Women in Music Festival: All-Higdon Concert, March 28

Sorry to have gotten behind in the blogging!  Here is last night’s concert, March 28.

I love Jennifer Higdon’s music.  BUT I did have some trepidation that a whole concert of her music might be a bit much. My concern was needless.  The evening was completely engaging, filled with emotions spanning joyful to transcendent. In fact I’m eager to hear more Higdon tomorrow, which I will do!

The details about the performers can be seen in the full program.  Once I get caught up I will go back and insert them in the blog….

Splendid Wood, a work for three marimbas and six players, began the program.  Hatch Recital Hall was a striking setting for this since the hall itself displays beautiful wood in its walls, stage and seating.  But Higdon’s wood was that of the marimbas themselves.  There was definitely visual drama in having three marimbas played by six musicians, and also a conductor.  Adding to the drama was the spatial effect of the sound moving around the room and watching the cascades of gestures flow through the twelve arms of the six musicians.

The beginning was energetic, a moto perpetuo, invigorated with rushing ascending figures.  The middle section was gentler, with smoother patterns and tremolos, and some interjections.  The final section returned to an even more energetic level with frantic exchanges of 16th-note melodic fragments, building to a crashing forte fortissimo, followed by a sudden hush and then building up again. Some shifts of the total center ratcheted up the level of the drama; as in the case of so many of Higdon’s works the ending was breathtaking.  These very impressive musicians were the Eastman Chamber Percussion Ensemble.

Next was String Poetic, a set of five movements for violin and piano.  Higdon’s own brief program notes (a few lines for each movement) are in themselves compressed poetry.  After all,

rise above, in jagged climb …
climb, arise, in jagged run …

is iambic heptameter, isn’t it?  (Higdon’s full program notes, and audio clips for many of her pieces are available here on her web site.)  This is a beautiful idea although I do think only  the composer can get away with writing program notes in the form of poetry—if someone else did it might be using one art form to distract from another. “Jagged Climb” (1) begins with percussive use of the piano (dampening the strings with one hand while the other hand plays); together with the resonance, the effect was ghostly, and the violin did indeed climb jaggedly, in swirling ascending gestures.  (2) “Nocturne,” begins with a simple repeated note in the violin that builds intensity and then expands into a poignant melody, warmed by the chordal harmony of the piano which eventually also adds a countermelody; it is lyrical and heartfelt.

The third movement, “Blue Hills,” begins with eerie muffled notes on the piano (again muted by one hand). The melody meanders in an arc but then fills out, building to a high point, and supported by luscious chordal parallelisms, and expansive gestures built on fourths. The percussive notes return, this time doubled by the violin in pizzicato.  The result is haunting and atmospheric.  “Maze” begins with a triple meter pattern with pulsing off beats; it coursed along exhilaratingly.  While the musicians were excellent overall, I thought this movement might have been a bit more lighthearted, perhaps even frisky. The “Climb Jagged” is a varied return of (1), leaving us gasping.  Where ever we were, it was quite a journey.

The Piano Trio of 2003 is inspired by two colors, and is in two movements. Can music convey colors? Higdon certainly convinced us of this.  “Pale Yellow” was evocative and peaceful, triadic cords enriched with extra tones. “Fiery Red” was filled with racing motives chasing each other in the strings, and syncopations of pizzicato chords and ostinati.  This was an impressive piece that reminded me at times of Shostakovich.

Following a short intermission a woodwind quintet performed Autumn Music (1995). This piece was inspired by Samuel Barbers iconic Summer Music.  It begins with smooth sliding chords with interjections followed by overlapping ascending figures that gradually slow and lose momentum. The full-throated sound of the bass clarinet evokes a poignant melancholy. Using repeating melodic phrases, the texture thickens as lines are built on top of each other.  Although it’s a woodwind quintet there actually seven instruments since the clarinetist doubles on bass clarinet and the oboe player is also asked to play English horn. Thus Higdon gets a very wide range of sound from the musicians she uses.

“Reel Time,” a movement from Higdon’s string quartet Southern Harmony was next, and it was a “reel” delight.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Hoedown” are unavoidable, but surely that’ not a bad thing.  There was lots of fun fiddling and double-stops using open strings, slides, vigorous unison chords and other folk gestures combined, performed with great gusto, for an energizing and upbeat effect.  I wanted to hear the rest of this piece!

Secret and Glass Gardens, for solo piano, expands a simple melodic idea into lush chordal parallelisms.  With the sensuality of impressionist textures, and rich arpegiation, it builds with emotional power.  This was a revelatory work, played with great conviction.

Finally was the saxophone quartet, Short Stories.  We heard four of the original six movements, performed superbly by the graceful musicians.  “Lullaby” had smooth running figures; although the baritone sax is not the instrument one expects to be featured in a lullaby, I’m sure that incongruity (or irony) was intended.   The aptly titled “Splash” has swirling gestures and ascending runs, and bold splashes by all 4 players.  The dark “Coyote Nights” began with a somber ostinato, with faster poignant gestures emerging over it.  Then all four instruments moved together, in a kind of vigorous chorale.  “Stomp and Dance” began with stray fragments of rhythms that gradually coalesced into an infectious 4/4 beat, followed by a section of percussive slap tonguing and key clicking, which served as an underpinning of melody, again, emerging  first in fragments.  Higdon delights in building remarkable constructions and in letting us also see how they come together—revealing to us the ingredients and how they fit.  We as listeners are invited into the process, and it always delights.


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