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Composer Jennifer Higdon Tells Her Story: Part 2

Candace diCarlo
Jennifer Higdon and her cat, Beau

The door closed behind Jennifer Higdon. She was in the office of her college conducting professor, Robert Spano, seeking advice about what to do. She had just heard back from the Curtis Institute of Music - they had accepted her application for graduate studies, but so had other music schools. She needed guidance.  "I'm not letting you out of here," Spano said, until she agreed to accept the spot from Curtis.

Spano was the newly appointed director of the orchestras at Bowling Green University, and had been teaching conducting to Higdon, a flute major thinking about becoming a composer.

Whether it was from the closed door or not, Higdon did go to Curtis. And entering that world of non-stop composing among top-flight performers was “like that scene in The Wizard of Oz,” she remembers. “I had gone from a land of black and white to Technicolor.” She learned to compose a lot. And, never waiting for “inspiration,” to always work.

Graduating in 1988 from Curtis with an Artist's Diploma, Higdon applied to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school, but was turned down. She liked living in Philadelphia, so she took the year off and worked on getting her music out to others. She began her own publishing company, and from that time until now Higdon holds the rights to all her own music. From one order a month in 1988, to five or more a day now, she learned to respond quickly and to make the music affordable.

Later, Penn did accept her into their doctoral program. She credits her studies with George Crumb there for her interest in extended instrumental techniques and the colors of unusual sounds, such as the Chinese reflex bells called for in blue cathedral.

It was the 75th anniversary of Curtis, and then-director Gary Graffman asked her (she was teaching there part-time) to write an orchestral work to celebrate. Her younger brother Andy had just died from melanoma, so she was moved to write the new piece in his memory.

Andy’s middle name was Blue. And cathedrals, to Higdon, represented the cycle of birth, growth, death, and community. The popularity of blue cathedral she attributes to its personal story. “People come across our paths, they touch our lives, it’s a very positive thing.”

Robert Spano happened to conduct that Curtis performance, and then recorded it with the Atlanta Symphony, where he was the new music director. This was the first of two events that catapulted her career.

In front of an audience filled with conductors and orchestra managers, her Concerto for Orchestra was played--and was a hit. "My life changed overnight," she says.

The other was the Concerto for Orchestra performance by The Philadelphia Orchestra. In 2001, the Kimmel Center was finished, and in 2002 the League of American Orchestras held their national conference in Philadelphia. Wolfgang Sawallisch programmed Higdon’s piece for that event. And, in front of an audience filled with conductors and orchestra managers, her concerto was played—and was a hit. “My life changed overnight,” she says.

From blue cathedral to the Concerto for Orchestra to the 2010 Pulitzer-winning Violin Concerto for Hilary Hahn and beyond, Jennifer Higdon’s career has been catapulted indeed.

Her first opera, Cold Mountain, which took 28 months to write, is a co-commission with Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera. Santa Fe premieres it this August. She’s “excited and nervous to hear it.”

The doors are all open now for Jennifer Higdon, but she keeps all the success in perspective. It’s not about the prizes, she says, but about the people who play the music, and the people who listen to it.

She has a promise for everyone in Philadelphia. Come to the Academy of Music in February 2016 when Cold Mountain comes to town, says Jennifer Higdon, and “I will come out and greet every, single person!”

It’s easy to believe that this will give her the greatest pleasure of all.

Concerto for Orchestra, fourth movement for percussion
O magnum mysterium, for chorus, 2 flutes, crystal glasses
Southern Harmony, second movement, Reel Time, for string quartet
Concerto 4-3, first movement, The Shallows, for 2 solo violins, solo double bass (Time for Three), orchestra
Violin Concerto, last movement, Fly Forward