Sunday, February 8, 2009

Higdon's Violin Concerto Opens New Opportunities

This weekend was filled with all sorts of awards and specticals, from the BAFTA's in London to the Grammy's in LA. Unfortunately, lost in the news cycle was the appearance of a new Violin Concerto composed by Jennifer Higdon (pictured) and performed by Hilary Hahn at the Hilbert Circle Theatre last Friday and Saturday. Jennifer Higdon, one of the most performed living composers, was commissioned to write the piece for Ms Hahn (previously a student of Ms Higdon) by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

The only review of the piece is by Jay Harvey for the Indy Star.

The freshest aspect of the new work is not that it invents a new musical language or a new form: It's in three movements, with a fast-slow-fast distribution, and it finds itself at home, though with an outsize restlessness, in the world of tonality.

What seems to be new is the music's swerve away from both the heroic and the collegial models of the soloist's role. The role that emerges is wrapped in an enigma Higdon announces in her program notes: What is the meaning of the first movement's title, "1726"?

Well, the piece begins with the fragility of harmonics in the violin, colored by mallet percussion struck with knitting needles. The concertmaster soon takes over the soloist's material, as the latter plays a more firmly grounded line in the lower middle register. The soloist seems to be forging an identity out of a volatile environment, and it's unlikely any concert violinist going could steer as steady and resplendent a course through such challenges as Hahn did.

This opens the door to further episodes of imitation, sometimes in echoing fashion, sometimes overlapping. Grotesque disproportions of scale crop up; sometimes the violin seems to dwarf the orchestra. Just by being itself in Higdon's skilled hands, the orchestra elicits a firmer sense of self in the soloist, crowned by a compact, astonishing cadenza, before the opening mood returns.

Ms Higdon has a number of other projects in the works having received her first opera commission by the San Francisco Opera and another premiere coming in late March, this time a choral-orchestral work.

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