The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto

About the Work

Jennifer Higdon Composer: Jennifer Higdon
© Paul Horsley

[Editor's Note: Jennifer Higdon's Piano Concerto is a National Symphony Orchestra Commission made possible by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works]

In just a decade, Jennifer Higdon has grown from a figure little-known outside her home base of Philadelphia to one of the most celebrated composers of her generation. And in some ways the Piano Concerto receiving its premiere at these concerts represents a milestone on a journey that began with two orchestral works--blue cathedral in 1999 and the Concerto for Orchestra that brought her instant fame in 2002--and that has by now produced nearly 100 compositions. The concerto is one of her weightiest pieces so far, dense and complex yet like most of her music immensely colorful and highly approachable. "It was the most difficult thing I've ever written," Higdon says. "I've never had a piece take so much out of me." Part of the struggle, she says, was dealing with the baggage of composing in a genre marked by so many iconic masterpieces.

Born in Brooklyn but raised mostly in eastern Tennessee, Higdon taught herself to play flute at 15 and attended Bowling Green State University in Ohio--where among other things she studied conducting with Robert Spano, who would later become a great champion of her music. She continued the flute at the Curtis Institute of Music then earned her master's and doctorate in composition from the University of Pennsylvania. Among her teachers were George Crumb, David Loeb and Ned Rorem. She would later return to Curtis, to serve on its illustrious faculty; she currently holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies.

Higdon's works receive some 200 performances a year worldwide; blue cathedral, a contemplation on the death of her younger brother, is one of the most frequently performed contemporary works in America. She has received commissions from most of the major North American Orchestras, and her music has appeared on two dozen CDs. Robert Spano's recording of blue cathedral made the Classical Billboard charts, and his recording of the Concerto for Orchestra with the Atlanta Symphony won a Grammy Award. Higdon's 2009-2010 season will feature two releases from Telarc, recordings of Dooryard Bloom and The Singing Rooms.

She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet the Composer, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP. Her music has been featured at the Tanglewood, Vail, Norfolk, Winnipeg and Cabrillo festivals, and she has served as composer-in-residence for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Green Bay Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Among her multifarious works are more than two dozen orchestral and string ensemble works (including concertos for violin, string trio, oboe, soprano saxophone, trombone and percussion), some 50 chamber works, two dozen vocal and choral works and music for band. Her compositions have been performed by most of the major conductors in America, and by soloists such as Hilary Hahn, Colin Currie, Marc-André Hamelin and Jennifer Koh. Higdon's music is intuitive in structure and brilliantly orchestrated, blending elements of tonality with dissonance and raucous energy. "Her music is evocative and understandable," conductor Marin Alsop says. "Her willingness to communicate with audiences and her openness to musicians' comments is extremely refreshing." The composer has written the following note about the new concerto:

When thinking about the composition of a piano concerto, I weighed at great length the role of the piano as it has developed through the centuries. The differences between Mozart's, Beethoven's, and Bartók's concerti are considerable. Mozart is so much about musical line, always woven with exquisite beauty through the fabric of the concerto form.

Beethoven's works maintain that beauty but add a heavier grandeur and sense of seriousness, with more emphasis on rhythm. With Bartók, he treats the piano as a percussion instrument, and shows a real sense of power in doing so (the melodic element, while not insignificant, is of lesser importance); his is a different acoustical approach, but one that is no less important. So how to approach a new addition to the genre in the 21st century?

I decided to compose a lyrical work that would emphasize the piano's ability to shape elegant lines; a rhythmic work that would show off the instrument's percussive ability; a work with simple lines to express a quieter mood; and, one that contains a great number of cascading notes which would rebound with a velocity that cannot be matched by another instrument.

So this is a concerto in every sense of the word--it is a virtuosic duel between soloist and orchestra. It is every bit a test of the soloist who tackles it (and Yuja Wang does so marvelously), and hopefully gives us a chance to admire the power of this instrument that is within itself an orchestra.

The concerto is cast in a traditional three-part design with a lyrical slow movement flanked by two large-scale movements. Piano and orchestra are equal partners. "I always think of the orchestra as expressing something with the soloist," the composer says. The opening thematic material heard in the solo part recurs throughout the concerto, though not in a systematic manner. "My brain just isn't analytical in that way," the composer says. "I let my ear guide me. For me, that allows more music to come through. I always think of my music as through-composed."

Each of Higdon's compositions inhabits its own harmonic world, and the Piano Concerto's is marked by the alternating juxtaposition of highly unorthodox, almost cluster-like harmonies with stark successions of tonal chords. The simple lyricism of the opening piano theme builds to a climax of considerable force, with a bravura solo part that calls upon all aspects of a pianist's technique (with no small amount of Bartókian percussiveness). The movements ends with driving, ferocious orchestral tutti that introduces an extended cadenza for the soloist, constructed partly from the movement's main thematic material. The second movement features a tranquil, enigmatic theme and builds to a succession of limpid passagework and stately series of block chords. The finale brings percussion to the fore, in a noisy tour de force of precipitous energy.