Jennifer Higdon: updating classical music

Prize-winning American composer, whose music will be performed this week by Eighth Blackbird and Eugene Symphony, shows how the genre can avoid obsolescence

by DANIEL HEILA

In 2011, National Public Radio asked Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Jennifer Higdon where classical music was headed in the 21st century. In distinct contrast to her generally open-hearted music, Higdon’s answer seemed pessimistic: it almost implied that classical music might be facing obsolescence. Citing its lack of Grammy Awards interest, disappearing retail sales in both CDs and books related to the subject, dwindling audiences, upturned noses of teen potential, she painted a grim picture.

But she also pointed to a way to avoid that fate: update. Bring the genre solidly into the now. Her personal plan to update classical music (not everyone agrees just what that is, BTW) is to “continue to talk with audiences to increase comfort levels . . . and [to] write the most engaging music that I can.”

Composer Jennifer Higdon’s music highlights Eugene Symphony’s Thursday concert. Photo: J.D. Scott

Fast forward to 2018, and Higdon is still doing her part with hundreds of performances a year and recordings on more than 60 CDs. As is the ESO, which has invited Eighth Blackbird to not only perform Higdon’s concerto, but also to offer workshops, lectures, and masterclasses in both public and private events (check the schedule here). And this Thursday, her music returns (Higdon will not be present) to Eugene to demonstrate how to make classical music vital. On November 15, the Eugene Symphony Orchestra joins Chicago-based new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird in Higdon’s new concerto On a Wire, written expressly for them.

Beyond being a must-see concert, what does this kind of programming say about the future of classical music? Actually, it says a lot, and in an ArtsWatch interview, so does Higdon herself. And it’s good news.

Higdon earned an artist diploma at the Curtis Institute of Music (where she is currently the Rock Chair in Composition) and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, studying with David Loeb, Ned Rorem, and George Crumb. Coming late to classical music (she didn’t start listening to the repertoire until she was an undergraduate at Bowling Green State), she persevered against discouraging input from professors and rejections from grad programs to become one of the country’s most frequently performed living composers, winning Grammys for her 2010 Percussion Concerto and 2018 Viola Concerto and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto.

Higdon’s kaleidoscopic orchestral music, with its brilliant orchestration and expansive harmonic palette, is at times driving and propulsive, at times subtle and evocative, but always rewarding in that sweet spot of consonance, dissonance, and ingenuity that is the hallmark of much successful, postmodern music. Former ESO music director and pioneering conductor Marin Alsop considers Higdon’s music to be “direct, immediate and visceral with clear direction and shape,” qualities that she feels define Higdon as an American composer.

Higdon with Marin Alsop

Higdon’s 2011 advice included veiled criticism of classical music institutions promising relevance but delivering only surface, not substance. “Updating,” she noted, “is not putting Beethoven in a leather jacket on a billboard.” A fan of classical music and avid concert goer (and not just to contemporary classical concerts), she observed that the only sold-out performances she’d been to recently, at the time, had had new music on them.

A growing number of people who care about the classical music scene acknowledge that the work of Mozart and the Three B’s (Ludwig, Johannes, and Papa John) is museum music, world treasures that everyone would benefit from hearing live, that deserve preservation by the world’s orchestras. But to favor these works, to place them on a pedestal, to house them in highbrow enclaves to the point of “sacralization” (a term coined by Lawrence W. Levine in his 1988 book, Highbrow/Lowbrow) and to exclude so much of the rest of the world’s art music, both historic and contemporary, is to orchestrate a slow death for the genre and its performing ensembles.

In a recent email exchange, Higdon told me that she feels fortunate to have her works performed frequently by orchestras, “I’m always amazed at how many people in the audience come up to me and comment on the fact that they’re thrilled to hear a work by a woman.”

Higdon considers music by women to be central to the future of classical music. “We talk about classical music needing to be relevant; you’re relevant if you can reflect your community,” she says. “Half of all communities is made up of women.”

Higdon with her cat, Beau. Credit: Candace Dicarlo

But the programming of major American orchestras doesn’t support that vision: in 2018, the Boston Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic both programmed six women out of 45 composers, the New York Philharmonic programmed two women composers out of 49 for their main season, and the Philadelphia and Chicago symphonies included no women composers on their season rosters. What gives?

Her hometown Philadelphia Orchestra—which, ironically, had programmed two of Higdon’s works in the previous season (one a co-commission)—was taken to task regarding this season’s all-male programming. Their response to the criticism was to revise its season to include two works by women (Stacey Brown and Anna Clyne), to arrange readings of the work of six emerging women composers (who will be commissioned to write pieces for upcoming seasons), and to hire Gabriela Lena Frank to be a composer-in-residence for the next three years.
“I have to applaud Philadelphia in stepping up to the plate quickly to adjust this season’s situation,” said Higdon with regard to improving the program. “They’ve rolled up their sleeves and figured out a way to make it happen. It isn’t that hard to do, and it enriches all of our communities.”

Higdon sounds more optimistic about classical music’s future these days. “I think the future will continue to evolve, and it’s the forward thinking ensembles that find new ways to present and new music to perform that will thrive…why not change things up a bit to get folks excited?”

Eighth Blackbird exemplifies such forward thinkers. Higdon has been associated with the ensemble since 1998 and has written three works for them: Zaka, Zango Bandango, and Thursday’s selection, On a Wire. Higdon is enthusiastic about the performers, calling them “a full-blown theatrical experience with music that reflects our times.”

Eighth Blackbird performs with Eugene Symphony Thursday.

Eighth Blackbird (composed of an egalitarian three men and three women) was formed in 1996 by enterprising Oberlin Conservatory students (including Molly Barth, former University of Oregon flute instructor) as a contemporary classical ensemble whose instrumentation is flutes, clarinets, violin/viola, cello, piano, and percussion. Over the last twenty years, they have gone on to commission and premier hundreds of pieces by contemporary composers, including emerging artists. Eighth Blackbird recordings have won four Grammy Awards for Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance.

The ensemble has taken a page from Kronos Quartet’s book and established relationships with established new music composers (including Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, Philip Glass) as well as contemporary pop artists like Iarla Ó Lionáird of The Gloaming, Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond, Richard Reed Perry of Arcade Fire, and Bryce Dessner of The National. Eighth Blackbird’s mission also embraces education, and they recently established the Blackbird Creative Lab in Ojai, California, a two-week festival of performances and workshops for new music performers and composers.

“Updating is playing music of our time,” writes Higdon in an NPR classical music blog post, “written by folks who live now, for performers who live now, for audiences who live now.” Thanks to new ESO music director Francesco Lecce-Chong and the orchestra, here in Eugene, we are a part of this much needed change, part of the update and the future of classical music in America.

The ESO performs Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire with Eighth Blackbird Thursday, November 15, at 7:30 pm at Eugene’s Hult Center. Eighth Blackbird will hold masterclasses, lectures, and workshops early in the week. Check here for schedules.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.

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