Music Review: Mark Laporta on Jennifer Higdon, Concerto per Orchestra (2002)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, whose yearly output surpasses that of many othr talented artists, Jennifer Higdon writes with a facility you probably thought had died out. As repeated listening reveals, this is not merely a consequence of finding a settled style fairly early in her career. Details matter, and I’ve yet to feel the music is mass-produced.

At the same time, while packed with her own brand of thoughtful, clever and occasionally quirky originality, her works are not the product of a questing mind in search of a new definition of music. Like the later works of Shostakovich — minus the understandable but exhausting self-pity — you know what you’re getting, based on the first few measures.

Fortunately, the strong counterbalance to my complaints includes a rare gift for rhythmic nuance that many of her contemporaries lack. Of course, you could make the case that a little too much has been written about rhythm in the past 120 years. But most of it misses the point, I think. Effective rhythmic development has never had anything to do with surface complexity.

So if Composer X likes to embed a triplet with in a quintuplet in an actual meter of 7/8 over the prevailing meter of 6/4, there’s no guarantee that this will have any meaningful impact on the music’s emotional resonance or aesthetic worth. I’ll leave my comments about the fraudulent and utterly inaudible concept of “metric modulation” for another time.

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In Higdon’s case, by contrast, rhythm is much of the point, which most other elements of her textures exist to serve. That’s not to say her detailed ear for orchestral sonority, among them an refreshingly idiomatic and fluent use of string harmonics and slides, counts for nothing. In fact, while Higdon’s orchestration quickly identifies her as a card-carrying member of her generation, she steers clear of most of the worst clichés.

One cliché she does fall prey to, the “na-na/za-za/ba-ba/ra-ra” brass cluster build-up, is at least handled with a bit more taste and facility than many of her peers. But, for the record, if I were Tom Steyer, I’d set up an aesthetic relief fund that would pay every orchestral composer in America $10,000.00 a year to stop doing that. Waiting for Congress to act is, of course, pointless.

In any case, this is a composer for whom music flows like water. If I’ve decided to focus on the “Concerto per Orchestra” of 2002, it’s simply because it encapsulates many different aspects of her thought process and inner world. A more intimate work, however, is Higdon’s “Violin Concerto” that I’d guess any soloist with enough technique and, just as important, a full command of the violin’s extraordinary color palette, would rush to play.

But neither piece is that fire-breathing dragon, the Angel of Death to all previous musical aesthetics, that I gather is still the official goal of the average careerist composer. Instead of competing with earlier music, Higdon seems determined to “change the channel” on the entire discussion of Where Music Should Go Next.

Far from being intimidated by the masters of any century, she forges ahead. In most respects, this is a healthy state of affairs. Nothing kills a listener’s good time like self-conscious imitation. Still, it can be alarming to realize the extent to which, either by intention or education, her ear appears to have erased the most obvious cultural reference points.

That is, in an orchestral piece whose first movement has a lot in common with other such music, there’s still an uncanny sense that someone with an eidetic memory had heard the music of the past one hundred years and deconstructed it.

The components are all there, but in different proportions. A tempestuous string passage resembling the agitated bits of Bartók or the young Lutoslawski, slides into a passage more toward the Martinů/Michaud end of the spectrum. Nor is Bernstein far from the foreground at various points in boisterous tuttis and in the final cadence of the Concerto’s third movement.

But none of the recognizable stylistic elements necessarily fulfill the same aesthetic function as they once did, if you see what I mean.

There’s an inherent difficulty in describing music that sounds both oddly familiar and strangely original at the same time. So, even when recognizable strains of Honegger appear in the Concerto’s second movement, they arrive without his signature world-weariness.

Honegger’s symphonies, which I sometimes imagine are the later diary entries of a grown-up “Le Petite Prince” are, by contrast, about something — if only heartache and rage. For my money, Higdon’s music, despite its humanity and authentic emotion, is music first, foremost and only.

All of that aside, the Concerto per Orchestra belongs on the cram list of every orchestration student, if only as an example of idiomatic writing. I’ve yet to hear a single note of the piece that could be re-orchestrated, because each note’s only reason for being is to bring out the sonority of its assigned instrument. In fact, if I were to hazard a guess about Higdon’s compositional process, I suspect it might be analogous to what I once read about the way Alfred Hitchcock conceived his classic films.

The story goes that Hitchcock would first map out a visual storyboard, the message or emotional curve of the film, in pure images. All other elements, including the story premise, the “action” and the largely throw-away dialogue came later and were sculpted around that visual spine.

It wouldn’t surprise me if, on some level, Higdon works from an internal sound-map (with rhythm as the compass needle) that every surface phenomenon plots itself along. That’s an interesting way to work, to be sure, if you can also manage to build a coherent structure out of it.

At her best, Higdon achieves this. At times, however, in the Concerto per Orchestra, the Violin Concerto and her more recent “All Things Majestic” it’s easy to feel as if one were merely flipping through a catalog of intriguing, attractive sound effects.

Yet no nit-picking can diminish the fresh, extended solo for the percussion section in the last movement of Concerto per Orchestra. I have to confess that, for me, the average New Music Percussion Extravaganza has always been a bit of an “eat your spinach” kind of moment. Not this time.

As is often the case in a broadly-scoped work, there’s a bit of a let up in quality as the third movement rolls to its close. It’s perhaps unfair to expect many composers today to sustain their musical energies all the way to the end of a longish piece as in the case of a late Mahler symphony or a late Beethoven string quartet. On the other hand, the late works of Higdon have yet to be written, so let’s wait and see

Regardless of what time will tell about that one point, time has already spoken about Higdon’s phenomenal talent. I can only hope that her success and easy proximity to the world’s best musicians will open her musical imagination to a wider palette of harmonic shading.

Though there’s an undeniable satisfaction in knowing what’s likely to come around the corner, the music I admire most is the music that constantly surprises me, even after I know it by heart.


Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Probability Shadow, is published by Chickadee Prince Books, and is available  in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you. Or listen to his musical compositions here.