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Higdon leads the way for women composers

KIMBERLY NICOLETTIsummit daily news
Special to the DailyThree people have called contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon to tell her they either received speeding tickets or ran a red light listening to her Concerto for Orchestra, which premiered in 2002.
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BRECKENRIDGE – When you imagine someone driving and listening to orchestral music, you might think of an older person calmly cruising in a white Cadillac at – or below – the speed limit.But so far, three people have called contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon to tell her they either received speeding tickets or ran a red light listening to her Concerto for Orchestra, which premiered in 2002.National Repertory Orchestra (NRO) conductor Carl Topilow chose to perform her piece Saturday in Breckenridge to introduce audiences to quality contemporary orchestral music.”There’s a lot of contemporary music that’s excellent, but unfortunately, there’s so much music that’s bad that’s being written,” Topilow said. “It’s the emotional response to a piece of music that makes it work. There’s a variety in what she does in texture, in sound and in color that makes it exciting, even on first hearing.”Since Higdon wrote the piece for virtuoso players, it is going to be challenging for the NRO to play, Topilow said.”We started rehearsing Thursday, and it’s going to be nonstop,” he said.

Against all oddsHigdon started composing music with odds stacked against her.She began writing when she was 21 – a late start in the musical community.”A lot of the composers I run across are a lot younger – from 12-year-olds to people who write at 6, 7 and 8,” Higdon said.But since she grew up with artistic, hippie parents, it never occurred to her she wouldn’t make it, she said.”In the same vein, it didn’t occur to me that it’d be a problem being a woman,” she said.When an orchestra played her first piece in 1992, audience members told her they couldn’t believe a woman wrote the piece, she said.

“That’s starting to change,” she said. “It’s not as big of an issue as it used to be. Other women composers have been slowly creeping open the door for the past 50 years, but all of the sudden it’s bursting open.”Part of the attitudinal change in the historically male-dominated field stems from Higdon’s work.She stirred the classical music community in June 2002 at the American Symphony Orchestra League in Philadelphia. After the orchestra performed her 35-minute, bold and fast-moving Concerto for Orchestra, 3,000 orchestral managers responded with a standing ovation.”It is probably the most skeptical audience you could convince,” Higdon said. “It went over so huge and created such a shock wave, it was on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Most people didn’t know who I was. This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen in America – a composer landing on the front page of a major metropolitan newspaper.”The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned her – and six other male composers – to create pieces to celebrate its centennial anniversary.”I wrote it thinking about the players,” she said. “It shows off the orchestra. It’s very energetic. It’s accessible. It has melodies. It’s definitely not a piece you would sleep through.”In fact, it has garnered standing ovations in each of the 30-40 concerts 12 different orchestras have performed nationwide, she said.

“It gets people excited about new music,” she said. “I get letters from around the world. It’s a composer’s dream.”It has been easier for me (as a female composer) than it was for some of my colleagues before me. Hopefully it will be enough of a beacon that women composers feel they can be (equal) with men.”Before the 20th century, female composers had to come from a musical family or one linked with royalty if they wanted recognition. Today, though women hold positions in universities, it still is rare to find a female composer in residence, a status enjoyed by many male faculty members, according to “Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found,” by Diane Peacock Jezic.But Higdon chooses to focus on furthering music rather than on past restrictions women faced. She encourages new composers to keep writing and to express themselves through sound.”I think music has to communicate,” she said. “I’m not of the school it has to be smart. It better say something. I’m taking up the audience’s time, so it better be worthwhile.”Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or at knicoletti@summitdaily.com.


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