Expect to Hear Music

June 12, 2002. Waiting backstage at the Kimmel Center, moments before the Philadelphia Orchestra rockets their way into the opening measures of her new Concerto for Orchestra, Jennifer Higdon G’92 Gr’94 has a sudden realization. Almost exactly 20 years before, she was finishing up her first semester of introductory music theory at Bowling Green State University.

It is one of those crystallizing moments. For a second, she shakes her head in disbelief—from “Theory for Dummies” to Wolfgang Sawallisch, in just two decades. And what a long, strange trip it’s been.

I too, remember that particular concert because it was my 20th wedding anniversary, and to celebrate, my husband, Larry Smith C’78 M’82, and I took our four daughters to hear the Higdon premiere. At the climax of the electrifying all-percussion fourth movement, as we peered down in rapt attention from our seats high up in the third tier above the orchestra, our eight-year-old’s Stagebill booklet accidentally slipped from her fingers and plummeted to the floor, just missing the busy marimba player. Calla clapped her hands across her mouth, mortified, shrinking back into her seat from what she imagined was every pair of eyes in the hall.

“I remember your daughter,” laughs Higdon, when we meet over hot chocolate at the Pink Rose Café near South Street on a blustery February afternoon. She tells me that her longtime partner, Cheryl Lawson, was in the audience that evening and witnessed the descent of the Stagebill from her orchestra-level seat. “Cheryl says the expression on that little girl’s face was priceless.”

With her short, tousled hair, twinkling eyes, and friendly smile, Jennifer Higdon is one of the few artists I’ve met who actually looks like her publicity photos. Yet, despite her recent success, she exudes not a whiff of pretension. She speaks with a light Tennessee drawl that catches the ear of our waiter.

“My aunt lives in Tennessee,” he tells her, and they chat for a minute before he trots away, oblivious to the fact that he was just shooting the breeze with the hottest young composer on the American classical-music scene. In fact, Higdon is just back from the 2005 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where the recording of her Concerto for Orchestra/City Scape with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony was one of the winners.

Fully booked with commissions for the next several years, Higdon is currently turning away six to eight proposals every month. Upcoming highlights include a concerto commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for Scottish percussionist Colin Curry, to be premiered in fall 2005; a string quartet for the Tokyo Quartet, for March 2006; a piano concert for Lang Lang, commissioned by the National Symphony, for April 2007; a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn, commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony, for the 2007-08 season; and a concerto for Eighth Blackbird (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion), which Higdon calls “one of the best new music groups around.” That one’s due out in the 2008-09 season. After our hot chocolate, Higdon will hike uptown to meet with members of Time for Three, a popular bluegrass/classical crossover string trio, for whom the Philadelphia Orchestra has commissioned her to write a triple concerto. And these are just highlights plucked from Higdon’s actual to-do list.

A note for those who don’t follow the ups and downs of the classical-music industry: This is a splendidly, almost embarrassingly rich catalogue of success for any contemporary composer, even for a graduate of Penn’s prestigious Ph.D. program in composition. A recent report published by the American Symphony Orchestra League ranked Higdon as the second most frequently performed living American composer, just behind John Adams. And with over 50 performances in 2004-05, her Blue Cathedral, written to memorialize her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, after his premature death in 1998, is the single most frequently programmed American orchestral work composed in the last 25 years. (Fellow Penn grad and classmate Osvaldo Golijov Gr’91’s Last Round is number two.)


Not too shabby for the self-professed “black sheep” of a rock-and-roll family, the girl who never had a formal music lesson until college, who had to apply to Penn’s graduate program three times before she was accepted, who needed two tries to get out.

Higdon was raised in Atlanta and later rural Tennessee, where her hippie parents steeped her early and long in a counterculture filled with “art happenings” (early performance art events) and experimental film festivals. From the beginning, she was encouraged to question authority and to think outside the lines.

