Pulitzer Prize and two-time Grammy Award winning composer Jennifer Higdon.

Jennifer Higdon discusses her Viola Concerto

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs the Grammy-winning work this week

Mark Gresham | 22 JAN 2019

Pulitzer Prize and two-time Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon was born in Brooklyn, but from the age of six months spent the next 10 years of her life growing up in Atlanta. Her music has been championed by conductor Robert Spano since the beginning of his tenure as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Higdon has become a major figure in American classical music. Her works represent a wide range of genres, from orchestral to chamber, to wind ensemble, as well as vocal, choral and opera. The League of American Orchestras reports her as being one of America’s most frequently performed composers.

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Among her many awards, Higdon received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, with the committee citing the work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.” Her first opera, Cold Mountain, won the prestigious International Opera Award for Best World Premiere in 2016 — the first American opera to do so in the award’s history. She has twice won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition: first for her Percussion Concerto in 2010 and again in 2018 for her Viola Concerto.

This week, on Thursday and Saturday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform Higdon’s Viola Concerto, led by music director Robert Spano, with violist Roberto Díaz as soloist. The composer will be present at Thursday’s performance. In advance of those concerts, Higdon talked with EarRelevant about her Viola Concerto.

Composer Jennifer Higdon accepts the Best Contemporary Classical Composition award for her Viola Concerto' at the 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremonies, January 28, 2018 in New York City. (credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Composer Jennifer Higdon accepts the Best Contemporary Classical Composition award for her Viola Concerto at the 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremonies, January 28, 2018 in New York City. (credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

EarRelevant: Where does your Viola Concerto fit within the context of your other concertos and overall symphonic repertoire?

Jennifer Higdon: I have no idea. I’m pretty hard pressed to figure out where all my pieces stand. I have a lot of output, so I don’t really analyze what I’m doing. I don’t think about it in those terms. I often let other people make that decision. What I do is I design the pieces around the soloist and the instruments and figure out what’s suitable for that occasion or that player. In this particular instance it’s the player and the instrument it was written for, and the fact that the co-commissioners were all very American institutions, so that made some of the compositional decisions for me.

EarRelevant: The preeminent violist William Primrose was well-known for his strong contrast between the characters of the violin and viola, insisting upon the viola having its own distinctiveness and not being just a “big fiddle,” just a larger kind of violin. Can you contrast how you approached the different characteristics of violin and the viola in your respective concertos for these instruments?

Higdon: Both of those concertos, the Violin Concerto in the Viola Concerto, sound pretty different. One of the things that was an important factor with the Viola Concerto is that its lead commissioner was the Library of Congress. It was commissioned in honor of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose Fund has done a lot of commissioning over the decades, for the 90th anniversary of the Library’s concert series. The stage at the Library of Congress is absolutely tiny, so we knew the piece would have to use a much smaller orchestra, but that worked with the viola because the viola tends to be not as bright in tone as a violin.

It was actually written for a specific viola, which we used in the recording and we used in the premiere: a Stradivarius viola, one of the few in the world. That particular viola has a really unusual sound. It really sings, but there are certain things it doesn’t do well. When I as talking to Roberto Diaz, the violist for whom it was written, who premiered it and will be playing it in Atlanta, he said “don’t put in string harmonics” because my Violin Concerto starts with string harmonics, but also because that particular Strad viola didn’t do them well.

I love the kind of darker color of the viola, so the first movement of the concerto, as a consequence, is very slow and lyrical. The sound quality of the viola made me decide. It’s a three-movement concerto, like the Violin Concerto, but the movements are set up a little differently. Because it was the Library of Congress that was the lead co-commissioner, I wanted to make sure it was something that sounded really American, because that’s such an American institution.

Composer Jennifer Higdon accepts the Best Contemporary Classical Composition award for her Viola Concerto' at the 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremonies, January 28, 2018 in New York City. (credit:: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Jennifer Higdon and Robert Spano at work in a Telarc recording session, 2010.

EarRelevant: This week we will get to hear your Viola Concerto performed in Atlanta, the city where you spent your early childhood years, with Roberto Díaz as viola soloist, and with that perennial champion of your music, Robert Spano, conducting. I recall the first work of yours that Robert Spano conducted in Atlanta was Blue Cathedral, in the fall of 2000, which became quite a hit in the orchestral world. A lot has certainly changed for you since then.

Higdon:It was right after Robert conducted the premiere that it was scheduled in Atlanta. Yeah, a lot has changed. I probably write with a little bit more confidence, but not a lot more confidence. I have the good fortune of getting asked to write a lot of music. When I started Blue Cathedral – that’s pretty far back – I was still in the early stages of my career. These days, my schedule is really busy. I’ve written 22 pieces since the Viola Concerto. Now I’ve got commissions running up through 2022-23.

I don’t analyze this stuff – let people doing dissertations do that kind of thing. I really never stop and think about the trajectory, I just think about the next new piece and what will work for whoever has commissioned it. It’s more interesting for me if I’m constantly exploring new things in composing. I always think about context, because I’m always writing for someone, I’m learning about the instruments and every piece is a growth opportunity. I’m always pushing a little bit to see if I can expand my writing and make it work a little bit better. I spend a lot of time learning about that instrument or that collection of instruments and figuring out how to make a piece that works for the performers and that will speak to the audience.

EarRelevant: I take it that the same was true for the Viola Concerto, not just the specific Stradivarius viola you were writing for, but the idiosyncratic demands of the instrument in general?

Higdon: It is different because, you know, where with the violin you can take instrument way up high, which makes it poke out of the texture, but I love the low sounds on the viola. I love that rich sound that’s not always up at the top. But I had set this challenge for myself that I wanted something that sounded very American, in which the rhythms sound very American. The viola is too sluggish for that in those lower ranges, so I did have to lift it up into a different range and really think about the amount of time it takes for each note to sound. You have to kind of think about that when you’re writing for viola because you have to find literally the right tempo that works optimally for that instrument, so there’s some virtuosic writing in it. This concerto definitely has virtuosic writing in it. You want something that’s manageable also for the accompanying group, the orchestra. You have to be constantly thinking about that and keep them out of the way of the solo. It was an interesting challenge.

Also, when I as looking at scores of other viola concertos I found that they’re all kind of dark in their tone, so I made a concerted effort to make a piece that is very “up,” very lively, because people don’t normally associate that with viola. I was amazed when I started going through scores. Every viola concerto I could find, they were all pretty dark. Right off the bat, before I even started, I decided it was going to be something that wasn’t dark, so that was another challenge.

EarRelevant: It surely goes without saying that you’re quite satisfied with the results prompted by those challenges.

Higdon: It’s getting programmed a lot and it won a Grammy, so yeah, I’m definitely satisfied with the results! We have five violists doing it this season. I mean, it’s really taken off. ■