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Compelling Mystery: The QC Symphony Performs Jennifer Higdon’s Bewildering, Beautiful “Violin Concerto” PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Frederick Morden   
Friday, 29 November 2013 05:09

Jennifer Higdon. Photo by J.D. Scott.Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto unfolds as a slow burn with flickering, firefly-like tones, then straps you into a sonic roller coaster, corkscrewing through ever-changing musical images. When you have experienced the sublime disorderliness of Higdon’s concerto, it seems miraculous that it ultimately makes sense; you have experienced something that was perceivable if not completely comprehensible.

The winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music, Higdon’s concerto could be bewildering for audiences at the Quad City Symphony’s December 7 and 8 concerts, with its copious, fast-changing variations of instrumental combinations and dynamics: violin harmonics with small finger cymbals, tingling high woodwinds with low, growling cellos and basses, sudden changes in volume, and constantly contrasting textures of sound. The musical events might seem random at first, but somewhere in your brain, you should be able to recognize and reorganize them enough to get a sense of Higdon’s complex yet stunningly accessible musical thinking.

For context, it’s helpful to understand the composer’s creative process, which she described to me in an e-mail exchange over the summer: “It is purely a decision made by the sound. No thought to the theoretical construction of the movements whatsoever. No pre-determined scales, no established form, no generated harmonic motion. Those things might be there in some form, but if they’re there, I am not aware of them.”

Intentional or not, familiar forms and tonality are everywhere in this piece. Traditional compositional elements – such as repetition, imitation, melody, Classical and Baroque forms, ornamentation, chords, tone rows, development, and recapitulation – are all present.

But, crucially, they are secondary to her instinctive approach, and they drift into and out of their expected sequence. The succession of musical ideas is determined through improvisation, and her artful control of tonality, emotional content, colorful orchestration, and the flow of energy ties the piece together.

The overlapping, contrasting musical ideas create vivid tapestries of musical color. Rather than using one tonal system – such as G Major, whole tone, or 12-tone rows – she combines many with changing orchestration and dynamics. Warm, resonant chords mix with exchanges between the solo violin and several soloists in the orchestra, and they are not imitating each other but generating a group instrumental conversation with distinct ideas, melodic content, style, and nuance from each voice.

Higdon suspends the audience’s dependence on conventional form and tonality as the basis for music and transforms what sound, in its essence, can express. Gradually, and quite naturally, my mind begins to linger over things – mental images, emotions, people – as I feel my mood guided by something in the music. At times, the profuse density of textures makes the piece coalesce into a fabric of sound – not individual strands from specific instruments. They become compelling in their mystery – how they are put together. The solo violin evolves into an evocative, more sensual instrument by saying fresh, important things through inventive new sounds.

Structurally, instead of organizing her musical ideas into, for example, the sonata A-B-A form, Higdon employs a compositional technique similar to Baroque “through-composing” – relatively continuous, non-sectional, and non-repetitive music-writing, a form of musical free-association. “I may think the music is going to go one place, but sometimes the music has other ideas,” she wrote. “I trust it enough to follow it, to see if the suggested path is good. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

But Higdon still adheres to many of the hallmarks of the concerto style – the technical flair demonstrated by the soloist, musical interaction with the orchestra, and the grouping of music into the standard three-movement format with a predictable path: dramatic, slow, and fast.

The title of the first movement is “1726,” the street number of the Curtis Institute of Music where Higdon was a student and now works as an adjunct professor. She uses these numbers in a form of music encryption; the fundamental tones used in the movement are created by assigning a pitch to each digit. This is a modern version of an idea that dates back to the Baroque period, when Bach used his family name as the thematic motive for some of his compositions.

Higdon’s second movement reflects a direct conventional approach, slowly and lyrically exploring the beautiful “cantabile” or “singing” sound of the violin. Titled “Chaconni” – the plural form of the Baroque “Chaconne” – the movement uses several repeating chord progressions, some overlapping with improvised-like variations in the orchestra and containing more elaborate passages in the solo violin.

The third movement, called “Fly Forward,” is a lively finale that, Higdon wrote, “allows the soloist to delight the audience with feats of great virtuosity.”

Like many composers, Higdon was inspired to write the concerto for a specific player. Hilary Hahn, a violin student in Higdon’s 20th Century Music class, had a penchant for what Higdon called “exploring and discovering new musical languages and styles.” The collaboration expanded the role of the soloist, creating extended phrases of elaborately ornamented lines that swirl around the slower-moving accompaniment or thematic statements in the orchestra. Now a professional soloist, Hahn has championed the concerto in both concert halls and recordings.

The Times of London concisely distilled the concerto by noting that “Higdon’s work is traditionally rooted, yet imbued with integrity, freshness, and a desire to entertain. A promising mixture.”

For me, in the beginning it was a thousand pieces of string dangling without form or logic leading some place I had never been. But when it was over, Higdon had artfully crocheted a wedding dress of music, and all I could do was sit back and try to take in the marvelousness of it.

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto will be paired with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 at the Quad City Symphony’s concerts on December 7 (at the Adler Theatre) and 8 (at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall). For tickets or more information, visit

Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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