Jennifer Higdon: A Violinist’s Dream Composer

March 27, 2023, 12:04 PM · It is both surprising and wonderful that people in East Tennessee don’t fawn a little more over composer Jennifer Higdon.

Jennifer Higdon and Aram Demirjian
Composer Jennifer Higdon and Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Music Director Aram Demirjian

Don't they realize she holds a Pulitzer Prize, has won three Grammy Awards for Best Classical Composition, and been nominated for two more? Perhaps they don’t know she’s in the top three most often performed contemporary composers. Maybe they hadn’t heard that her first opera won the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere in 2016, the first American opera to do so in the award’s history. Or that she’s been commissioned by some of the most prestigious orchestras in the U.S., including Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Minnesota.

On the other hand, they may very well know all that. As a local girl who has more than made good, it’s refreshing that for many here she’s simply our "Jenny from the block." And after having the opportunity to meet her when the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra premiered her Cold Mountain Suite this past week, I understand her girl-next-door status. She could not be more gracious, humble, or appreciative.

Higdon is familiar to East Tennessee classical audiences in large part because KSO Music Director Aram Demirjian has featured her work on a regular basis. It was only fitting that the KSO was one of 37 organizations to co-commission Cold Mountain Suite – a piece derived from Higdon’s first opera, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. Higdon went to Heritage High School in the Maryville/Knoxville area and grew up "a stone’s throw as the crow flies" from Cold Mountain. Her music evokes the singular beauty and serenity of that range.

A Soaring Operatic Suite

Cold Mountain Suite is everything one hopes contemporary music would be if it seeks to find a place in the standard repertoire. It is sophisticated, yet accessible. Complex, yet playable. Spiritual, yet grounded. Higdon’s orchestration gives you the exhilarating experience of hearing a full symphony orchestra, while masterfully highlighting the lyricism of the strings, the vocal beauty of the winds, and the grandeur of the brass.

"Something I truly appreciate is Ms. Higdon’s sensitivity to the orchestra," said KSO Principal Second Violin Edward Pulgar. "She clearly hears the orchestra in her mind while writing. Everyone shines, even the more humble inner voices.” (As a born second violinist, I was giddy hearing Higdon’s obvious love of that section’s lush middle/low register.)

Something else to be admired about Higdon: She was here for the rehearsals and performances. That allowed her to listen to the players, make adjustments, and provide support. She was also in town to promote her piece. These actions helped build pre-concert enthusiasm and appreciation within the orchestra and the community. "Having Ms. Higdon in the house and giving us her continuous praise," said Pulgar, "truly made our orchestra feel we were up to the challenge of premiering a work by this world-class composer."

Two Suites Meet

Maestro Demirjian chose to pair Higdon’s suite with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite – a choice both bold and risky. (Also on the program was Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82.) In a wonderful coincidence, it turns out a musical turning point for young Higdon was hearing Appalachian Spring on her local NPR station as a girl. By her own admission, Higdon grew up with few classical music references and was more a Lennon/McCartney devotee. Hearing Copland changed that.

Higdon said her operatic suite and Copland’s ballet suite have not been programmed together before, but she had a wonderful moment while hearing the two pieces juxtaposed. "It dawned on me while listening," said Higdon in her ever-so-slight Tennessee lilt, "that Copland and I were viewing the exact same mountains, just 60 years apart."

My impression following hearing the two suites back-to-back was that I loved them both. If Copland had a slight edge, it was only because I felt that wonderful warmth of familiarity. Give me a few more goes with Higdon’s suite and I’ll be right there.

On Writing for Strings

Higdon writes so beautifully for strings that in the Q&A following the concert, an orchestra member asked if she’d started as a violinist.

Higdon and Demirjian

Surprisingly, the answer was no. Regardless, she’s clearly figured out how to bring out the best in the strings. Her 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music was won for her Violin Concerto, written for Hilary Hahn. One of her Grammys is for her Viola Concerto, recorded by Roberto Díaz.

If you need more proof of her violin prowess, she’s been asked to be part of Joshua Bell’s commission of a five-movement work for violin and orchestra called The Elements. Along with Jake Heggie (Fire), Edgar Meyer (Water), Jessie Montgomery (Ether), and Kevin Puts (Earth), Higdon’s movement will represent Air. The work will debut at the Colorado Music Festival this summer. And since my family home is an hour away from Boulder, I hope to be in the audience.

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March 30, 2023 at 03:47 PM · composer of the week

if any one is interested I can look around to see if I have the podcast

March 30, 2023 at 04:03 PM · Mark, I would be very interested if it's something you can locate without too much trouble. Thank you!

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