Jennifer Higdon is a forty-something composer who teaches at Curtis and has garnered a lot of attention and interest where it counts -- commissions from major performers and orchestras, Guggenheim fellowships, residencies with major ensembles and festivals, and acclaim from critics and audiences alike. With the Telarc CD City Scape, Higdon has another rare honor to add to her cap -- a living composer who has two new, large-scale orchestral works recorded by a major classical firm. Higdon does deliver the goods -- she writes big, dynamic orchestral music that seems to pick up the American populist thread right where it was left behind in the early '50s, after which the steamroller of international serialism began to flatten all other forms of concert music in its wake. Higdon's music does not incorporate techniques derived from minimalist practices, perhaps some see this as a weak way composers once used to get back to traditional tonality. These are full-blooded, "big city" orchestral pieces with an expanded sense of tonality, yet if Higdon needs to put a plain old major triad in the brass section she goes right ahead and adds it, rather than trying to find ways to work around it.
Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra on June 12, 2002. It is reminiscent of William Schuman with a dash of Messiaen added for color. The shadow of Stravinsky and Copland lurk behind City Scape, Higdon's work written under commission for the artists heard here, Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and premiered on November 14, 2002. Both are tightly constructed, well-orchestrated pieces that are unlikely to offend the most puritan of ears, yet they are serious in tone and never dissolve into a truculent manner that says to the audience "like me." Of the two works, City Scape is preferable, as the Concerto seems to lose focus for a bit in the third movement; overall, City Scape is a fine introduction to a composer one is sure to be hearing about in the future.