Jennifer Higdon discusses her Viola Concerto

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

by Mark Gresham | 22 JAN 2019

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

Pulitzer Prize and two-time Grammy Award winning composer Jennifer Higdon. (credit-Anderew Bogard)

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.

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. ■

Brian Nabors wins national Rapido! composition contest

by Mark Gresham | 21 JAN 2019

Composer Brian Nabors

Composer Brian Nabors (photo from www.briannabors.com)

Cincinnati-based composer Brian Raphael Nabors won the Rapido! National Composition Contest on Sunday, created and hosted by the Atlanta Chamber Players and the Antinori Foundation. Nabors was one of five composers to make it to the national finals, which took place yesterday afternoon at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Walter Hill Auditorium in Atlanta. The three judges for the competition were Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon and composer Michael Gandolfi, chairman of the composition department at New England Conservatory of Music.

Rapido! is so named because its primary criteria: composers who enter must write a four to six minute work in the span of only 14 days, not knowing either the competition’s theme or the three instruments for which they are to write the music until the beginning of that two-week period. A handful of composers are selected from entries to compete in regional competition. The winners of those regional contests then proceed as finalists in the national competition.

Brian Nabors

Brian Nabors (photo from www.briannabors.com)

The other four Rapido! finalists competing on Sunday were Jason Gerraughty (Redlands, CA), Mason Johnston (Atlanta, GA), Ben Robichhaux (Elizabeth City, NC) and Eric Segerstrom (Delmar, NY). All finalists’ entries were performed in front of the audience and judges by flutist Todd Skitch, clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez and cellist Brad Ritchie, three of the Atlanta Chamber Players who are all also members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

As winner of the National Grand Prize, Nabors receives a $5000 first prize commission to expand his competition entry, “3 Dances,” to a 15-minute work that will be premiered by Atlanta Chamber Players and three other ensembles across the nation, two weeks of residency at the Hambidge Center for the Arts in Rabun Gap, Georgia, and the opportunity to write a new work that will be premiered by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Nabors is currently the 2018-19 Composer-in-Residence with the Castle of Our Skins organization, and from March 2 through 9 will also serve as the EarShot composer-in-residence for the Detroit Symphony and its Classical Roots Festival. Nabors is completing doctoral studies at the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati where he also earned his Master of Music degree in Composition. His Bachelor of Music degree is from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. ■

Rapido! finalists and judges Top: Rapido! finalists Ben Robichhaux, Eric Segerstrom, Brian Nabors, Mason Johnston and Jason Gerraughty. Bottom: Rapido! judges Robert Spano, Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi. (photo credit: Chris Helton)

Dream come true: A conversation with Atlanta Music Project executive director Dantes Rameau

by Mark Gresham | 16 JAN 2019

Dantes Rameau with one of his young students.

Dantes Rameau with one of his young students. (courtesy of Atlanta Music Project)

Dantes Rameau, co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta Music Project, came to Atlanta with a dream of bringing accessible, intensive, tuition-free music education to under-served youth in their own neighborhoods. When AMP launched in 2010, that dream swiftly took flight, as did Rameau’s reputation. Within just a few years, he was named one of the EBONY Power 100 for 2013, that magazine’s prestigious annual picks of the nation’s most influential, impact-driven African-Americans.

Dantes Rameau

Dantes Rameau (credit: Lauren Thomas)

Bassoonist, entrepreneur and educator, the high-spirited Rameau has shepherded Atlanta Music Project through a tremendously successful period of growth since its founding, shaping it into the fiscally sound and sizable operation it is today with some 350 students, 60 teachers and staff, and involving five program locations.

In late 2018, Rameau became recipient of yet two more outstanding honors: he was named one of Musical America’s Top 30 Professionals of the Year and is the winner of ArtsATL’s 2019 Luminary Award for Arts Education.

EarRelevant recently reached out to Rameau to ask about his success and the current status of the Atlanta Music Project.


EarRelevant: Given the level of public spotlight you’ve experienced recently, the question that first comes to mind is: How do you successfully balance your varied roles as administrator, educator and musician?

Dantes Rameau: I appreciate these awards especially because they highlight the journey that Atlanta Music Project young musicians are on to improve their capabilities and become their best selves. The various roles are a challenge, but I always approach them through the lens of a musician. You could say that I am a bassoonist, in disguise as an executive director! I believe the art of mastering a musical instrument is a rigorous, introspective and beautiful process that can help anyone with personal, academic and professional growth.

EarRelevant: Can you describe for us the scope of both the Atlanta Music Project’s work and the community it currently serves?

Rameau: In metropolitan Atlanta there is an abundance of youth orchestras and choirs north of Interstate 20 and a dearth of the same south of Interstate 20. AMP focuses its programming on communities south of I-20, where household income tends to be lower and the free-reduced lunch rate in schools is higher. AMP currently serves 350 K-12 students in orchestra, band and choir. Most come from the neighborhoods around our program sites, but some also travel from further out to participate in AMP because we offer a high quality student experience and professional faculty.

EarRelevant: How much has AMP grown over the years, since you co-founded it in 2010?

Rameau: AMP started with 19 students at the Gilbert House, a city of Atlanta cultural center. That first cohort attended our classes five days per week for two hours each day! Today we have five program sites, a private lesson program and a summer festival and school. Any child can join AMP. “Talent” and prior musical experience are not necessary. Just commitment.

EarRelevant: What do you view as AMP’s most significant successes with regard to corporate support, partnerships with community institutions and collaborations with Atlanta’s music industry?

Rameau: We are very grateful for the philanthropic and community support we’ve received, which allows us to keep our programming tuition-free. The City of Atlanta Department of Parks of Recreation hosts three of our orchestra sites. The AMP Endowed Scholarships at Clayton State supports AMP students who major or minor in music at Clayton State University. The Atlanta United soccer team invited our choir to perform the national anthem at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of 70,000 people. The music industry in Atlanta has been fantastic, from the Atlanta Opera, to rapper T.I. and R&B star Monica. Oour young artists have performed with all three. Chick-fil-A, MailChimp, TJ Maxx and Bank of America have been supporting us from our early years, and have stuck by us as we approach our 10th anniversary. Cricket Wireless recently sponsored our newest program, the AMP Youth Choirs & Orchestras, for our most advanced young artists.

EarRelevant: A top agenda as of late has been AMP’s capital and endowment campaign for a new headquarters with rehearsal and performance space, projected to open this year. How is that progressing and when can we expect it to open?

Rameau: Yes, we’ve launched “The Next Movement” Capital Campaign, AMP’s campaign to transform music education in Atlanta. It is centered around establishing a headquarters space in the Capitol View neighborhood then expanding our program sites to more underserved neighborhoods. The space will be a hybrid between a music conservatory and a cultural center for the community. We have secured about 70 percent of our $2.9 million campaign goal. We expect to break ground on the Atlanta Music Project Center for Performance & Education in the next couple of months. The entire AMP family is excited! ■