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Jennifer HIGDON (b. 1962)
Viola Concerto (2014) [21:57]
Oboe Concerto (2005) [18:10]
All Things Majestic (2011) [22:40]
Roberto Díaz (viola)
James Button (oboe)
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. live, 7-9 January 2016 (oboe); 25 & 26 March 2016, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, Tennessee. DDD
NAXOS 8.559823 [62:47]

I had been aware of the American composer Jennifer Higdon, but hadn’t heard any of her music until listening to a disc of piano trios which included her two movements for trio, Pale Yellow & Fiery Red (review). I was impressed by those two contrasting pieces, so jumped at this opportunity to hear some of her orchestral work.

Those of you who have read any of my Piano Trio survey will know that I have no love for modern music that abandons what, for me at least, are the basic principles of music: melody and rhythm. Some will say that melodic music has no place in serious contemporary music, and they are welcome to that opinion; I certainly don’t agree. Some of my favourite music has been written in the last two decades – Georgs Pelecis’ Nevertheless and Graeme Koehne’s Inflight Entertainment, for example – and they strongly retain these qualities, whilst displaying other aspects of modern classical music.

I am delighted to find that Jennifer Higdon, by her words and her compositions, finds that these “old” qualities remain relevant. In the booklet notes, she says of the Oboe Concerto that it “is written so that it should speak to the audience, without them having to have an explanation”. This echoes the intentions of Graeme Koehne for his oboe concerto, the aforementioned Inflight Entertainment: “I’ve often heard it said that “entertainment” is not a value that a contemporary composer should
consider, but I think that music which does not set out to entertain often ends up being boring”.

John Quinn in his earlier review has given some of the background to each of these three commissioned works, so I won’t repeat it. Let me simply say that each work succeeds mightily in both entertaining and engaging. The two concertos reverse the old convention of fast-slow-fast: the Viola Concerto is set in three movements, the Oboe Concerto in one. Each begins with glorious soaring melodies for the solo instrument, before bringing in the full orchestra with rhythm supplanting melody as the dominant element. In these faster, louder sections, we do have some modern harmonies, but they provide the necessary touch of lemon juice acidity to contrast with the honeyed outer sections. Again against convention, the Oboe Concerto closes quietly, eschewing showy pyrotechnics.

All Things Majestic celebrates the beauty and majesty of the Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming. It is not somewhere I have been, but a quick Google search produces an array of quite stunning mountain scenery. The four movements portray different aspects of the experience of being in this landscape, and they succeed brilliantly in this. I should say that here, as in almost all programmatic music, it is far easier to see the images in the music with the knowledge of what is being portrayed, than to guess in ignorance.

These were live recordings but I hadn’t realised this until looking at the notes, so the Nashville audiences were certainly on their best behaviour. The sound quality is very good, as are all the performances.

If you appreciate modern orchestral music that retains the principles of melody and rhythm, you will respond very positively to these very impressive scores. Jennifer Higdon has a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize for earlier works; I shall certainly be exploring her music further.

David Barker

Previous review: John Quinn

 

 




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