The Kennedy Center

Concerto for Orchestra

About the Work

Jennifer Higdon Composer: Jennifer Higdon
© Richard Freed

The Concerto for Orchestra was composed in 2001 as one of eight new works commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and its music director Wolfgang Sawallisch in celebration of that orchestra?s centenary; the commission was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Philadelphia Music Project (funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the Philadelphia Settlement Music School), and Peter Benoliel. Mr. Sawallisch conducted the premiere performances in Philadelphia on June 12, 13, 14 and 15, 2002. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to Cheryl (the composer?s partner of 22 years), calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, chimes, crotales, sandpaper blocks, flexatone, tom-toms, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, tam-tam, Chinese cymbal, wood blocks, maraca, bongos, roto-tom, suspended cymbal, sizzle cymbal, vibraslap, castanets, guiro, floor tom, slapstick, piano, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 35 minutes.

Last March Giancarlo Guerrero conducted the premiere of Jennifer Higdon?s brief Machine in these concerts as part of the Hechinger Encores (which series is in its final year this season), and the piece made a strong impression on both the audience and the musicians with its dead-on wit and imaginative exploitation of the orchestra?s color resources. It was no surprise, really, to anyone who had heard the Concerto for Orchestra, or had read about its enthusiastic reception in Philadelphia the previous June, when, in? the premiere performances under Wolfgang Sawallisch, the work more than held its own in concerts it shared with Strauss?s grandiose Heldenleben.

Ms. Higdon?s music has been enjoying a steadily increasing presence, both in our concert halls and in recordings, and has brought her numerous honors and awards, among these a Pew Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to her commissions from the Philadelphia Orchestra and the NSO, others have come to her from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Chamber Ensemble of St. Luke?s, eighth blackbird, the Bravo! Vail Valley Festival, the Cypress String Quartet, the Ying Quartet, the American Guild of Organists, and the Verdehr Trio.

In addition to her own creative work, Higdon teaches composition at her alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and she is active as both flutist and conductor. Last July, during her residency as composer at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado, she also took part in a program of flute duets with the festival?s director, Eugenia Zukerman. From Vail Higdon went to the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, as one of this year?s composers-in-residence, and was present at performances of her chamber music as well as a concert of the Tanglewood Orchestra in which Robert Spano conducted the Concerto for Orchestra.

That was neither the first nor the most recent performance of the work since its premiere: last June the Dallas Symphony Orchestra played it under Andrew Litton, both in Dallas and at the Bravo! Festival, and just two weeks ago it was performed by both the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Mr. Spano and the Milwaukee Symphony under Andreas Delfs. Giancarlo Guerrero is to conduct the Eugene (Oregon) Symphony Orchestra in performances of the Concerto in January, and in April Leonard Slatkin will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the work?s British premiere. Mr. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, whose recording of Miss Higdon?s blue cathedral was issued by Telarc last spring as part of an American collection, are to follow up with a full CD of her works, comprising the Concerto for Orchestra and the Atlanta-commissioned CityScape. (Many of her other works have been recorded, on some two dozen CDs.)

While the Concerto for Orchestra was the first work of Higdon?s that the Philadelphia Orchestra performed, the composer had the advantage of having known the orchestra from her years as both student and professional musician in Philadelphia, and of knowing many of its individual players as their faculty colleague at Curtis. As Luke Howard pointed out in his note for the work?s premiere, her
first point of contact was naturally The Philadelphia Orchestra?s principal flute, Jeffrey Khaner, who asked her for ?a really nice flute solo.? [Mr. Khaner subsequently recorded her Autumn Nocturne.?RF] The idea expanded to include a passage that highlighted the flute section as a whole, then all the woodwinds. (This would eventually become the Concerto?s third movement.) Other requests from orchestra personnel helped Higdon channel her inspiration into fashioning the work as a showcase for the entire orchestra.
Indeed, a showcase for the entire orchestra?and its various choirs?is exactly what a concerto for orchestra is supposed to be. As Bart?k demonstrated in his famous example, it can be a work of considerable substance as well, and both elements are stunningly represented in the present work. The five movements are not headed by conventional tempo markings, but by metronome settings and, in only two instances, a word or phrase indicating mood or style of performance. The composer has kindly provided a descriptive note of her own.

The Concerto for Orchestra is truly a concerto in that it requires virtuosity from the principal players, the individual sections, and the entire orchestra. Built from the inside out, the third movement was written first, and it is the movement that allows each principal player a solo, before moving into section solos. The winds are highlighted first, then followed (after a tutti) by the strings, and then the brass. Each solo has its own unique material, some of which is utilized in the tutti sections of the movement.

The second movement was written next, inspired by the string sound of The Philadelphia Orchestra. This movement is like a scherzo in character, written in a jaunty rhythm and tempo that celebrates the joyous sound of strings. The movement begins with everyone playing pizzicato and then slowly integrates an arco sound, first through soloists, and then with all of the players. It continues to romp through to the end, where a snap pizzicato closes out the movement.

The fourth movement is a tribute to rhythm and the percussion section of the orchestra (harp, celesta, and piano are included in this movement).? Since this piece was completed at the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed very fitting to have a movement that highlights the one section of the orchestra that has had the greatest amount of development during the preceding century. Ironically, the opening of this movement is the quietest and stillest part of the entire work, which is not what one might expect from percussion. The movement opens with bowed vibraphone and crotales?opening the way for the percussion to move through many of its pitched instruments (as well as collaborating with the harp and celesta, which are percussive in their nature). Eventually the musicians move to non-pitched percussion, which is emphasized by the movement's tempo speeding up at key moments. This progression in the tempi will carry this movement from an extraordinarily slow start (quarter note = 42) through to the fifth movement, which continues the progression of increasing tempi, until the end of that movement, which arrives at a quarter equals 160-180 on the metronome. These tempo increases occur at specific moments, usually covering two measures, and are meant to resemble the effect of an old Victrola being cranked up.

The fifth movement, which begins with the entrance of the violins, highlights the entire orchestra and has its rhythm set up through an ostinato in the percussion, which has been carried over from the previous movement.? The various sections of the orchestra converse in musical interplay throughout, while the tempo continues to increase. This occurs to such an extent, that a primary theme that is stated within the first minute of the movement will eventually come back in rhythmic values that are twice as long, but with the increased tempo, will sound like it did at its first appearance.

Surprisingly, the first movement was the last to be composed. It took the actual writing of the other four movements to create a clear picture of what was needed to start this virtuosic tour-de-force. The opening of the piece begins with chimes and timpani, sounding together, and then a quick entrance by the strings in energetic scale patterns (octatonic), which moves the orchestra up through the winds and finally adds the brass in major chords, a major second apart (this is a sound the composer has been working with for years). This movement is primarily tutti in its use of instruments, but there are small chamber moments, in recognition of the fact that it takes many individuals to make the whole of the orchestra.

Jennifer Higdon

December 2002