'Jennifer Higdon’s myriad accolades and accomplishments are impressive by any standard, but particularly in the world of contemporary classical music. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award. Her music is in such high demand that she’s able to compose exclusively on commission. And her champions include top-tier soloists, ensembles and orchestras. According to a recent survey of US orchestras, Higdon is one of the most performed living American composers.
'Yet Higdon’s most striking achievement doesn’t fit so easily into a biography, and that’s how thoroughly her music has filtered into every stratum of classical music culture in the United States. Glance through the ‘Upcoming Performances’ page of her official website and you’ll find that her work is being played not only by the Houston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra, but also by municipal, community, and high school ensembles across the country. On the surface, it appears to be a simple formula: Higdon writes music that audiences like to hear and musicians find gratifying to play. But is it really so simple?..'
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'In an age of multitasking habits, polymodal perceptions and multisensory experiences, we are all now expected to become polymaths. As Vinnie Mirchandani put it in his preface to The New Polymath (Wiley: 2010): ‘[We] can no longer be just one person but a collection of many.’ But in trying to become too many people, what is lost? Identity, depth, talent? Genius, perhaps?
'Lera Auerbach is a polymath in the original sense of the word – as defined and defended by Renaissance writers and thinkers; but she is also very much an artist of her time. Apart from being a successful composer and concert pianist, she’s a painter, sculptor, librettist and author of several books of poetry and prose, but for Auerbach these extramusical activities are not exercises in dilettantism: all art forms are interconnected and designed to nourish and sustain each other...'
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'In a way, music was Sally Beamish’s first language. Her mother, a violinist, taught her to read and write notes at the age of four – before she could play an instrument, before she could even read or write words. She would draw little flowers or faces on the manuscript and her mum would interpret how the graphic notation might sound. ‘I always wanted to make my own stuff,’ she says. ‘I’ve made my own clothes, written stories, painted…’ When she started learning piano aged five, she constructed herself a little exercise book.
'Today Beamish is one of the UK’s busiest and most warmly respected composers, with commissions coming in thick and fast for scores ranging from large-scale ballet and oratorios to chamber, theatre and solo works. At 60 she already has a catalogue of more than 200 pieces and that number is rising fast: this year she has been writing three piano concertos, among several other projects. For many listeners, the great appeal of Beamish’s music is the space it finds between softness and steel – her knack of blending folk-flecked lyricism, emotional candour, a sense of the natural world and a propulsive way with rhythm plus real economy, directness, luminous orchestrations and rigour of craft. She’s the kind of composer who seems to know exactly what she wants a piece to say and finds the most compassionate and least fussy way of saying it...'
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'American classical music this past quarter-century has been dominated by the minimalist aesthetic that came to the fore as a reaction against the modernist thinking which had previously held sway. Currently it represents a virtual lingua franca in terms of its influence on mainstream composers. Others, however, have looked back (not in anger and still less out of nostalgia) to an era in which aspects of modernism were linked to a freely evolving tonality so that new possibilities were opened up for exploration. Only recently has this approach regained prominence, with Augusta Read Thomas being among its leading exponents.
'Born in Glen Cove, Long Island, in April 1964, Thomas studied at Yale University and later at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Chicago’s Northwestern University. To speak of influences is often unnecessarily subjective, yet two composers with whom she came into contact during this period were to leave their mark on her music in the most direct and positive sense. From Jacob Druckman (1928-96) she absorbed the value of instrumental colour as a formal and expressive component rather than just an external dressing, while in Donald Erb (1927-2008) she had the example of an orchestrator who was second to none in this respect among American composers of his generation. What this gave to Thomas’s music from the outset was its clarity of conception and precision of gesture (whether in the briefest of instrumental miniatures or in large-scale orchestral works), which act as the focus for her often intricate textures and iridescent harmonies – thereby ensuring that her work exudes an immediacy and a communicativeness whatever its degree of complexity and dissonance...'
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'Curiouser and curiouser. Listening to the music of Unsuk Chin can feel like an adventure in Alice’s Wonderland. We start in familiar territory, with simple and attractive musical ideas, but these gradually weave into complex and unsettling textures. Soon we are down the rabbit hole, and nothing is quite what it seems. The music appears stable, until a subtle change in harmony casts it in an entirely new light. Perspectives change, motifs and melodies twist and distort. Simplicity gives way to beguiling complexity. Then everything stops, often with a thump from the percussion, and we are left contemplating the bizarre turn of events. Was it all a dream?
'Unsuk Chin has been fascinated by Alice in Wonderland since childhood, and it has inspired much of her music, most notably her 2007 Alice opera. But her take on the story is distinctive. The opera is full of moments of intrigue and wonder, but these are set against stark representations of the tale’s brutal absurdity – a fantastical yet always lucid conception, typical of Chin. As a Korean based in Germany, she has an outsider’s perspective on European culture, and her music regularly highlights its ingrained paradoxes. She is a voice of reason, bringing order to the surreal. Above all, she brings clarity, however complex her music becomes, with every note remaining audible, every motivation clear...'
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