Higdon Concerto for Orchestra; City Scape
I often wonder what has happened to the American populist symphonic tradition. Have the great contributions to the repertory by Barber, Copland, Diamond, Hanson, Harris, Piston, Schuman and others been forgotten by subsequent generations of composers, as well as by the vast majority of today’s conductors? Now along comes Jennifer Higdon (b1962), writing big-boned, brightly scored, open-hearted orchestral works full of rhythmic zest, harmonic potency and melodic charm, and I feel hopeful again.
The Concerto for Orchestra (2002) takes up where Bartók left off, with whirling strings and buzzing brass. And Higdon follows Bartók’s five-movement model, too, though the details are quite different. The fourth movement is a showcase for percussion that begins slowly, with music of exquisite, almost ghostly, delicacy – like celestial clockwork – then grows steadily in density, volume and velocity, bringing us directly into the vigorous finale.
One expects a concerto to be virtuosic, and Higdon peppers this one with solos for the first-desk players, while also offering plenty of opportunity for more general orchestral muscle flexing. The Atlanta musicians dig into the music with gusto, and Robert Spano gives a strong sense of the score’s structural cogency without sacrificing colour or character.
One of the most valuable of Higdon’s musical assets is her feeling for dramatic structure. Both the concerto and City Scape (2002) – Higdon’s three-panel portrait of Atlanta – are expansive yet tautly constructed. Every climax is well-placed, and she seems to know exactly when the ear requires novelty or comfort. This is particularly evident in ‘river sings a song to trees’, the 17-minute central movement of City Scape. A kind of urban/pastoral tone poem, its atmosphere is essentially lyrical, but the composer progressively rachets up the tension to create a surprisingly rugged emotional landscape. The more concise outer movements are exuberant and spiky, in the manner of the concerto’s finale. All in all, it’s a picture of the city that’s surprisingly gritty (and mercifully short on Southern charm). Again, the performance is vividly characterised. Kudos to Telarc for giving us this impressive sample of an extraordinarily gifted composer.