Hailed by the Washington Post as »a savvy, sensitive composer with a keen ear, an innate sense of form and a generous dash of pure esprit«, her work covers various genres and ranges from orchestral and chamber music pieces to wind ensembles, vocal, choral works and operas.
Her music has been described by The Times in London as »traditionally rooted yet imbued with integrity, freshness and a desire to entertain«. Marin Alsop, a U.S. citizen who has led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since the 2007-08 season and has been the principal conductor of the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna since 2019, has conducted and recorded several of Jennifer Higdon's works. She describes her music as »American in its immediacy, vitality and optimism. It is very authentic, sincere, and without pretense.« U.S. conductor, pianist and composer Robert Spano, who taught Higdon to conduct at Bowling Green State University and is currently music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, describes her music as »expressive and beautiful, communicative, fresh and inventive.«
Her compositional approach is often described as »neo-romantic«, which at the same time values music-making as a shared, practice-oriented craft. The scores appear easy to play at first glance, but are very challenging for the musicians. Her works are rhythmically demanding. Again and again, individual experimental, avant-garde accents appear, but they are mostly integrated into traditional structures and sound worlds. Jennifer Higdon enjoys a reputation as a technical master whose skills have a great impact on the audience.
As a composer, Jennifer Higdon primarily accepts commissions from renowned orchestras around the world, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra. In an interview in 2017, she said that she composes 6 to 12 works a year and that her workload will last until 2022.
A large number of the commissions are solo concertos. Here there is always the challenge of responding to the characteristic of the respective solo instrument. For Higdon, it is therefore important to enter into dialogue with the soloists while composing. To this end, she notes: »One thing that makes it so worthwhile is that I get to write for players at the top of the field of their respective instruments.« One award-winning work, for example, is the »Percussion Concerto« written for Colin Currie, which won the Grammy in the category Best Classical Contemporary Composition in 2010. A violin concerto for Hilary Hahn won the Pulitzer Prize for Music the same year. In 2018, Higdon received additional Grammys in the same category for »Viola Concerto« and in 2020 for »Harp Concerto«. She has already composed a »Tuba Concerto« and a »Low Brass Concerto«.
»Femmes4Music« – female composers in focus
As in video art, women are still far from being sufficiently visible in music. Yet sound art in particular, whose boundaries to performance and conceptual art are fluid, has produced many outstanding female artists. With »Femmes4Music«, ZKM presents female composers born between the 1940s and 1960s whose works have achieved great international renown.
Online in Livestream
Sundays on November 20 / 27 and December 4 / 11 starting at 7 pm
Higdon is one of the most frequently performed contemporary classical music composers in America today. More than 200 performances of her works are recorded each year. Since its premiere in 2000, »blue cathedral« has become the most frequently performed contemporary orchestral work, with more than 650 performances worldwide.
The success is astonishing, since Higdon's musical career began quite late. Her parents are hippies. Her father, Charles »Kenny« Higdon, works as a freelance artist for advertising agencies. Avant-garde film, art and theater are part of her childhood in Atlanta. »I was the odd one out because it was a rock ’n’ roll household and I decided to go into classical music when my mom brought me a flute from a pawn shop.« She teaches herself to play the flute at 15, studies flute at Bowling Green State University with Judith Bentley at 18, and creates her first compositions at the age of 21. Her very first composition is a two-minute piece for flute and piano called »Night Creatures«. She develops a fondness for American masters such as Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, some of whom seem to be quoted in her own works. To this day, she intensively follows the work of colleagues, including, for example, Du Yun, Kristin Kuster, Joan Tower, Caroline Shaw, Ginastera, and listens to 300 to 500 new works a year.
At the Curtis Institute of Music, she studied with US composers Ned Rorem and David Loeb, among others, and has been a professor of composition there since 1994. After receiving her diploma, she successfully completed her doctorate in composition at the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of composer George Crumb. Both the Hartt School and Bowling Green State University have awarded her honorary doctorates.
To date, she has received numerous awards, including in 2018 both the Eddie Medora King Award from the University of Texas and the Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University, which is given to contemporary classical composers with outstanding achievements who have influenced the field of composition in significant ways.
Author: Dominique Theise