* Concerto for Orchestra
* City Scape
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano.
Telarc CD-80620 Total time: 66:17
Summary for the Busy Executive: The sound of a classic.
I've been hearing great things about Jennifer Higdon's music for years
now, and I've just gotten around to listening. Curious and a bit
apprehensive about whether she would turn out the product of hype or of
buzz, I put off playing the CD for about a week. The opening notes of
the Concerto for Orchestra galvanized me. Now, I have no inner Masterpiece
Detector, but the same charge ran through me as the one I got from the
Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Higdon's most obvious model. The work
deserves a good, long life. Higdon seems to me the real deal.
Higdon's music is tonal -- if you care about such things -- but not
especially melodic. Nevertheless, her ideas stick in the mind. She
has, I think, the right kind of composer's ambition. You have to be a
little crazy even to want to compete with Bartok, but success probably
brings terrific satisfaction. Higdon's concerto for me stands at the
same level as Bartok's bona fide masterpiece, without mimicking it for
musical material. Furthermore, despite the same rough rhetorical structure
-- five movements, the major emotional weight in the central movement
-- this really is a distinct piece. The work turns your attention in
many different directions, with various elements competing for notice
at once. Although not a cyclic piece strictly speaking, the concerto
nevertheless plays with fitting some of its ideas to new contexts and
functions. For example, a quick upward modal run, major matter of the
first movement, appears in subsequent movements, subsidiary and subdued.
One can also point to a "color argument" -- a purposeful and exhaustive
sequencing of instrumental combinations, which as a conscious technique
goes back at least as far as Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante. One can
probably make the same assertion about rhythm. The colors are at once
gorgeous and individual. She knows how to make an orchestra sound good
in more ways than I can count. At any rate, obviously Higdon has plenty
of compositional smarts, but all of it serves an emotional effect. She
has played in orchestras, and she describes the process of composition
as a matter of letting the music well up within her, as if she were
playing. This comes pretty close to our primal reaction to hearing
music. Higdon's work gives you the illusion that you "feel" it with
her. I could go on and on about each individual movement -- and each
movement deserves that kind of attention to detail -- but I'd much prefer
that you simply stopped reading this and heard the CD as soon as possible.
City Scape is a bit looser, in part due to the requirement of the Atlanta
Symphony commission: that the work consist of "detachable" movements.
Higdon intends to paint the city of Atlanta, but much of the work could
apply to any large city. The first movement -- a portrait of "downtown"
-- reminded me a bit of Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, more as a feeling
than any surface resemblance. It's simply Big-City music, bustling,
striving, and here and there a moment of reflection. But it's also a
certain type of big city: one to some extent driven, shedding its old
skin every few years, not often reflective. I can't imagine such music
for cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis
-- more comfortable with themselves, more intimate. Again, as in the
Concerto, one senses a composer of big ideas in complete command of her
material and expression. If I have any quibble, it's with the resemblance
of musical material to the first movement of the Concerto -- both pieces
written at roughly the same time. The most remarkable movement for me,
however, is the second and longest by far -- titled "the river sings a
song to trees" -- the eerie stillness of large expanses of "undeveloped"
green in the middle of a metropolis. The very opening -- full of
"otherness" -- blossoms into an impassioned hymn and the sense of the
full context of the city -- the impingement of urban sounds on the
protected enclave. The refuge of the city nevertheless importantly
belongs to the city. The finale is one of those hell-for-leather rondos,
kin to classic American Modern finales by Piston and Mennin. The
counterpoint dazzles, less a matter of "school counterpoint" than an
intensification of rhythm. Highlights include sectional spotlights
(winds, brass, strings, etc.), especially a totally cool percussion
passage that should become de rigeur for orchestra auditions.
Spano and the Atlanta play the bejabbers out of these works, or perhaps
these works show them off as world-class players. Telarc has lavished
the great engineering -- rich, yet clear sound -- one usually associates
with this label. I don't know whether any orchestra sounds this good
live. On the other hand, why not enjoy it?