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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Higdon Concerto Premiere

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 15 Feb 2009 12:43:47 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Jennifer Higdon.
Violin Concerto.  World Premiere, February 6, 2009
Hilary Hahn, Violin, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by
Mario Venzano

Also on the program: Schumann's 4th Symphony and Weber's overture to
Freischuetz

Having just returned from driving 660 miles, round trip, in order to
hear this premiere, I am sure I would be in a major funk had I been in
the least disappointed by this concerto.  However, I am still exhilarated
from hearing this exciting work.  It may well be Higdon's best work to
date.  It is unlike any other work for violin and orchestra I have heard
(and I have reviewed here over two dozen of them in the last few years.)

This is very much a concerto for violin and (large) orchestra, in that
the woodwinds, brass, percussion and other strings all have interesting
things to say, often at the same time the line of the soloist is presenting
something else.  The good news is that the different voices can be heard
without drowning one another out, which is one of the exciting things
about this piece.  The work is unquestionably complex but, unlike Higdon's
Concerto for orchestra, the texture is not dense.  (Higdon told me that
the latter was meant to be very dense.) That said, this violin concerto
is almost a second concerto for orchestra, as the reviewer in the
Indianapolis Star also notes.  The orchestration includes, besides the
usual instruments, an English horn, piccolo (which both have noticeable
utterances), tuba, harp and several tuned and untuned percussion
instruments, including tubular bells and a glockenspiel struck with #10
knitting needles.  The writing for woodwinds is especially satisfying.
The percussion and brass filled the entire rear of the playing area on
what would appear to be a two or three foot high riser except that it
seems to be a permanent part of the structure of the Hilbert Circle
Theatre, surely meant to spare the hearing of the other players.

The concerto is in the usual three movements but with unusual
designations.  The first is enigmatically denoted "1726," a number
Higdon says has meaning to both her and Hahn and she has promised an
autographed copy of the score to the first six respondents correctly
guessing what this significance is.  (I rather hope she will re-name the
movement.) The slow movement is called Chaconni (admittedly a neologism)
to indicate that the movement has more than one repeated chord progression.
The finale is "Fly Forward," a name that came to Higdon during the
Olympics last year when she was working on the movement and which she
thought an apt term to apply to what Hahn was going to play.  Its tempo
is incredibly fast--think of a prolonged Flight of the Bumblebee.  I was
not alert enough to clock time to note the duration of the concerto
accurately, but my estimate is a bit longer than half an hour.

The mood of the work was more lyrical than not.  Toward the end of
the opening movement there was a passage that was very reminiscent
of birds singing and afterwards Higdon confirmed to me that that was
not an inappropriate characterization.  At times at least the concerto
also struck me as not unlike music of the English pastoral school (think
Vaughan Williams' 8th symphony, for example--but not as though she were
quoting--and when I said this to Higdon she did not blanch.  In a
pre-concert forum Higdon suggested that one might be reminded of Hindemith,
as she has played work of his for flute (her instrument.) The dynamics
range from very soft to overwhelming at a couple of moments, the tuttis
giving the soloist some surely much needed rest.  The phrasing is very
varied, with an unusual amount of pizzicato, for both soloist and other
strings, some fluttering sounds, even from the brass, an undulating
passage, some smooth legato from the strings.  There is also a wide range
of pitch.  The concerto opens with high harmonics from the soloist's
violin over those knitting needles, for instance, and then of course
there is that tuba.

This work was commissioned by the Indianapolis, Baltimore and Toronto
orchestras and the Curtis Institute, where Higdon teaches and which
Hahn attended (and studied with Higdon, as it happens.) Higdon wrote
it expressly for Hahn, keeping in mind the kind of playing she likes
and the composer frequently consulted the soloist, as is frequently
the case with compositions of this genre.  Higdon was concerned whether
certain passages, and the cadenza were actually playable or not but she
was assured that they were not a problem.  It seemed that everything
was effortless for her.  The person presiding at the pre-concert forum
wondered if Hahn would play from memory or from a score but, having (last
spring in Milwaukee) asked Hahn if she had the score in hand and how
long it would take her to learn it.  her answer was "the usual time;
learning the notes is the easy part" of preparation.

The audience, which the Star reviewer called "hearteningly large" but
at which the empty seats concerned some acquaintances with whom I spoke,
gave the concerto a tunultuous ovation.  In a brilliantly apt move, Hahn
played as an encore an exquisite Sarabande by Bach that could not have
been more of a change of pace.  There was no need whatever to show her
skill at this point and the full rich tone of Hahn's violin sounded
wonderful in the fine acoustics of this hall.  Someone I spoke with
declared that the concert would have been worth attending just for this.

*****
Just a word about the Schumann.  Venzago plays Schumann with unusually
varied tempos.  Not jarring juxtapositions of slow and fast but with
smooth but very noticeable slowing down at times which, as he put it,
preserve a steady rhythm without a steady tempo.  He said that did this
with the orchestra that Schumann himself had conducted in Dusseldorf,
which is used to steady tempos and he did not know whether this would
provoke outrage and they actually liked it enough to ask him to be their
"Schumann" conductor.  Personally, I would prefer not to hear it this
way again, but it was interesting.

Some URLs:
Jay Harvey's review and pre-concert story in the Indianapolis Star:
http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=3D2009902070455
http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=3D2009902060312

My reviews of Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, City Scape and Blue
Cathedral:
www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/t/tlc80620a.php
www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/t/tlc80596a.php

Copyright 2009 by R. James Tobin

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