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Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon is one of the most sought-after American composers of this century. A leader in contemporary classical music, Higdon composes in a wide range of genres, including choral, opera, wind ensemble, orchestral and chamber music.
Jennifer was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1962. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until the age of 15 that she delved into music, teaching herself the flute. At the age of 18 she began formal music studies and several years later, at the age of 21, she began composing. Despite her incredibly late start, Higdon has managed to master the art of composition and win over audiences worldwide.
Jennifer Higdon earned her Bachelor’s degree in Flute Performance at Bowling Green State University and her Master’s and PhD degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Music Composition. In addition, she obtained an Artist Diploma in Music Composition from The Curtis Institute of Music, a highly prestigious and competitive school in Philadelphia.
Higdon receives an impressive number of commissions from the best orchestras around the world, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Luzern Sinfonieorchester, The Hague Philharmonic (Residentie Orkest), Melbourne Symphony, New Zealand Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and the Dallas Symphony.
In addition to her recognition among major orchestras, Higdon has received commissions from ensembles such as the Tokyo String Quartet, eighth blackbird and the President’s Own Marine Band. She has worked with soloists such as Nathan Gunn, Isabell Leonard, Hilary Hahn and Yuja Wang.
Above left: Isabel Leonard as Ada in Higdon's opera Cold Mountain (Act 1, Scene 10)
One of Higdon’s most recent projects was the internationally-acclaimed opera Cold Mountain, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Charles Frazier. The opera was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Minnesota Opera and the North Carolina Opera. Cold Mountain was a brilliant success, with every concert being sold out. It became the third-highest grossing opera at Opera Philadelphia in the company’s history. Her success was recognized with the International Opera Award for Best World Premiere. PENTATONE released a live recording on SACD in 2016, less than a year after its stupendous world premiere.
Many festivals have also put Higdon in the spotlight as a featured composer including the festivals at Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Grand Teton and Cabrillo.
As a Composer-in-Residence, Higdon has worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Forth Worth Symphony, Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, Wheeling Symphony and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. For the Cincinnati Symphony, she has served as one of the Creative Directors for the Boundless Series.
Higdon’s works can be heard several hundred times per year live in concert and on more than sixty CDs. Her most famous work,blue cathedral for orchestra, has received more than 600 performances since its premiere in 2000, making it one of the most performed contemporary works for orchestra by a living American composer.
This orchestral masterpiece has been described as “a short 13-minute journey that fascinates and inspires, in a mid-20th century American style” by The Post and Courier from Charleston, South Carolina. The primarily tonal harmonies prove that new music can be imaginative while at the same time accessible to the public.blue cathedral has become one of the most played works in the U.S.
Other spectacular works in her oeuvre include two prize-winning concertos from 2010 for violin and percussion, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in Music and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, respectively. The Pulitzer Award committee described the Violin Concerto as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”
Another deeply satisfying orchestral work from Higdon’s output is the three-panel portrait of Atlanta,City Scape (2002), a work that evokes the sounds of many composers of eras past, while at the same time is completely unique. Hints of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and William Schuman and neo-classical Stravinsky can be heard. Higdon describesCity Scape as a “metropolitan sound picture written in orchestral tones”. Movements include “Skyline”, “river sings a song to trees” and “Peachtree Street”. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra commissioned and premiered the work under Music Director Robert Spano.
Higdon’s 35-minute Concerto for Orchestra (2002) in five movements is so impressive that in theClassical Voice of North Carolina’s review of this fresh yet classically rooted concerto they wrote, “move over Bela (Bartók), you’re going to have some competition from now on, because Jennifer Higdon has usurped your title and may surpass even you”. BothThe Times and Financial Times from London were wowed by the work, with phrases such as “More, please” and “enough persuasive arguments to give populism a good name.” Again influences of Stravinsky and Copland can be heard, in addition to that of Olivier Messiaen, Carl Orff, Maurice Ravel, Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich.
Large differences in instrumentation can be found among Higdon’s approximately 30 works for orchestra including a variety of concertos for violin, viola, soprano sax, piano, percussion and oboe and a couple of works for multiple soloists such asOn a Wire and Concerto 4-3. Violin and chorus are featured in The Singing Rooms together with the orchestra. Vocals are also featured in the form of a baritone solo inDooryard Bloom and chorus in On the Death of the Righteous. Several of her orchestral works are for string orchestra, while others are just for winds or brass and percussion.
Winds and percussion are featured extensively in Higdon’s wind ensemble and concert band works includingRoad Stories, Mysterium, Kelly’s Field and Fanfare Ritmico. For the young concert band she also composed the short work Rhythm Stand.
Higdon’s oeuvre of choral works consists of over 20 works. Southern Grace is by far the biggest work in the collection, with eight movements, lasting a total of 24 minutes though each movement can also be independently performed. The other works are much shorter and includeAmazing Grace, Deep in the Night, Hear My Voiceand A Quiet Moment. The English and Latin languages are featured in her music, along with the poetry of William Blake, John Donne and E.E. Cummings.
It will be interesting to watch Jennifer Higdon as her career continues to unfold. She has already received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. Her symphonic works have led to the A.I Dupont Award from the Delaware Symphony. She also recently received a Distinguished Arts Award by Tom Corbett, Governor of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Jennifer Higdon currently teaches at The Curtis Institute of Music, where she holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies.