The remarkable success of the Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon is, to state the obvious, largely a result of her superb craft, but she is also the right artist at the right time in our musical milieu.
Blue cathedral, the opening work on the Curtis Symphony Orchestra's season finale concert, was a breakout piece for her in 2000, years before her Pulitzer and Grammy, and before her anointment as America's most commissioned composer. It was, as it turns out, an artistic arrow shot true and strong, charting a direction in her career that has wavered little.
Higdon's unabashed neo-Romanticism has its detractors, especially among the hard-core modernists who, a generation ago, ruled the academic classical music world. But what Higdon has done, as much as any composer of her generation, is to solidify the permanent significance of the American populist school, led by her fellow Brooklynite Aaron Copland. (Yes, despite Higdon's Smoky Mountain twang, she was born in New York's largest borough.)
Elegy for a brother
Composers like Howard Hanson and notably, the pride of Curtis, Samuel Barber, have long inhabited a kind of esthetic limbo. But Higdon's success has put an exclamation point on the legacy of this important chapter in musical history.
Blue cathedral was commissioned for the 75th anniversary of Curtis, but it is at heart an elegy, written in memory of the composer's younger brother. As the title suggests, the play of instrumental color is an important device in the work, but it flows out of a splendid sense of larger architecture, conveying a wholeness of spirit that encompasses both grief and hope.
The work was premiered by Robert Spano, the evening's guest conductor, but for this concert opener the student conductor Kensho Watanabe led his colleagues. The young Japanese-born musician exhibited confident technique, and although it would be expecting too much from this youthful ensemble to have heard the depths of emotion plumbed, the musical experience was rich and satisfying.
The Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello, despite its many charms, is the weakest of the handful of works by the master of Hamburg for soloists and orchestra. It's an odd mix of stodgy formalism and saccharine and histrionic melodic structure, but Brahms's sincere passion can carry the day when the music is played with the kind of clean, propulsive lines that were heard from soloists Juliette Kang and Efe Baltacigil. Spano's efficient and authoritative conducting kept the musical sludge to a minimum.
Bela BartÓ³k's most familiar work, his Concerto for Orchestra, is a wonderful showpiece for smart, slick musicians, which is the perennial, if always changing, makeup of this most amazing of student orchestras. The great Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner (who once taught at Curtis; Leonard Bernstein was a student of his) set a standard for the way this music is usually played. His legendary Chicago recording is fleet, razor sharp and tremendously exciting.
This band is certainly capable of emulating the Reiner model, but Spano opted for a different but equally satisfying approach. Tempos were a bit broader, emphasizing a folksy lyricism that more often gets glossed over, and allowing for a sense of lush tonality.
Soloists were thus spotlighted with something of a brighter beacon than is usual. This approach presents a tall challenge for musicians who aren't yet old enough to order a beer, but they largely came through, with enchanting playing of glowing enthusiasm that more than compensated for an inevitable dearth of mellow wisdom.