 Growing up, she wanted to be a writer, and to this day she publishes essays and sometimes writes her own liner notes. When I suggest that her compositions seem to have a certain narrative impulse, she tells me that, to her, the similarity between writing music and writing words is staggering. “Writing poetry and stories taught me about rhythm and pacing. For me, musical themes are like the characters in a play or story.”

Her parents were friends with photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whom she credits as one of her earliest influences, and the Higdon kids grew up making art, including eight-millimeter movies and photographs. “The first photo I ever took was of Joel, sitting on his porch, eating a peach,” she says. “He always had a camera around his neck; he was always working. He became my model for self-discipline and process.”

These days, Higdon composes on the fly during her extensive travels, packing along a small midi-keyboard and a laptop computer. As for process, she often comes up with the title first, and then a sort of “sonic snapshot”—the sound equivalent of a photograph. The daughter of two visual artists, she uses a lot of imagery in her work, bright sounds moving to dark.

“My dad was a painter and commercial artist, and my mom did paintings and abstract quilts,” she says. “They listened to music in the house all the time—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley.”

But never classical music. Higdon, whose work is sometimes compared to Aaron Copland’s, remembers hearing a broadcast of Appalachian Spring, by chance, on National Public Radio as a girl, and remembers liking it. But she had little exposure to the classics and no formal music lessons until college. When she was 15, she taught herself to play the flute from a band-method book she found lying around the house. After she worked her way through the first book, she asked her mom to order the next three books, and by the end of the year she was good enough to win first chair in her high school band.

Higdon went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio as a flute performance major, where she met her mentors, Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano and composer Wallace DePue, father of Philadelphia Orchestra violinists Jason and Zachary DePue. Next stop was Philadelphia and the prestigious Curtis Institute, where she earned an Artist’s Diploma and honed her flute skills to virtuosic level. (Despite her heavy composing schedule, Higdon still finds time to record and concertize.)

After Curtis, Higdon applied to Penn’s graduate program in composition, but was rejected twice before being admitted. In the meantime, she studied with Penn Music Professor Jay Reise G’75, who gave her free, informal lessons and loads of encouragement. When she was finally accepted into the program, the going wasn’t always easy, especially when her first Ph.D. thesis was rejected by the committee. Higdon’s second dissertation, a string quartet called “Voices,” which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, passed. She graduated and joined the faculty of Curtis, where she now teaches composition.

“With my background, I was at a disadvantage compared to the other Penn students, who’d been listening to Beethoven since age three,” she says. But being a foreigner in her adopted culture came with its advantages. “The sheer number of Beatles tunes I listened to helped me to realize the ability of music to communicate. My background wasn’t impoverished: it was a wealthy background. I have the ability to hear music like most people who didn’t grow up ‘classical.’ And I have complete joy in what I’m doing because it wasn’t squashed out of me.”

Higdon’s work is sometimes described as having a twang to it, a pop energy reminiscent of bluegrass, folk, and reggae. Says Zach DePue, who moonlights with the bluegrassy Time for Three when he isn’t playing in the first violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Jen has breathed new life into modern classical music.  She speaks to the listener, without dumbing it down. I had the pleasure of playing the premiere of her Concerto for Orchestra, and the joyous response from the audience said it all. Not many composers can do that.  Most composers who have been able to do that are dead.”

In fact, Higdon takes it as a point of pride that her music is programmed alongside dead composers, rather than relegated to “new music” concerts. “When you write classical pieces, you want them to hold up, not only against your contemporaries, but against the classics.”

My hunch, and I’m not alone, is that Jennifer Higdon’s works will be programmed for generations to come. As we finish our hot chocolate, I can’t help remarking to her how her life story is almost like a fairy tale. How strange and unlikely that she’s made it so far along in the journey that eludes most composers from so-called musically advantaged backgrounds.

“It does blow my mind,” says Higdon. “It’s the mysterious spot in my life that doesn’t seem quite logical: why didn’t I become a painter, or a photographer, or even a film-scorer? But here I am. It’s as if I’m living out somebody else’s dream.”

Higdon’s discography and scores can be found at—K.R.