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Composer Jennifer Higdon Tells Her Story: Part 1

Composer Jennifer Higdon with Beau.
Candace diCarlo
Jennifer Higdon and her cat, Beau

“Kind of incredible, isn’t it?” says Jennifer Higdon. She has won a Pulitzer and a Grammy, her orchestral work blue cathedral has been performed more than 500 times, she is professor of composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, and is one of the world’s most-performed living classical composers. But when she arrived at college, she hadn’t heard of Igor Stravinsky. “I knew nothing,” she said.

She had taught herself to read music, and had taught herself to play the flute. She didn’t even write music until she was 21 -  and that was on an assignment from her flute teacher.

“We all cross paths with a lot of people,” says Higdon. “You don’t see where the puzzle pieces are coming from, but they all fit.”

When the future Pulitzer and Grammy winner arrived at college, she hadn't heard of Stravinsky. "I knew nothing," she says.

Her artist father, Kenny Higdon, was a tremendous influence. He left a career in engineering to become a painter, and never let naysayers define his life for him. He died in 2014, but continues to affect her approach to life and composing. Even the ending of her opera Cold Mountain, which the Santa Fe Opera will premiere in August 2015 (Opera Philadelphia's production will be in 2016), owes much, she says, to his memory. 

Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, but the family moved to Atlanta when she was six months old. The music she heard in the house, which was on all day while her father painted, included folk, reggae, and ’60s rock - but no classical music. He did take her to see the Atlanta Symphony, however.

When Higdon was 10, the family moved to a farm in Tennessee. There she heard bluegrass, and picked up a flute her mother had played. She joined the high school marching band. She heard Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and Star Wars. But when Higdon was accepted by Bowling Green State University as a flute major, at “ground zero” in her knowledge of classical music, her world would soon change.

Robert Spano took over the orchestral duties at Bowling Green when Higdon entered her senior year, and agreed to let the flute major, now leaning toward composition, take his conducting class. When it came time to apply to graduate programs, she asked his advice, and he suggested applying to Curtis, where he had gone.

She was surprised when they accepted her. And as other places did, too, Higdon went to Spano’s office to ask what she should do. You have to go to Curtis, Spano said. She laughs when relating what happened next.

He walked over to the office door and closed it. “And I’m not letting you out of here,” he said, “until you agree.”

Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral:


Next week, Part 2: Going “from a land of black-and-white to Technicolor, like that scene in the Wizard of Oz.”

Philadelphia Music Makers on WRTI, Sunday, March 22 at 5 pm


Autumn Reflection, flute, piano
Viola Sonata
from Voices, "Grace," string quartet
Steely Pause, flute quartet
from Scenes from the Poet's Dreams, "Summer Shimmers Across the Glass of Green Ponds," string quartet, piano left-hand