Jennifer Higdon: Concerto for Orchestra & City Scape – Premiere Recordings (Telarc)

0 of 5 stars

Concerto for Orchestra
City Scape

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Recorded September 2003, Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: April 2004
CD No: TELARC CD-80620
Duration: 66’19”

These are premiere recordings of commissions by two American orchestras. The Concerto for Orchestra was composed for the centenary celebrations of the Philadelphia Orchestra and was premièred by Wolfgang Sawallisch in June 2002. City Scape, also a 2002 premiere, this time by the partnership on this disc, is a three-movement portrait of the city where Higdon grew up (despite being born in Brooklyn).

That Higdon (born 1962) is one of America’s most approachable and exciting composers is evidenced by the thrilling opening to her 35-minute Concerto. It smacks of Bartók’s famous work of the same name, with similar swirling strings as Bartók’s finale, and sonorous interplay between different instruments, like Bartók’s ’Game of the Couples’ second movement.

But don’t get the impression that this is mere pastiche. Higdon has got the measure of the orchestra and its capabilities and asks it to do believable things, which are readily understandable, beautifully executed and genuinely refreshing both to listen to and to get to know. That it might sound no more ’modern’ than the mid-20th-century is a spurious argument; if the result is convincing and well-crafted, then that is the most important criterion. The impression is given that the orchestral players love playing this music – this is a real bonus. Their enthusiasm is catching.

The second movement is a fleet one for strings alone, pizzicatos underpinning sinewy solo string lines. The more mysterious third (and longest) includes solos for all the principals, while the fourth focuses on the percussion, as a paean to the instrumental family that came to the fore in the 20th-century. Supported only by harp, piano and celeste (thus similarly percussive) the tuned percussion is eventually substituted for pitch-less instruments, and the music runs straight into the finale with the entrance of the violins, taking propulsion from the percussion ostinato. The rest of the orchestra is ushered back in, building to a virtuoso display of rhythmic and collective joie de vivre.

The great thing is that Higdon can write fast music, which is exhilarating; she can also let the pressure out of her music and write effective transitions back and forth to either slower reaches or passages for chamber forces. She also has the knack of writing memorable music, which you want to hear again. The avant-garde composers never cracked the speed and memorability nuts (Schoenberg realising that his alternative system could only be pure if repetition did not allow the ear to hark back to a sense of tonality). Higdon’s music is unashamedly tonal.There are those that will shout “cop-out” but, like it or not, tonality is still a front runner in musical systems, and Higdon’s vivacity and panache are persuasive exponents for it.

Each of the three movements of City Scape can also be played separately: the opening Skyline has toured Florida, while the third, Peachtree Street, has been used in an education project to 30,000 children.

Skyline follows on from the Concerto in its irresistible virtuosity, while the middle 17-minute river sings a song to trees acts as a contrast, conjuring up the unspoilt natural areas of the city. This is long-breathed music and rises, like waves, to repeated climaxes as Higdon’s melodic lines slowly unwind. Peachtree Street describes a main street through the city, with all its twists, turns, and packed sidewalks all vividly brought to life.

Robert Spano proves his move to Atlanta has been a fruitful one, with fully committed playing from the Atlanta Symphony and a warm, natural recording acoustic in the orchestra’s home. This disc follows their Grammy-award winning Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony.

In short, this CD of Jennifer Higdon’s music is a real winner; beguiling the ear, captivating the heart and thrilling the mind. Brava!

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