One of Thursday’s Featured Composers Shares Insights with GMF

image of Jennifer Higdon
Jennifer Higdon, photo by Andrew Bogard

This year, as part of the “Women Composers Across the Ages” concert,   Geneva Music Festival artists will present Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio, “Color Through.” GMF Director and violinist Geoff Herd first met Higdon, one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers, when she had a residency at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville during his first year working there.

“Getting to work with Jennifer on ‘The Singing Rooms,’ her epic Concerto for Violin, Orchestra, and Chorus, was incredibly inspiring and a great way to kick off my career at UT,” says Herd. He chose to feature her first Piano Trio (which has two movements, “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red,”) as part of the GMF 2017 Season. “The work that we are playing this year actually can be combined with the original trio to form a four-movement piece—or you can combine any of the movements in any order/combination. It’s a fascinating idea and absolutely fantastic music,” explains Herd. “It’s devilishly hard (as much of Jennifer’s writing is) and I’m having a blast practicing it!”

Higdon, describes, “For ‘Color Through,’ I decided to write another piano trio with two more colors with the movements ‘Brilliant Blue’ and ‘Wondrous White,’” says Higdon.  She goes on to explain how she came up with the idea for colors as movement titles: “I knew I wanted strongly contrasting movements and, having come from a visual arts family, one of my thoughts was to try to highlight the character and energy of really different colors. Having Pale Yellow versus Fiery Red seemed like a strong contrast to me. When I went to write ‘Color Through,’ I just built on that with more colors.”

A major figure in contemporary Classical music, she received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, a 2010 Grammy for her Percussion Concerto and a 2018 Grammy for her Viola Concerto. Most recently, Higdon received the Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University, given to contemporary classical composers of exceptional achievement who have significantly influenced the field of composition. Higdon enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, and “Blue Cathedral” is one of today’s most performed contemporary orchestral works with more than 600 performances worldwide. Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, won the prestigious International Opera Award for Best World Premiere and the opera recording was nominated for two Grammy awards. She holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Her impressive career overcame the potential obstacle of a late start. She taught herself to play flute at the age of 15 and began formal musical studies at 18, starting composition at the age of 21. “I think there must have been something deep within my subconscious that really felt something about the power of music,” says Higdon. “A few years ago, I found a little drawing that I had done as a six- or seven-year old, and it was a music staff with a little melody on it (correctly drawn). I was really stunned, because I started playing in my teens and, theoretically, I should not have been able to write out a staff with a clef and a melody, but I did!”

As a child, Higdon had always been involved in creative adventures such as drawing, writing and making short animations on 8-millimeter film, but notes, “Somehow, the music thing just clicked and felt right. It’s almost like I just had to find an instrument that I could play.”

While still studying to get a degree in performance, Higdon started composing, writing just enough works to apply to graduate programs. “I was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music and that’s when I started composing like crazy,” she recalls. “I continued to play flute, but the writing sort of took over. And then about 15 years ago, I had so many commissions coming in for new pieces, and no recitals scheduled, that I literally just forgot to practice. Composing became my life 100 percent of the time.”

In creating compositions, Higdon pulls influences from “Everywhere, but first and foremost the Beatles, because I listened to a ton of their music growing up,” she says. “Now I feel influenced by everything that I listen to: Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss, the musical ‘Hamilton,’ contemporary classical works by my colleagues, Debussy, Ravel, Barber, Beethoven. Kind of everyone and everything.”

Among the things she loves most about being a composer are “Meeting lots of people— musicians and audience members—and when someone comes up after a performance and tells me that they were moved by something that I wrote. It’s just the best.  It feels like I get the opportunity to put something really positive out in the world, and that’s a fantastic thing,” Higdon says.

Given the opportunity to work with any artist in the world, she says without hesitation, “I’d love to work with YoYo Ma sometime,” adding, “I’ve been very lucky to work with so many excellent musicians, [GMF Director and violinist] Geoff Herd being one of those!”

More information about her work and a complete biography on Higdon is available on her website.

Tickets are still available to the “Women Composers Across the Ages” concert in which “Color Through” will be featured.



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