings Magazine, on the Higdon/Hahn pairing.

For some insight from the artists themselves, there are also a series of three recorded interviews between Hilary Hahn and Jennifer Higdon. Their personal chemistry is apparent here, and lends some insight to what makes this recording of the new violin concerto work so well: like Shostakovich and Heifetz, and Brahms and Joachim before them – the music results from being at the intersection of just the right composer and performer. The new Hilary Hahn recording of Jennifer Higdon’s 2010 Pulitzer prizewinning Violin Concerto will be available in September, on a recording paired with the Tchaikovsky concerto. Watch for it, this one’s a keeper for sure.

interview, part one..

part two…

part three.

pulitzers 2010

April 12, 2010

Jennifer Higdon has just been announced as the 2010 Pulitzer prizewinner in music!

This is the list of winners in the Letters, Drama and Music category (Check out the complete list of winners here.)

Letters, Drama and Music

FictionTinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press)

DramaNext to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey

History – Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (The Penguin Press)

BiographyThe First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles (Alfred A. Knopf)

Poetry – Versed by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)

General NonfictionThe Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy by David E. Hoffman (Doubleday)

MusicViolin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon (Lawdon Press)


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